My mom taught me how to cook when I was about 8 years old. She taught me how to read a recipe, measure ingredients, grease a pan, boil water – stuff like that. As I got older, the process became a little more complicated.
During the summers, my sisters, Miriam and Alina, and I would take turns cooking. We rotated between table setting, cooking and doing the dishes. We each took 2 nights and my mom cooked on Sunday. It was the same way my grandmother had taught her and her two sisters about hospitality and cooking and the importance of service in the home.
The rules were that we had to make up the menu, including dessert, find recipes in any of her cookbooks, make a shopping list of ingredients and check to see what we already had in the cupboards.
We went to the grocery store on Friday nights, shopping list in hand, and learned how to tell if an avocado was ripe, how to pick a melon, and that various cuts of meat had to be cooked differently for tenderness and according to the dish you were preparing.
When it was our turn to set the table, we were allowed to pull out all the stops – she even had a book on napkin folding that had great ideas, like putting the napkins into the water goblets, or folding them into triangles.
The worst of the three jobs was the dishes, but we learned that if you filled the sink with hot, soapy, water before sitting down to eat, and let them soak for just a few minutes after, the job was much easier and quicker.
One of the cookbooks we used was actually a textbook. In Cuba, my sister, Helen was in the Escuela del Hogar at Instituto Edison in Havana – basically a Home Economics major for high school. This was the textbook – La Cocina en el Hogar by Dolores Alfonso. It has 652 pages and 33 chapters – and no pictures (sigh – I love pictures in cookbooks). The beginning chapters tell how to set a table and the ending chapters describe party planning. The pages are yellowed with age and slightly stained and there are penciled notes in it. MB in my mom’s curly writing next to a recipe tells me it is muy bueno. =D
She gave me the book with her simple dedication. And although I use tons of other cookbooks, I still refer to this one. My sisters and I were really groomed to be Domestic Cuban Goddesses. I swear. We are all great cooks and really know how to set a beautiful table and make guests feel welcome. We love to entertain and throw parties.
If you clicked on the book title, you can see that this book is available through Amazon for $199.95(!!!). It is one of the few things we brought into exile, making it absolutely priceless to me. The other cookbook is Cocina Al Minuto by Nitza Villapol (she gave that one to my sister, Alina) – I have the bilingual version of that one which I picked up in Miami the last time I was there.
I have taught my daughters to cook and set the table the same way I was taught. The same way my grandmother taught my mom and my aunts. Amy makes the most amazing Arroz con Pollo. Lucy makes fabulous Pastelitos de Guayaba.
My sisters and I are paying tribute to my mom this Mother’s Day, so what I’m posting here today I will translate and write as a letter of gratitude to her. So much of who I am and the things I care about are a direct result of her investment of time and energy into teaching us in her own Escuela del Hogar.
By the way, Escuela del Hogar, translates to Homeschool. 😉