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The Poetry of Food

(by Stephanie Raffelock)

Growing up, it was just the two of us. At a time when stay-at-home moms were the rule of the day and television offered shows like Father Knows Best and Make Room For Daddy, Mom and I were a household of two women.

While most of my friends had moms who greeted them when they came home after school, I came home to an empty house every day. That might seem sad, but when you’re a kid, you don’t have a reference point for what’s the norm and what isn’t. So it wasn’t a sad time for me. Being by myself and feeling comfortable with that, I started to learn self-reliance and independence. And by the time I was a teenager, coming home to an empty house had its advantages. Think boyfriend, living room couch, and the subtle nuances of making out.

Even though she worked, my mom never resorted to TV dinners, though she occasionally threw in a meal of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, along with those great little oyster crackers. “I’m just too tired to cook,” she’d say. I never felt deprived. Years later, working hard to make ends meet, I understood the beauty of a canned soup dinner, or better yet, a bowl of popcorn.

On Sundays, Mom always made dinner special—pork roast, Swiss steak, fried chicken and biscuits, or my very favorite, stacked enchiladas. And Sunday was the day that I learned about cooking. The language of my mom’s kitchen was not absolute. Its directives were a pinch of this and a handful of that. To this day, I view recipes as a suggestion.

Mom and I were “the girls,” hanging out and bonding over slow simmering sauces or crackling skillets. The conversations that wove themselves in and around the preparation and the eating of good food informed me about who I was in the world and where I belonged.

We avoided the question that was heaviest in our hearts: why she’d left my dad and my siblings behind, and taken only me. Why we moved to a new state and a new start. Instead, she steered the conversations to the poetry I wrote. In my teenaged years, she gifted me with a baby blue Smith Corona typewriter that became my prized possession. And though I ached to know the secrets of what had happened to our family, my emotions found an outlet in poetry, short stories and song lyrics, all of them typed out on the Smith Corona.

The ritual of preparing and eating a meal is twofold: The taste, aromas, and anticipation of filling our bellies is a sensuous delight. We often associate the feeling and the tone of what’s going on in our life with the food that we’re eating.

In teaching me how to prepare my favorite meal, I heard the story about how my mom had learned to make stacked enchiladas. She told me about what life had been like when we were a family in New Mexico; regaled me with tales about trips to El Paso, trips that I was too young to remember. And my favorite story was my how stacked enchiladas had been my brother’s favorite meal too. Knowing that made me feel close to him, tethered to a sense of belonging. When I established relationships with my siblings later in life, we often bonded over good Mexican food, washed down with cold beer.

The history of a broken family is nonetheless family, even in its scattered pieces. I never did get the answers to the secrets that became the connective tissue of my longings. But in those lovingly prepared meals and the questions left hanging, I discovered that I was a writer. I became inspired by stories of unity and loss that were my family’s once upon a time. And though my mother took certain secrets and unarticulated reasons to her grave, she gave all that she could to me in peppery sauces and crunchy tortillas, listening to my wobbly poetry with rapt attention and encouragement.


Stephanie Raffelock is a graduate of Naropa University’s program in Writing and Poetics. Her first book is A Delightful Little Book on Aging. She writes a monthly column for Sixty and Me.

Stacked Enchiladas

This is how my mother taught me to make the dish. I’ve altered it slightly to reflect my lifestyle, like using avocado oil to fry the tortillas instead of lard, and green onions instead of yellow ones.

A note, to prevent potential confusion:

You will need scallions for both the enchilada portion of the recipe as well as the sauce.

Only pour half of the sauce into the beef mixture and reserve the other half.

For the sauce:

6 dried ancho chilies, seeds and stems removed

2 canned chipotle chilies, reserving the juice

3 chopped green onions

1 t. ground cumin

1/2 t. oregano

1/4 t. allspice

2 c. beef broth

1 T. all-purpose flour

pinch of salt and pepper, to taste

1 lb. ground beef

15 oz. can black beans

2 - 4 T. avocado oil

12 corn tortillas

3 c. grated cheddar cheese

1 c. chopped romaine lettuce

1/2 c. chopped green onions

Roast the ancho chilies in a skillet over high heat, about 10 seconds on each side.

Fill the skillet with enough water to just cover the chilies.

When the water begins to boil, turn off the heat and let the chilies soak until softened, about 30 minutes.

Discard soaking water and rinse the chilies.

In a blender, puree ancho chilies, canned chipotle chilies with juice, green onion, cumin, oregano, allspice, and beef broth.

The sauce should be smooth and thick. Set aside.

In a skillet on medium, cook ground beef until crumbly, and drain the fat.

Add half of the prepared sauce to the meat. (Reserve the other half)

Heat black beans and set aside.

Heat avocado oil in hot skillet, and crisp each tortilla on both sides, draining on a paper towel, with a paper towel between each cooked tortilla.

Make an assembly line of the beef mixture, black beans, cheese, romaine, scallions, and sauce.

Layer 1 tortilla, ground beef mixture, and a hand full of cheese.

Add another tortilla, lettuce, and black beans.

Top with one more tortilla and a spoonful of beef mixture.

Drizzle sauce over the stack, and garnish with and a sprinkling of cheese and green onions.

Repeat to serve 4.


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