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Mexican Geisha

(by Zarela Martinez)

My mother, Aida Gabilondo, had both a swagger and a flirtatious twinkle. The former said that she had a strong sense of self; the latter said that there were other sides to her beyond being the matriarch of her family. She had what we call porte—a regal carriage.

And oh, how could she seduce: Always praise, never criticize. It fascinated me to see her turn the charm on. She’d focus on someone as if he or she was the most interesting person in the world. She’d choose the perfect compliment: “Your hair is so shiny." "You smell delicious." "Your department is so well set up.” The secret was that she really was interested and would study people carefully. Everyone would be captivated and pour their hearts out to her.

I was raised to triumph. When I was eight years old, my mother told me that she had named me Zarela because it would look good in lights, and I could achieve anything I set my mind to do. My father told me that the only sin in life was to waste one's talents and that I was blessed with many and it was my responsibility to develop them and use them wisely. I believed them both.

We lived on a ranch in Sonora when that part of Mexico was isolated from the rest of the country by bad transportation and poor communication. Still, we sat down every evening for dinner at a table set with a tablecloth, linen napkins, bone china, wine glasses, and candles. Mother was fond of themed dinners and cut sample table settings out of magazines, posting them in the kitchen cabinets so we’d set the table properly for the occasion. (The cabinets held jars of canned snails from France, saffron and baby eels from Spain, bamboo shoots and plum sauce from China, and grape leaves in brine from the Middle East--quite something, considering our house was five hours, on bumpy dirt roads, from the nearest store.)

“Manners are the international language,” she told me. “I want you to be comfortable and act appropriately, be it with kings or paupers.” I can still hear her singsong voice saying, “Quiten el codo de la mesa” (Take your elbow off the table) or “Bajen el tenedor” (Put your fork down).

For some reason, we all used our forks to emphasize a point. My sisters and I were expected to have opinions and encouraged to express and defend our viewpoints. But we also had to listen, no interruptions allowed. If we wanted to interject something we’d raise our hand and say, “Pido la palabra?” (may I say a word?).

I learned the art of conversation at our dining table. Only later in life did I learn that it’s an incredibly useful skill in business and essential in love. Mexicans love to “platicar” (to talk–the word “converse” just doesn’t relay the meaning for me). My parents wanted us to learn how to engage in wordplay, tell a good story, and deliver a joke. Once we were deemed amusing and relaxed enough, we would be invited to join the adults at the sobremesa—sitting at the table after a meal, often for hours. If the conversation got raunchy, a simple glance from my father told us we were dismissed.

The training went beyond “please, thank you, yes ma’am, no ma’am, and excuse me.” We were never to address adults by the first name, unless they were employees. Boys stood up when introduced, never offered their hand to shake unless invited to, opened doors, helped take off and put on coats, pulled chairs out for women and girls they were forbidden to touch “even with the petal of a rose.” Girls were expected to help in any way needed and be “ladylike.” If I sat with my legs splayed, even while wearing jeans, my grandmother would say, “Mija, just imagine what you would look like if you were nude.”

Many of our friendships were three-generational, and we spent time in the city homes of friends just as their children visited the ranch. There were strict rules about what constitutes being a good guest: Take a thoughtful hostess gift. Never put your suitcase on a bedspread. Make your bed in the morning and strip it when you leave. Offer your services for whatever may be needed. Most importantly, send a thank-you note. Of all the lessons I learned from my mother, that one has been the most valuable. I am convinced that thank-you notes opened doors for me everywhere I went.

Mother was always perfectly groomed. She had a look: pantsuits worn with a frilly, pretty blouse, preferably in tones of lilac or red for parties, and she never left the house without putting on makeup and combing her hair. She often said, “I hate people who say they are not vain.” To her, that meant men should be clean-shaven, smell of aftershave lotion, have short fingernails, polished boots or shoes, and shirts tucked in. Women should have manicures and pedicures, shiny hair, and soft skin (to this day, I use a bottle of body lotion every week).

My mother really brought us up to be geishas. That doesn’t mean we were supposed to be subservient, but the goal was to keep a man happy, lulling him so then we could do whatever we wanted. Mother spelled out the rules to all of my friends:

1. Make sure you touch your husband enough every day.

2. When your husband gets home, receive him with lipstick and perfume.

3. Have enough sex, even when you're getting older.

4. Never stop touching.

5. Never stop kissing.

6. The best kisses are felt on the lips and “down there.”

7. Praise your husband and thank him for working so hard for the family.

8. Don't “bother him.” (I think that meant: Don't nag him when he gets home.)

9. Be strong. You can manipulate a man with a smile, but don't be a wimp.

Number 10 should have been: Don’t chew with your mouth open. My favorite line from the movie Gigi is: “Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity.”

It wasn’t table manners that broke up our household but the need to give us an education, and that meant sending us to boarding school since the ranch was five hours away from the nearest town. Mother believed firmly that “Children need two things: one is roots, the other is wings.” Uprooted and defenseless, like a fledgling thrown out of the nest before its time, I soon found myself alone with a nun in the dark vestibule of Jesus and Mary Academy in El Paso, Texas. The feeling of utter desolation, aching loneliness, and sense of betrayal that overwhelmed me as my parents walked away would stay with me for many years.


Zarela Martinez is an acclaimed restaurateur and cookbook author in New York City. Her eponymous restaurant closed in 2011 after 24 years. Her books include Food from My Heart, The Food and Life of Oaxaca, and Zarela’s Veracruz, the companion to her PBS series "Zarela!! La Cocina Veracruzana." Her personal papers are resident in The Schlesinger Library, one of the leading centers for scholarship on the history of women in the United States. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York and is in the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. She can be found at and as co-host of the podcast Cooking in Mexican from A to Z on the Heritage Radio Network with her son, chef Aarón Sánchez. Her website A Taste for Life With Zarela is dedicated to her experience living with Parkinson's Disease.

(photo by Jennifer Vreeland)

Albondigas Estilo Mama

(Meatballs Like Mama Makes)

(Adapted from Food From My Heart)

This recipe calls to mind the llaves (outdoor water faucets) on the ranch, which were always surrounded with patches of yerba buena—”good herb" or mint. Whenever my mother made albondigas, I would be sent out to pick some fresh for the soup. She always served it with freshly made corn tortillas, salsa casera (homestyle sauce), and refried beans with asadero ("roasting" cheese; the nearest thing outside of Mexico would be mozzarella).

4 garlic cloves

1/4 c. masa harina

1/4 c. warm water

1 lb. lean ground beef, or l/2 lb. each lean ground pork and beef

3/4 t. salt, or to taste

freshly ground black pepper

1/4 c. lard or vegetable oil

1 T. flour

2 qt.chicken stock

1/4 c. chopped scallion, white and part of the green (about 4 medium scallions)

1 large ripe tomato, roasted, peeled, and chopped (or use l/4 c. tomato puree if good tomatoes are not available)

2 Anaheim or California long green chiles (or for hotter flavor, jalapeno chiles) roasted, peeled, and finely chopped)

3 T. finely chopped cilantro leaves

3 T. finely chopped fresh mint leaves

Mince 3 of the garlic cloves.

In a large bowl, combine masa harina and warm water.

Add ground meat, l1/2 t. salt (optional), a generous grinding of black pepper, and 1 minced garlic clove.

Mix with your hands and shape into tiny balls, between the size of a large marble and a small walnut. (Mixture makes 40 - 45 small meatballs.) Set aside.

In small skillet, heat 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil over medium-high heat.

Add 1 whole garlic clove. Let cook 20 - 30 seconds to flavor the oil, pressing down with the back of a cooking spoon.

Remove and discard garlic clove.

Off the heat, add the flour to hot fat and quickly stir to combine.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly to smooth out lumps, until mixture is golden (about 1 minute).

Meanwhile, have stock heating in a large (at least 6-qt.), deep saucepan or Dutch oven.

Just before it boils, add a little hot stock to the browned flour mixture, and whisk or stir to eliminate lumps.

Pour the mixture into the hot stock and bring to a boil, whisking or stirring with wooden spoon to keep from lumping.

Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer stock, uncovered, 5 minutes. It will thicken slightly.

Season with a little salt and pepper, being careful not to overseason (meatballs will add more salt).

Make a recaudo: In large skillet, heat another 2 T. lard or vegetable oil over medium-high heat until very hot but not quite smoking.

Add chopped scallion, roasted tomato, roasted chiles, and remaining 2 minced garlic cloves.

Reduce heat a little and sauté briskly for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the sautéed mixture to stock.

Add chopped cilantro and mint.

Simmer uncovered another 5 minutes.

Add meatballs.

Let stock return to the boil, and simmer uncovered over low heat 15 minutes.

Taste for salt and pepper.

Serves at least 6 - 8 as main-dish soup, more as first course.


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