What Is Soul Food?

Pozole is soul food. Of course this category of cuisine is not limited to African Americans. On the contrary, every ethnic group has its own soul food. Growing up I remember internecine family wars over potato salad and gumbo. The recipes of my sisters and cousins are well-kept secrets. I recall, friends Teri and Jennifer describing baked ziti in terms so rich and delicious that I’d drool. Christmas was the best because my Polish friends would bring delicious platters of pierogis to the office.

I say soul food is any ethnic food that evokes memories and flavors. In Mexico, pozole is that dish. Somewhere between a soup and a stew, pozole is thick, savory and slow cooked; every family has a cherished recipe. As with all soul food, you can taste the family memories and love in every mouthful. In Colima, it is served at weddings, funerals, baptisms – all rites of passage – one could say that pozole is the meal by which bonds are forged.

Sunday With Family.

It was a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon in Colima. Earlier in the week, Socorro, my sister-in-law, sent a text invitation to everyone. She was in the mood to cook a big pot of pozole and all family members were invited. When one of the matriarchs of Carlos’ family sends out an invitation for Sunday pozole attendance is not optional – it’s mandatory.

Señora Mercedes, owner of Cenaduria Mercedes

Looking back, I still remember my first bowl of pozole at the legendary Cenaduria Mercedes. At the time, my Spanish was limited, but I recall Carlos ordering a big bowl of pozole with pig’s feet. I had flashbacks to being four-years-old and my grandfather feeding me pigs feet. I guess I enjoyed them at the time, but once I understood what they were, I never ate them again. “Pigs feet?” I asked barely shielding my disgust.

Like My First Taste of Butter.

“Si, patas (pigs feet) y (and) cuerito (pig skin),” he sighed in a sort of ecstasy. Our waitress, Dahlia, returned with a plate of tostadas (crispy fried tortillas) and small bowls of onions, radishes, lettuce, limes and pungent homemade hot sauce so strong that I sneezed when she placed it on the table. The broth was opaque with small bits of what appeared to be popcorn (hominy). Carlos layered in the ingredients brought to the table and mixed it all together a big spoon; it was as if he were creating great art.

Curiosity got the best of me and I asked for a taste (of course without any pig skin or pigs feet). Mmmmm…it was warm, rich and creamy and reminded me my first taste of butter – exquisite.

Dona Balbina Ramirez Ruiz

I always loose count when we get together for family meals. Normally, there are at least 20-25 of us in attendance. During these times, I enjoy spending time with my 95-year-old mother in law Balbina. She is a wonder to behold. I lost my mother 6 years ago last August and Balbina has welcomed me into the family like a second mother.

Balbina A Woman of Dignity And Grace.

When I first met Balbina, seven years ago, she was starting to slow down a bit. Walking was difficult, but undeterred she managed to get around with a walker. Every day she practiced her ambulatory skills in the cochera; walking in small laps before she’d return to the living room and her favorite rocking chair. Her mind and memories are as strong as ever.

Several of the young nieces brought out bowls of pozole to us and placed them on the long rented table (tablon) we use for family gatherings. After my first big spoonful, I asked, “Balbina, how did you meet Carlos, your husband?” In an instant she said, “In the Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring) in Palmar.”

Carlos Ramirez Súñiga and Socorro

The year was 1938, Balbina was 16-years-old when Carlos Ramirez Súñiga spotted her there along with her sisters. My sister-in-law Socorro continued, “Mamá was a beauty when she was young; she had a shapely body and beautiful long hair.” As was tradition in remote mountain villages of México in the 1930s, 23-year-old Carlos Súñiga wrote his intentions on a marriage card gave it to local priest who shared it with Balbina’s mother. After a two-day courtship they were married.

Life in Rural Mexico.

Balbina’s life in rural Mexico was tough, she was raised in the tiny remote village of Palmar de Los Camberos in the mountains of southwest Jalisco. In 1921, the year she was born, there were about 70 inhabitants and her family lived in a single room without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. Her parents had four children three girls and a boy. They labored under the enduring remnants of the old colonial system of landlords called encomienda. Very similar to what Americans call sharecropping, they grew fruit and vegetables and sold them in El Grullo, the larger village nearby. Balbina and her older sister Mely are the only siblings alive today.

Palmar de los Camberos

Carlos broke off a piece of tostada and dipped it into the pozole. He said, “I hated visiting my grandmother, there were no roads and we had to use the bathroom outside – que feo (yucky).”

Carlos’ mom and dad were married 49 years before his father passed away in 1987. Balbina was pregnant 25 times and gave birth to a dozen children. Socorro passed me a bowl of onions. She said, “Mamá was the best horsewomen in town.” Carlos and his sisters always talk about Balbina’s legendary horse skills. It’s a part of family folklore. I am always amazed when they describe her 90-mile mountain trek from tiny Palmar, Jalisco to Suchitlan, Colima. Ten hours by horseback. Sidesaddle.

Similar Times, But Different Lives.
Idella and Buster Chiles

“What about, you, Sid?” Socorro asked, “Tell us about your family.” Just like Carlos’ father, my grandfather, Buster Chiles, sent a letter from Chicago to Starkville, Mississippi, to ask permission to marry my grandmother. The year was 1924. Unlike my mother-in-law Balbina, my grandmother, Idella, intercepted the letter and replied yes. She didn’t tell her father about the letter. My grandmother was desperate to flee the violence of Jim Crow. In her young lifetime, she saw children murdered; her sister was raped and death threats from the Klu Klux Klan were constant.

She feared for her life every day. My mother never forgot her only trip to Starkville. It was 1937, she was 12-years-old attending the funeral of my grandmother’s nephew who was lynched for a crime he did not commit. My mother was spat upon as she departed the colored car of the train. Later that day, my grandmother’s sister died of a heart attack after seeing her son’s neck stretched from the lynching. Although my grandmother dutifully returned every summer to visit her parents and family, she never allowed any of us to visit Mississippi. I spoke with my great grandmother, Osie, on the phone twice before she died at the age of 103. There was silence around the table.

Families Survive.

“Sid, why would they do that to your family?” Socorro asked. “The people in your family are nice. None of you are criminals, everyone has a college degree and a good job, I don’t understand.”  She threw in a couple of swear words to express her anger. “How do you explain the unexplainable” I said. Of course my in laws are familiar with the history of American racism, but they are not aware of the specific details and experiences of racism. They are shocked by the violence. For me, the racial history of the United States has always been difficult to convey. I am at a loss for words to explain cruelty without a purpose and harm for the sake of hatred. It sits at cross purposes with their image of America as a nice, wealthy place.

Memories Of My Life.

My mother Helen Chiles

I continued, “My mother, Helen, was also 16 when she married her first husband, but it was not by choice, it was by accident.”  Everyone understood. My grandmother was humiliated when my mother confessed to being pregnant. All of her hopes and dreams for my mother were dashed in a moment of teenage passion. She and the father, William Fairchild, were forced to marry at 16 and 21. After 18 years of marriage they divorced.

I continued, “On the rebound, my mother met and married my father, Roy Townsend – a hardworking, blue-collar guy with a good job.” They split up five years after my birth. Although I spent weekends with my father, my mother raised me as a single mother (madre soltera). She had only a high school education; but she sacrificed everything to provide me with the best home, education and opportunities possible. Along the way she introduced me to art, literature and music. I couldn’t have asked for a happier childhood. Everyone was smiling. I dipped my spoon into the last of my pozole.

When We Were Kids.
Carlos at the age of 10

“Remember when we were kids, Carlos?” Socorro asked. He smiled, “Yes, we had so much fun – everyone joked, but mamá was strict.” There is also a somber side to his childhood; something that most American children do not experience. At the age of ten-years-old, Carlos and his siblings went to work picking limes in the orchards nearby. With a dozen children in the family; there simply was no option – they had to work. In contrast, when I was ten years old I wanted to be a scientist and travel to Saturn – the funkiest plant in the solar system. I had flute lessons in the morning and played baseball in the afternoons. I was very lucky.

Sunday with Family

Socorro asked, “Who wants another bowl of pozole?”  The kids and the adults all responded with a chorus of yes. Little Camila darted over to me, “Uncle Sid give me your bowl and I’ll bring your pozole.” I looked around and there a cacophony of little conversations; husbands with their arms around the shoulders of their wives; a couple of the teenagers ran out of the cochera to kick around the soccer ball. Carlos and I smiled at each other. Yes, pozole definitely is soul food.