When I was in college, in the dark days before email and Facebook, my roommates and I passed our time with more mundane matters. Like food. From Juli, I learned about Japanese-style curry. Rie taught me how to blanche green beans perfectly, while Ed opened my palate to an entire pantheon of slow-simmered soups. Pierrette's trick with tuna and egg salad--grating onion into the mayonnaise--still perks up my sandwiches.
From Maria, though, I learned the most important lessons: cooking with my senses.
While I watched, Maria made tortillas with handfuls of flour and finger-lengths of shortening. Growing up in Texas, she had to wake up early every morning to make the family's tortillas, forty on an average day and maybe a hundred or so for special Sundays. She grabbed an empty wine bottle whenever she needed to roll out dough, and from only two pans she made incredible feasts for our house. None of us would admit to being homesick, but listening to Maria talk about her food and then eating her meals made all of us feel like we actually belonged in that drafty, tumble-down, New England house.
I don't have any of her recipes, because she never wrote them down, but like stories and memories, I can recite them just as she did.
"In San Antonio, where my family lives, you can find bags of masa dough in the markets. My mother doesn't need to make her own anymore. We use Crisco now, but if you want, you can use lard or butter. Even oil. But I would never use oil. Why make tamales with oil? If you don't have chicken stock, some water from the tap is good. Just remember to add salt then."