My Costa Rican mother came to the United States with my Greek father, one toddler, and two children in diapers. Times were hard, and my mother felt lost most of the time, dealing with the customs and culture that were so alien to her. People seemed cold and austere, in contrast to her warm and friendly personality—we appeared to be gypsies to our neighbors in the heartland. But she was dauntless and beautiful, kept her head up high, and taught us to walk with dignity.
The language was the hardest thing for her to conquer, and although her English was quite limited, she taught us the alphabet, which wasn’t always a great idea. I would return to class proud of my new achievement, but repeating the letters with my mom’s accent, so the letter H became “etch.” My classmates would roar with laughter, and I’d be reduced to tears, angry with my mom for being so different. I cringed when she mangled words as she spoke. As I got older, I came to admire her strength and determination though she had little education. She was a small woman, but she protected us if need be with her limited English and her fearlessness.
As a child, I didn’t like meat. My mother would sit next to me and cut the meat into small bites, saying that I would not grow up to be big and strong if I didn’t eat it. She was a terrific cook, but sometimes my dog was the happy recipient of the food under the table. The idea of chicken gizzards or tripe soup made from a cow’s stomach was so off-putting. When money for food was really scarce, I made the shocking discovery (because my brother blabbed) that we were eating Peter, one of my pet roosters. My mother explained that some animals were raised for food, but I was heartbroken, and it took me a long time to recover.
With little money for food, my mother came up with creative and delicious non-meat dishes too (a lesson I learned too and still use). When there was no meat or even cheese, she would send us to school with bean sandwiches. It was painful to be laughed at by friends eating their bologna sandwiches, although today I’d gladly choose a yummy bean sandwich. She also had a unique ability with wild herbs and traditional remedies like bean and garlic broth as a tonic for stomach ailments. Natural healing and food seemed to go hand in hand in our household. Sometimes she made a drink from oatmeal, shaking it in a jar with cold water until the flakes dissolved before adding sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon—so clever and refreshing.
I learned to cook and to handle the household from an early age by watching my mother. I’d stand on tiptoes to look into the pot when she was cooking. Whoever was interested came into the kitchen to learn and participate; my three brothers are terrific cooks as well because of that experience. We never used recipes; it was a handful of this or a pinch of that.
As I got older, I converted a lot of my mother’s dishes to vegetarian, but she developed heart problems and died before I became a vegan. I’m not sure she would have accepted it wholeheartedly. In her way of thinking, having meat on the menu meant you could provide the best for your family. But unknowingly she introduced me to a whole other way of eating. I am grateful for how imaginative my mom was, always providing for us even when there was barely anything to eat. And I can say that in a way, it was my mom who inspired me to become a vegan.
Angela Lambru is an actress and and voice over artist who lives in Astoria, New York. She can be found on Instagram, Backstage, and SoundCloud.
Beans Two Ways
1 lb. dried beans (red kidney, pinto, etc)
salt to taste
Wash and soak the beans in a large pot of water overnight.
Discard the soaking water and rinse beans under running water.
Fill a big pot with fresh water, and bring to a boil.
Add beans, and bring to a boil again.
Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook about 2 1/2 hours, until beans are softened but not mushy.
Add salt after 2 hours or a few minutes before the end of cooking.
Set aside 2 c. with cooking liquid for bean sandwiches.
Flavored Beans with Rice
handful of cilantro leaves with stalks
2 large or 3 small cloves garlic
2 T. tomato paste
1 large carrot or 1 medium potato, cut into large pieces
Put remainder of beans back on the stove.
In a blender, puree cilantro and garlic with 1/2 c. water.
Add to beans, along with tomato paste and carrot or potato.
Cover and continue cooking over medium-low heat until thickened.
Serve with rice.
1 c. raw long-grain rice
I T. coconut or vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/8 c. water
Rinse rice and set aside.
Heat oil in a medium sized pot, and sauté garlic for 1 minute.
Stir in rice, coating it with oil.
Add water, and cook at high heat until most of the water has evaporated.
Lower heat, cover, and cook about 20 - 25 minutes.
1 T. coconut oil
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
2 c. reserved cooked beans
2 T. finely chopped cilantro
pinch of salt
drizzle of olive oil
In a large frying pan, heat coconut oil, garlic, and cooked beans with cooking liquid.
Cook over medium heat while smashing beans with a fork, about 5 minutes.
Reduce heat, and continue cooking and smashing until consistency is like thick batter.
Add cilantro and salt, and cook for 2 more minutes, mixing well.
Let cool before making the sandwiches.
Use whole wheat, multi-grain, or other hearty bread to make sandwiches, drizzling with olive oil.