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The Blind Chef Who Brought Mexican Food to the American Masses

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A plump middle aged woman smiles contentedly in a kitchen.

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t was the strangest of restaurants. Situated on the top floor of a Green Street apartment building, diners were asked to leave their coats in a bedroom, walk through the kitchen to get to a table, and take a seat in one of four small, separate dining rooms.

Still, customers came from all over San Francisco, lining up in the hallway for a chance to eat at Elena Zelayeta’s apartment. Her cheese-stuffed green peppers, enchiladas and chilies rellenos were the stuff of legend around the city. And, if not for the depression, there’s a good chance no one would ever have tasted them.

When 1930 began, Zelayeta was working as a secretary and her husband of five years, Lorenzo, was employed as a structural engineer. As soon as the depression hit, they both lost their jobs and had to scramble to support their four-year-old son, Lawrence. Zelayeta came up with the idea of opening a restaurant. She had learned to cook as a child from her Spanish mother and the chefs who worked at her parents’ hotel in El Mineral del Oro, a small mining town on the outskirts of Pachuca, Mexico. Concerned about being a good wife, Zelayeta had honed her culinary skills carefully after getting married.

Once Zelayeta started inviting the public into her home, the 32-year-old immediately took on a punishing schedule. She worked seven days a week, rising at 5 a.m. each day and working until midnight. It wasn’t easy, but Zelayeta greatly appreciated her faithful clientele. Not only was Mexican cuisine in general not yet popular with white diners, but hostilities towards Latinos were at an all-time high due to the national work shortage. Zelayeta’s cooking skills were enough to silence the skeptical and attract a diverse group of customers. At her restaurant’s peak popularity, she prepared and served over 100 meals a day.

Zelayeta’s faith and bravery had paid off. She would soon need more of both.

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ithin three years of opening her apartment doors, Zelayeta’s popularity outgrew the space. She reopened her restaurant in a more formal setting: the King George Hotel near Union Square. This time it had a name: Elena’s Mexican Village. By all accounts, it was a vibrant, colorful place to spend an evening. Zelayeta herself was known to emerge from the kitchen, greet people and dance joyfully through the dining room, much to customers’ delight.

A twist of fate arrived in 1934. Zelayeta had been left with permanent eye damage after suffering a bout of scarlet fever as an infant. The popular chef noticed her eyes beginning to fall out of focus; she stopped being able to recognize customers at the restaurant until they were within inches. Zelayeta finally visited a doctor, who told her the situation was hopeless. A detached retina and severe cataract were about to render her blind, and there was no way to stop it. Compounding Zelayeta’s fears at the time was something else — she was pregnant.

As Zelayeta lost her sight, she fell into a deep depression. “At first I was in darkness,” she said later. “I had watched my sight go. I would look in the mirror, and gradually I saw my image growing dimmer and dimmer.” A few days after going completely blind, in total despair, Zelayeta attempted to throw herself from her seventh-story apartment window. Lorenzo caught her in the act and pulled her back from the ledge. Two months later, her second son was born. “Billy’s coming was like an Easter for me,” Zelayeta recognized later. “Not just a birth, but a rebirth.”

Still, the period after going blind was a tough one for Zelayeta. When she left the restaurant in the hands of other chefs, diners slowly stopped coming. At home, Zelayeta slowly learned how to live without sight while also fighting a deep depression. “For two years I was in the dark,” she said in a 1944 interview. “Then I said to myself, ‘Elena, you aren’t being anything but a burden to your family.’ So I changed.”

Zelayeta decided to live as she had before her sight loss. Gradually, she taught herself to cook again, relying on her sense of touch and smell to re-master her favorite dishes. She timed how long things had been in the oven based on radio programming. She started inviting more guests over, and attended movies and dances. She found silver linings in her sight loss. “To me, people cannot age,” she said later. “I can see them as I saw them 10 years ago. Young, pretty, never growing old.”

In 1944, Zelayeta turned a major corner. She began teaching cookery classes at the San Francisco Center for the Blind. That same year, the chef wrote and released her first book, Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes. The tome included many of the dishes she had served in her restaurant, and her warm personality was a constant presence throughout. In her introduction, she noted that “All recipes have been thoroughly tested. All carry my wishes for buena suerte!” The book was an immediate success and went on to sell half a million copies. Zelayeta was finally able to pay off the debts she’d accrued after she lost the restaurant.

Zelayeta’s status as the only blind cooking teacher in the United States meant that her skills stayed in demand. At the invitation of the Mexican government, she visited Mexico City and established a rehabilitation program for people who had lost their sight. She also traveled all over America teaching blind students how to prepare their own meals. One of the things that made Zelayeta such a great teacher was her wicked sense of humor, captured in a 1950 Chicago Tribune story.

“Elena rocks with glee when she tells the story of the young lad who had just been blinded and was so despondent he wouldn’t bathe,” the paper reported. “Elena was going to see that he bathed, if she had to do the job herself. She escorted the boy to the bathroom while he protested in embarrassment. ‘What’s the difference — we’re both blind as bats!’ she jollied him.”

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adly, in 1945, tragedy struck Zelayeta’s life once more. Her husband Lorenzo was killed in a catastrophic collision on Bayshore Highway when his car was flipped by a Greyhound bus. (Zelayeta would later win $75,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit.)

Her grief, recovery and many experiences teaching blind students inspired Zelayeta’s second book, 1947’s Elena’s Lessons in Living. It proved so uplifting and full of comforting wisdom, Zelayeta found herself inundated by strangers with personal questions and requests for advice — some of whom would show up to her home and knock on her door. She began speaking regularly at women’s clubs. Around this time, the president of Mexico even decorated Zelayeta for her “service to humanity.”

By 1950, Zelayeta was considered the foremost authority on Mexican cooking in America. So it made sense when a brand new San Francisco television station, KGO-TV, asked her to host her own show. She was the first Latina with a televised cooking show in the United States. For 15 minutes every Friday, Fun to Eat with Elena announced its arrival with a catchy jingle and an image of her two books. During the show, her son Billy regularly appeared to fetch things from around the kitchen for her. Somebody had to. Every week, too, the crew attached strings to Zelayeta’s ankles and pulled on them to let her know which direction to turn for the camera.

Zelayeta’s ambitions grew further. In 1951, she opened Elena’s Food Specialties, a frozen food enterprise run by her son Lawrence out of a building on South Van Ness in the Mission. The new affordability of home freezers allowed Zelayeta’s food to be enjoyed anywhere there were people with iceboxes. When not busy with her own company, she also served as a consultant to Lawry’s Foods Inc. in the development of Mexican products.

As if that weren’t enough to keep Zelayeta busy, three more cookbooks followed. In 1952, Elena’s Fiesta Recipes featured dishes she cooked for her own family. In 1958, Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking arrived and was hailed the “definitive volume on the subject” by the New York Times. The year 1967 brought Elena’s Favorite Foods, California Style, a reflection on how Mexican and American cuisines had successfully mingled together. Somehow, Zelayeta also found time to write a memoir, titled simply Elena.

Elena Zelayeta died in 1974 at the age of 76, following a stroke. Today, though her books are hard to find and her legacy has been largely forgotten, her influence looms large on Mexican food in Northern California. Perhaps even more importantly, Zelayeta lived her life as the very picture of creative resilience. She overcame tough odds again and again, and never lost her infectious smile, sharp sense of humor or desire to help others.

“Many of us want everyone to adjust to us,” she said in a 1950 interview. “We should begin with ourselves. There is little we can do about others. But there is much we can do to improve ourselves.”

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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