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Cooking for Mami
Dayan Perez
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In my Dominican family, cooking is a skill a girl must learn to be considered a complete woman. By age 8 or 9, I had already learned how to make fried and scrambled eggs, fried plantains, and mashed potatoes. I’d climb up on a stool so I could reach the stove.

I didn’t mind learning how to cook. In fact, I developed a passion for it.

I’d wander around the kitchen helping my mother cook all kinds of delicious Dominican plates, like moro de guandules (rice mixed with peas,) sancocho (a sort of mixed vegetable soup with beef or chicken), black or pinto beans, white, yellow or brown rice, pollo guisado (stewed chicken), carne guisada (stewed beef), and camarones al ajillo (shrimp with garlic and spices).

I’d help her by cutting and washing the vegetables, seasoning the meat, washing the rice, and doing anything else she asked of me. Then I’d claim that I was the one who’d actually cooked the meals.

Once, when we had a visitor, my mother said, “Dayan, help me season this pork, so that I can put it in the oven faster.” So I helped. At dinner, our guest said, “Mmm, this pork tastes delicious. You are a great cook.”

“I know. I cooked it myself with the help of my Mami,” I said loudly and proudly. They burst out laughing. I think my mother knew that one day she’d take advantage of my claims.

My mother used to sell meals to about 20 supermarket and autoshop workers who’d come to eat at my house or take out food every day from 12 to 4 p.m. She’d wake up early in the morning and start preparing the food. I’d help and watch her prepare each dish, step by step. By the time I was 12, I’d memorized the whole cooking process.

It was fun at first because we became famous around the neighborhood for our tasty food and reasonable prices. Then, it wasn’t that fun because I felt like my house had turned into a restaurant, smelling like food all the time. I had no privacy with people always coming in and out to buy food. But cooking for the workers was my mom’s business, and I didn’t have a choice.

One day, Mami had a doctor’s appointment. She was running late and wasn’t going to make it back in time to cook for the workers. Since I’d watched and helped so many times before, I decided to try it myself after she left.

Twelve Pounds of Beef

The first thing I did was take a big pan, fill it with water, and place it on the stove. Then I packed six cups of rice, washed them, and poured them into the pan of boiling water so that the rice would begin to cook. To my luck, Mami had already left the red beans half cooked. They weren’t seasoned, but all I had to do was turn the stove on, season them with Goya Adobo seasoning, diced peppers and onions, cilantro, garlic, vinegar, and other herbs and spices, and put them to boil.

When I had my rice and beans cooking, I washed the 12 pounds of beef, cut it and placed it in a pot. Then I cut the onions and peppers, and smashed the garlic that I’d use to season the beef. After mixing those ingredients together, I added them to the beef and stirred, then covered the pot and left it on the side so that the beef could get well seasoned.

Despite the fact that I hate chicken (or any poultry), I had to fry it because chicken was one of my mother’s specialties. Thank God I didn’t have to wash, clean, cut or season it, because my mother had done it already.

I grabbed the frying pan and poured some oil in it. When it was hot enough I started frying piece by piece. Mami always did it all together but I was too afraid of getting burned. When I was done frying the chicken, I replaced the pan for another pot for the beef.

image by YC-Art Dept

When the oil in the pot was hot enough, I started adding the beef. Every time I placed a chunk of beef in the hot pot it would make this “ttsshh” frying sound. It fascinated me and made me think, “I am finally cooking.”

I checked the rice, stirred it, and added some scoops of tomato paste to the beans. Soon after, I tasted them and to me they were the best red beans I’d ever tasted in my life.

I was proud of myself, because tasty beans aren’t easy to make. My first red beans, and they were delicious. I kept on attending the beef until it was time to add the tomato sauce to give it its last touch. And there I was—I had cooked my first meal.

I Didn’t Admit I Cooked

I was eager to see what my mother’s customers’ reactions would be. Just then, my mother called and told me to tell the workers that she was going to be late. “Don’t worry Mami, I already cooked,” I told her.

“You cooked? she answered, surprised. “But you don’t know how to cook!” She thought I was playing and hung up on me.

When the clock hit noon, the first workers to arrive were two of my favorites, a lady and an older man from the supermarket. They asked for my mother and I told them she was about to come home. I served them their food as if it was my mother who’d made it.

I didn’t tell them that I was the one who’d cooked because I was afraid it might taste bad. If it did, I was going to let my mother take all the blame.

I felt so nervous. It was my first meal without my Mami telling me what to do. It was funny how I used to say that I had cooked when it was my mother who actually had, but now that I really had cooked it, I gave my mother the credit.

“These beans taste so good, wow. La doña [the older lady] cooked really good today,” the lady said. I was laughing and so happy to hear her say that.

Right then my mother walked in, and saw them both eating at the table. She was surprised and asked them who had cooked. They said they thought she had, and they all looked at me.

My mother was shocked. She couldn’t believe I had done all that on my own without her supervision. She was so proud of me. “Dayan, you have really surprised me today. You see, I have to give you props when you do the right things,” she told me. “Now you are getting ready to become a woman.”

I felt so good, not only because I had helped my mother, but because now I had a better idea of how to cook and I was only 12.

But from that day on my mother took advantage of me. She would make me cook on the weekends. At first I enjoyed it and saw it as a hobby, then I got tired of it and looked at it as more of a chore.

I’m 19 now and I have my own place. My boyfriend loves the fact that I can cook for him and it feels so good to invite him over and cook his favorite meal—spaghetti with white rice, red beans, and fried plantains. I thank my mom for teaching me something that will stay with me forever.

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(NYC-2004-12-04b)

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