I lived in Los Angeles when I was growing up, in various parts of the city. We moved a lot, for some reason, and so there are some sections I remember better than others, depending on how long we stayed there. The neighborhood I remember most, however, is where we lived from the time I was born until I was about 7 or 8, on West 22nd St, near Vermont. I still remember the address, and if I really concentrated, I bet I could come up with most of the phone number we had at that time. I must have really had that information drilled into me, or something. I have no idea what the neighborhood is like now, I haven’t been there in years and I don’t live in the Los Angeles area anymore. And even if I did, I probably wouldn’t go back and see... what good would it do? My memories of past time are what I treasure, not the reality of now.
When I lived there, the neighborhood was majority Black and Mexican, with other cultures also living in and around the area. My mother was a successful small business owner who was also involved in other community and civic projects that brought a wide-ranging variety of people into the circle of our lives. I grew up surrounded by people of almost every culture - American, in all its varieities, as well as Asians, Latinos, Europeans, Africans, and so forth. A great many of these were not casual acquaintances that we would just see in a business or other setting, but frequent visitors to our home. Some accorded the status of Aunt or Uncle, instead of Mrs. or Mr., while their children became our cousins.
I am thankful, daily, for that early experience, especially in a world that seems to be trying to break apart at the seams as people jockey for positions of ascendancy over this or that group, or view each other with ever increasing distrust. I never learned how to look at someone as part of a group, or a race or an ethnicity, and not as an individuals because, in my world, the different faces of various cultures held unique and much loved human beings. My mother’s gift to her children, lessons learned literally at her knee, by example.
Juana lived across the street from us with her two sons, Gilbert and Alfonso. They were pretty much the same age as my two older brothers, so we spent a lot of time there anyway (I, of course, tagged along after my brothers). Also, however, Juana watched us when my mom was working. We lived in one of those neighborhoods where almost every adult on the street watched every child (if you did something wrong at one end of the street, your parents knew about it before you got home 5 minutes later... that kind of street). But Juana’s house was home base. Tia Juana’s house, to be specific... it was only after I was much older that I realized that no, she didn’t really have an entire city named after her.
Every day after school the five of us would come tumbling into Juana’s kitchen, dirty and sweaty and hungry, loudly talking over the day and who did what, and which teacher said what to whom, all competing for Juana’s attention. We, her non children, were as totally convinced that she loved us as much as we loved her as her own children were. And she never showed by word or deed that we were mistaken. As she spoke little English we all spoke a combination English and Spanish, with Juana’s sons only occassionally having to intrepret. My oldest brother went on to become totally fluent in Spanish as he got older, whereas I have only retained a little, and can understand more than I can speak. None of that mattered much though... a hug for a skinned knee or a stern look for misbehaviour is the same in any language.
This is a big leadup to what are two very simple recipes. I suppose I started thinking of 22nd Street and Juana because I was thinking of comfort food. And to me, that recalls the smells of Juana’s kitchen... freshly made tortillas, beans, chilis, meats, the spicy scent of good food cooking filling the air. All this a backdrop to the memories of curling up on Juana’s lap (as the youngest and the only girl, I often sought refuge there), leaning back against her soft bosom with her arms tightly around me, as I sleepily watched the rough and tumble play of the boys from my position of total safety and security.
Not a bad place to be.
Mexican Braised Beef, and Red Beans
5 pounds beef round, whole
4 green peppers, seeded, chopped (can also include or substitute chili peppers, according to personal taste)
3 cups red beans (pre-soaked overnight or for 8 hours)
6 onions, sliced
1/2 clove garlic
6 tomatoes, cut in quarters
6 cups water
olive oil (or whatever your oil/lard preference is)
seasonings to taste
Put a small amount of oil or lard in the bottom of a skillet, allow to heat up. Brown the beef in the hot oil, on both sides, sealing in the juices. Place the browned meat in a large pot or kettle with all the other ingredients. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook slowly on top of the stove for an hour. Then transfer the kettle (if oven safe, if not, pour the mixture into a different dish) to the oven and cook slowly (300-350 degrees) for another 2 hours, or until the beans are thoroughly cooked and soft.
Serve hot with tortillas or bread or the Indian bread recipe below.
Indian Maize Bread, Zuni Style
1 cup white corn meal
1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup chopped butter
Mix all well together; form into rolls about five inches long; roll in greased paper, and bake in a 350 degree oven one hour. Serve hot.
Traditionally, these are rolled into corn husks, which you can also do if you know how to work with them. They must be soaked before using, and there is an art to rolling things in them, but use whatever your comfort level allows you to.
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