Course Correction

(by Judy Bolton-Fasman)


I tried to recreate my mother’s picadillo recipe from memory and scribbled it down for my friend Brenda. The results have always been a gruel-thin concoction for my mother and me. But Brenda is a gourmet cook, an alchemist whose magic transforms love into a fresh ingredient scrubbed free of cliché. I tell Brenda this is my mother’s picadillo recipe, but that is a misnomer. My mother never had the will to follow a recipe, let alone commit to writing it down.


Brenda adds portions and directions to make the recipe grand for me. She makes a meal from my mother’s culinary intentions gone awry. She burnishes my memories of the burnt dinners my mother threw into the sink—memories of tears and cracked Pyrex pans that were supposed to be indestructible. But in the here and now, Brenda’s reconstructed picadillo recipe is a course correction conveying: I love you and I love to feed you.

(Brenda on left, me on right)


1 - 2 lb. ground beef


The meat was always kosher in my childhood home—damp packages of it stayed in the refrigerator too long until they browned from neglect. Planning dinners flummoxed my mother. Feeding her children was a burden.


1 jar taco sauce—medium version is nicely spicy

1 large green pepper

1 jar water


The taco sauce is Brenda’s innovation. I like that she includes something overtly, recognizably Latinx in the recipe. Brenda savors her flavors. The taco sauce thickens the pan gravy. The fresh green peppers add chunks of crunch. My mother frequently cooked a version of picadillo truly bordering on inedible, stirring in wilted, seedy green chilis from a can to prettify and salvage dinner.


4 - 5 onions


My mother is full-on crying cutting up the onions. I love the word for onion in Spanish—cebolla—a plaintive sound that within the word has a distinct “oy.” It’s an expression of exasperation my Sephardic mother has co-opted from her Yiddish-knowing mother-in-law. It’s grief over preparing food that my mother knows will not turn out the way she hoped. In Brenda’s recipe, the peppers, and onions balance neutrality with sharpness. If only that had happened in my childhood.


1/2 - 1 c. raisins


Sephardic Jews use raisins liberally in their recipes. These raisins represent the hoped-for sweetness of every meal—a sweetness that eluded my mother in cooking and life. My father, the Americano, picked out the raisins in the picadillo and the flabby meatloaf my mother threw together with eggs and powdered onion soup mix, sans the shape-shifting breadcrumbs. Brenda keeps the raisins in the recipe in homage to my Sephardic roots. Such a beautiful intention. She intuits that this plump, sugary ingredient helps me to remember the bits of my childhood sweetness. Solace for me.


1 can peeled tomatoes

optional: 2 - 3 T. tomato paste


This is another of Brenda’s innovations—to switch out my mother’s ketchup for fresh tomatoes. Again, it’s a manifestation of Brenda’s wish to perfect the recipe for me.


1 can black beans (frijoles negros)

1 c. short grain brown rice


Here Brenda steps away from the recipe for a moment to translate. She doesn’t want to miss this key ingredient, so frijoles negros necessarily become black beans. Translations put distance between we Latinxes and the Americanos we live among. But Brenda and I love each other so much, there is no distance to bridge.


Let’s talk about the can itself for a moment. My mother’s favorite barb was to tell my sister and me that we both had a lengua de lata—a tongue sharp enough to open a tin can. According to my mother, the Bolton girls drew blood with our insults and retorts. Our tongues, sharp as a can opener, poured a salty world of hurt over her wounds. My mother’s tongue was like the steak knife she used to graze her wrists to scare us into submission. The superficial streaks were red tributaries leading away from her wrist and up her arms—a map of her wild need for our love.


Mix everything but the rice and beans, and simmer at least half an hour in a heavy pot.


Patience. God bless her; Brenda has patience and then some. She has assiduously taken what I’ve told her and turned it into a working, delicious recipe. I yearn to have patience that yields such magic. Nourish me, nourish me, nourish me, I whisper. And Brenda does.


Meanwhile, cook rice in lots of water for 40 - 45 minutes.

Drain and wash in a steamer until water is clear—set aside to drain.

Rinse and drain beans, and mix with rice.

Heat mixture before serving.


My mother called this mixture Muros y Christianos—Moors and Christians—harkening back to the Golden Age of Spain when disparate people basked in culture and harmony. But it’s a cringy way to separate out ethnicities.


More comfort by heating the mixture, of which I steal a forkful before it’s served. Oh, Brenda, how I love you.


Enjoy.


Brenda writes the word “Enjoy” at the end of the recipe as exclamatory. Note the end of the word–joy. My mother once flung a batch of her picadillo across the kitchen. I had bitten into one of the green olives she hastily added and grimaced. Her hissed commandment: “Muerete.”


“Die,” she said again in English. And then: “I will stab you when you are sleeping.” Although I steeled myself not to fall asleep that night, I woke up in the morning wondering if I was dead at the age of ten.


When I was 19, I blurted out to my mother that I wanted to die by suicide. I had a neat plan to contain my puddles of blood in the shower. I liked the image of faint traces of my blood forever staining the tiles. My mother frigidly said, “I will send you to the Institute for Living.”


I should be so lucky to rest in a fancy mental institution. Double my age to almost 40, and my depression has spiraled downward again. I am rocking back and forth on my bed in the middle of the night. I want to die again. My husband rubs my back and watches over me all night.


“Commit me, commit me,” my mother moaned after a long summer day of too much sunlight. My vampire mother tried to corral her three small children to stay within our third of an acre backyard. There were only so many times we kids wanted to go down the scorching tinny slide or pump only so long on the wheezing swings.


I linger over the word “enjoy” in Brenda’s recipe until I realize I am crying. And knowing me as she does, Brenda understands this instruction is the hardest one for me to follow.

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Judy Bolton-Fasman is a writer who lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, and the author of Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets. Her arts and culture reporting can be found on JewishBoston.com and many of her essays at www.judyboltonfasman.com.

Picadillo


2 T. olive oil 2 big onions (about the size of a baseball), chopped into thumbnail-sized pieces 2 red peppers, seeded and chopped into thumbnail-sized pieces 3 lb. ground beef or turkey 16 oz. jar medium or mild taco sauce (Ortega or Old El Paso) 28 - 32. oz. crushed tomatoes with juice (don’t use tomatoes with basil) 1/2 - 1 c. raisins 2 - 3 rounded T. tomato paste optional: 1/3 c. drained niçoise olives If not using olives, add 1/2 t. salt For rice and beans: 2 c. water 1 c. brown rice, rinsed well and drained 1 scant t. salt 15 oz. can black beans, drained in a colander and rinsed gently

In a large frying pan, heat olive oil, and sauté onions and peppers until softened and lightly browned. Set aside in a bowl. In same pan, sauté ground beef or turkey until lightly browned, and drain of excess fat. Add onions and peppers back to the pan with drained meat. Add taco sauce, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and raisins. Mix well and simmer about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. May be simmered an additional 30 - 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, to concentrate flavors and reduce liquid. Add optional olives or salt, mixing well. For rice and beans: Bring 2 c. water to a boil, add scant t. salt and rice. Lower to a bare simmer and cover. Cook without stirring for 45 minutes. Turn off heat, leaving pot on burner, for 10 - 15 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork, and serve with beans and meat. Enjoy.

Notes: If you like raisins, use the full cup. They balance the spice and offer a lovely sweetness. This recipe is even better the second day. Freezes well.