Short on praise but long on perfection, Abuela Vicenta was never one for overt shows of affection. Her life, marked by poverty, exile, and an early widowhood, left her little time for the picnics in the park a la After School Special that I coveted; but she loved me, of that I was certain.
I felt her love on my face as steam ascended from the rose-studded porcelain bowls she collected, one dish at a time, from El Lucky Supermarket over the course of her first year in exile. I tasted it in the pale yellow confection of her harina, a golden concoction of cornmeal, milk, and butter, topped with a perfect huevo frito that we’d watch dissolve into a molten yellow ooze of yolk via a single fork poke of its glistening white veil.
When my family fled Cuba in the 1960s, they left behind most of their belongings. Sentimental favorites such as photo albums and engagement rings were relinquished to the state, but Abuela, never one to do as she was told, managed to sneak out her priceless heirlooms, nonetheless: her recipes, every last one of them, etched into her brain.
More than mere listings of ingredients and instructions, those recipes represented a semblance of home. They reinforced a way of life she’d left behind and a culture she refused to abandon to a happenstance as flimsy as geography. And she was right to do so—her delicacies squired in six first-generation American grandchildren who might not have been able to conjugate their Spanish verbs, but who would forever buckle beneath a serious hankering for arroz con pollo and flan.
Her frijoles negros, in particular, were legendary. A ubiquitous staple of Cuban cuisine, the black beans for which my grandmother was famous were full-bodied and savory without a hint of grease or heaviness to mar them. The six of us would clamor for another bowl of those perfectly stewed beans swimming in their black velvet broth, much to the dismay of our mothers, her daughters-in-law.
My mother tried for years to decipher the secret of those beans. Was it a third clove of garlic? Slightly crushed cachucha peppers? Red pepper instead of green? Abuela, never inclined to share her sumptuous recipes, gave out bare-bones versions that rendered adequate replicas of the dishes her sons required from their young wives. But the tricks, the secrets, the magic she conjured at the stove? She kept those to herself. God forbid one of her dishes be surpassed in status and she find herself unseated. Eventually, my mother gave up and surrendered to the exquisite ceremony of savoring those frijoles in the exclusive surroundings of Abuela’s kitchen every Sunday night.
Years later, when Abuela began to forget her purse, her medicine, my father’s long-distance phone number, she surprised us all and hopped on a plane from California to Miami, forgetting, as well, her fear of flying. She arrived changed: docile, smiling, almost unbearably sweet, so much so that one afternoon as she sat holding court in the Florida room, I decided to broach the subject.
“Abuela,” I asked, “como se hacen tus frijoles? How do you make those beans?”
Imagine my mother’s surprise when Abuela began to speak. She confessed her frijoles had been the key to reeling in our grandfather. Confided that his visits always began with flowers and ended with heaping bowls of ebony legumes until the day he asked her to set up a pot of her own in their shared home. She laughed then and began, at last, to fire off ingredients in rapid succession, forcing me to scramble for a pencil, so I could take down every word.
I didn’t want to miss a thing.
I never loved her more than I did that day. And although I did not know it at the time, that visit would mark the last time I saw my grandmother in full possession of her faculties. In the end, Abuela forgot my name, that my grandfather had died decades before, that she no longer lived in Havana, but not before she passed down the jewel in her culinary crown.
She must have known it was only a matter of time before she forgot the secret she’d kept to herself for so long, and she was unable to allow it to slip into obscurity along with her memory and her independence. And while I used to find it almost unbearably sad that she had to begin to lose her mind in order to loosen the walls she had erected throughout her lifetime and finally let us in, I have come to see that day for what it was: a gift, made possible under the auspices of her illness.
Although Alzheimer’s stole her away from us long before she died, it also set her free, granted her the serenity to revel in an instant of perfect peace, with the people she loved most. It was as if she’d been given a reprieve from the injuries and petty misunderstandings that altered the flow of our family’s relationships to the point of estrangement. For that moment, she was graced with the utter clarity she had been unable to attain in her “right” mind.
Not long after her death, one of my cousins came to visit, and feeling bold, I decided to make Abuela’s beans for dinner. I was nervous, for he knew the glory of the originals, but hopeful I would succeed in re-creating a piece of our childhood. When his first swallow turned into a smile, I knew I had nailed it, and when he graced me with a nod and said, “Yep, these are Mima’s beans,” I felt her in the room with us, blessing every bite.
Halfway into his second plate, his wife asked me for the skinny on the beans, and I only hesitated for a second before I spilled the secret. An unspoken understanding passed between us; we would keep her recipe safe, pass it along from generation to generation, to ensure, if nothing else, that her name would be forever invoked over a dish that would continue to seduce the most distant of relatives into remembering exactly from where, from whom, they came.