Remembering Abuelos: History through Recetas
Listen to Gianna Elvia's Podcast Episode
“Cuando la mesa esta limpia, todo está bien.”- My grandmother Elvia Rendon
My interest in preserving recipes and family traditions began with my grandfather Raul Rendon. When he passed in 2016, he left us over 100 written recipes. Some were his personal recipes and others came from restaurant and retail jobs he had in Dilley, Texas. He also included food memories of his time in the Korean War.
My grandfather was a terrific cook. He was disabled in the war, so he didn’t cook every day, but he would cook every few days enough to last him. He loved to freeze caldos and tamales and preserve figs and citrus from his trees. He loved to make spiced pecans. My parents lived close by him, so we would always catch him outside on his porch table, eating or shelling pecans and drinking his famous sweet tea. I became very interested in helping tell and preserve people’s food memories because of the recipes my grandpa left.
On my mom’s side, my grandmother is Italian. She married an Indigenous-Mexican-American Man and was brought to Texas in the 1950s. I spent most of my time at my grandma’s house until I was a teenager. I loved being in the kitchen with my grandmother. She taught me that kitchens were sacred spaces. The women in my family are very strong, they have to carry a lot of burdens. But in the kitchen, they could sit down, drink some coffee, and actually let their guards down.
You can cry in the kitchen. You can laugh. You can yell.
During the Quarantine portion of the early Covid-19 pandemic, everyone on my social media started doing live videos. At almost any point in the early days, at least 10 people were going live at a time. Many of these live videos were people sharing the foods and recipes they were making. I felt like that period of time was unique and a turning point in the culture. My original concept for this project was to interview people specifically talking about the pandemic, but in the middle of the process, the interviews took on a life of their own. I wanted to specifically talk to folks who re-integrated family recipes into their life.
During the pandemic, I specifically started researching the Italian part of my ancestry and the foods that were native to my grandmother’s region. I had already done this with my Indigenous and Mexican sides of my family, but I was neglecting this aspect of my life. For me, I re-integrated a rice salad that I grew up eating with my grandmother. She would get leftover white rice and mix it with a pico de gallo. I wondered where that came from.
I found out that in her region of Veneto (Italy), it is pretty common to eat Farro salad. Farro is a whole grain that has a consistency similar to brown rice and has a lot of nutrients. I realized that my grandmother substituted grain with rice. I started eating this salad pretty frequently for dinner. It was filling and was a good way for me to eat my veggies. I was called to this project, mostly out of curiosity, to see how other people were also reconnecting to their family traditions through food.
I am also inspired by kitchen table feminism/womanism made popular by Black female writers/thinkers Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, and others. I also pulled thought from Gloria Anzaldua’s practice of re-membering which she discusses in “Luz en el Obscuro/Light in the Darkness.” The practice of re-membering acknowledges the loss of knowledge due to mass trauma: war, colonization, migration, famine, pandemics, etc. However, she believes that the lost knowledge is still accessible to us on a subconscious level. When we re-member, we put together our traditions from the pieces we have. I believe that food can tap into our collective memory since it utilizes many of the five senses.
I’ve been friends with Priscilla Pesina for around 14 years. Her family is from the Westside of San Antonio, like mine. I asked her to talk about and make a family dish related to a grandparent. She shared with me her grandma’s signature dish: migas. Migas is a dish that has a base of fried corn tortillas and eggs. She showed me how her family makes this classic dish.
We discussed the migas vs. chilaquiles controversy. We discussed how a lot of San Antonians are very protective of the classic egg and tortilla migas, and any other additions might be considered chilaquiles. We decided that the controversy is not as important as the migas themselves, which are traditionally meant to feed a lot of people with one pan. In Priscilla’s family, they would make a large pan on the weekend and eat it throughout the day. In my family, while we ate migas frequently on the weekends, it was also a favorite of my mom to make during the week for a fast dinner to make after a long day of work. Migas was the dish most associated with her grandmother. Migas was also the dish her brother made their grieving family when she passed away.
Comfort food is magic.
Kimberly Rendon's fondest food memories are of her grandmother cooking for her family growing up. Kimberly grew up in Houston. She shared with me that her grandmother didn’t allow her and her sister into the kitchen to learn how to cook her recipes. Her grandmother came from a time period where cooking and homemaking were all that was allowed for women, and she wanted them to be doctors or lawyers and, “not worry about this stuff.” I could relate to Kimberly’s disconnection from her grandmother’s recipes. My grandfather, also didn’t show me how to make his dishes when he was alive but did leave his archives behind.
There is so much to unpack when we start digging into our family’s recipes. You start with the food, but then you have to deal with your family’s relation to poverty, war, pandemics, relocating, and gender roles. For me, delving into your family’s food stories is a lighter way to deal with some harsh family realities. It’s like going to therapy - but there’s also desert involved.
Kayla Matta is the owner of Sunshine Bakery. She took over her grandparent’s panaderia in 2017. I interviewed Kayla at her bakery during working hours. I wanted to document Kayla’s story because she is being sued for not having ADA accessibility into her building. She is fundraising in order to make the renovations and pay legal fees.
After talking to Kayla, I stayed around eating pan dulce and a delicious lavender lemonade. I hadn’t seen her since the pandemic and I finally understood why my grandmother enjoyed cafecito time with her comadres so much.
My favorite part of these interviews was the conversations after I stopped recording. I know how food can bring people together, but I was pleasantly surprised that even the memory of food can do the same. Each of the mujeres I interviewed all had more to say about their family’s traditional foods and just memories about growing up in general that weren’t meant to be recorded. It reminded me of when I was a child and I would join my grandmother on her visits to the houses of her comadres. They would have some coffee and pan dulce and catch up. I wish everyone would be able to experience this kind of community, kinship, and honest conversations in their lifetime. In the meantime, my hope for this project is that you - the listener - get a taste of the “kitchen table,” the cocina chisme and the mujeres de tejas.
There are many people I wanted to include in the podcast portion of this project, but I chose to interview only three people in order to give each person’s story as much justice as I could. I could probably do a one-hour podcast on just each of these people’s food histories.
I want to give a shout-out to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. They are a Woman of Color and Queer-led cultural arts space. They center a lot of their work in the cultura of the Westside of San Antonio, where I was born and raised. This traditionally segregated piece of San Antonio has been and is currently under the threat of historical erasure. This center does the work of collecting oral histories and has a community-based photo history project. They are currently building the Museo por el Westside in the historic Ruben’s Ice House. While I had already begun collecting my familiy’s memories, Esperanza taught me how politically important remembering can be. They taught me that who tells their stories control the narrative and point of view in a situation.
I also want to acknowledge SanArte Healing and Cultural collective. They are doing the work of helping the community reconnect to ancestral ways, including foodways.
As part of the requirements for the fellowship, I was tasked with leading a community workshop that shares what I learned about oral histories. The workshop entitled Remembering Recetas was live-streamed to the Echale Books Instagram page on Sept. 10. It was done in person at HASH Vegan Eats. Their name stands for Heal And Spread Healing. Not only do they sell delicious vegan food like Buffalo Chik’n Mac n Cheese, but they also feature delicious non-alcoholic drinks. They are active advocates of a sober lifestyle. They are located in an economically poor and culturally rich area of San Antonio- the Southside. One of my favorite things that they make, surprisingly, is their “borracho beans.” They make it with non alcoholic beer and no animal products. They are the best borracho beans I’ve ever had. I think it’s fitting to have the workshop at this place because they collect food memories from their background and make it vegan and sober and healthy. It is truly a neighborhood place. During the pandemic, they fed a lot of people in need. Currently, they are the hosts of a free market and pantry where people can drop off and pick up items they need. They are the heart of what I think about when I think about folks re-membering food.
I am very grateful for this fellowship opportunity. I will continue my work of re-membering family food stories and hopefully find ways to help other people connect as well. I hope to do more workshops about collecting family recipes in the future.
Listen to Gianna Elvia's Podcast Episode
About the Author
Gianna Eliva Rendon is a story teller and Latinx cultural worker in San Antonio, Texas. She likes writing and she likes food and she likes writing about food. She founded Echale Books in 2017 to promote bilingual literacy. Follow her on Instagram @Echale Books.
About Texas Folklife's Community Folklife Fellowship
The Texas Folklife Community Folklife Fellowship program is a statewide, NEA-supported pilot program that provides training in oral history, interviewing, audio storytelling, archives, and podcast production for adults. Participants learn to document community traditions in their own cities and towns throughout the state, through workshops and community partnerships. The program supports applicants from diverse regions and communities of the state of Texas.
Learn More About Community Folklife Fellowship