Food is powerful. It evokes emotion, it brings back memories, it connects us through time and brings us together. For Sophia, Irma and Wita, it is the heart of their family.
Sophia is a third-generation, Latin-American who was born in the United States. Her mother, Irma, was also born here and is the daughter of Wita, the matriarch of our trio. Wita, originally from El Salvador, immigrated to the States and has been living in California for over 60 years.
The three women are all smiles, giving each other hugs as they gather in the kitchen while Wita makes her famous Arroz con Pollo.
Their family would typically gather during the weekends, mainly on Saturdays. Irma’s sister, Rose, would call one sibling, chat for a little before revealing she was going over to Wita’s house. Rose would then pick up the phone and call her next sibling, and the next, until eventually everyone, including the grandkids, showed up.
“If one showed up, I knew it would be the whole gang,” recalls Wita.
Wita was always prepared though. She would make a huge pot of food – dishes that could feed a crowd, like enchiladas, Lomo Saltado or her famous Arroz con Pollo, also known as “Wita’s Green Rice.”
“It’s a childhood memory,” says Sophia. “Wita would host everybody; this was kind of the easier thing to do”
Wita’s meals are prepared from a mix of memory and the use of her senses – tasting the mix of flavors as she goes, smelling the aromas as they permeate the kitchen, and looking and feeling for the doneness of a dish.
She does not write down her recipes and she also does not use the standard measuring utensils. When asked how she measures salt, she jokingly takes two fingers and pinches them into the salt and says, “that is one spoon.”
Wita was always the primary cook in the kitchen. Outside of baking sweet treats, Irma and her siblings did not help with meal preparation because Wita likes to cook alone. She likes to have everything prepared and cooked before any of her family arrives.
By the time Irma married, she still did not know how to cook. She recalls phoning Wita and asking her mother how to make certain dishes. Wita would walk her through the steps, explaining how much of something she would need, guiding her on how to chop ingredients and noting when to add them to the meal. Irma laughs, sharing it was usually a “hit or miss” on how a dish would turn out.
Sophia also recalls the same experience with her mom. She was never in the kitchen helping.
“It wasn’t like when they were little, I would show them how to cook,” says Irma. “It wasn’t in my mindset to do that. I didn’t learn that way.”
Not only does food bring back memories from our childhood, but it is also an avenue to build a direct connection with those in the past and even into the future.
On Friday nights, you can find Sophia at home, baking recipes with her son. It may not be a famous family recipe, but it’s the thought that counts, as she emphasizes the importance of keeping those family traditions alive.
“I grew up doing this with my mom and my grandma Wita,” says Sophia. “I kind of want [my son] to take part. We may be baking muffins from a box, but he knows it and he’s still so excited.”
Sophia recalls eating heavier, comforting foods when she lived at home. By the time she had left Irma’s house and moved to Los Angeles, she was starting to learn to cook on her own. However, things were different. A shift and focus on healthier foods started becoming popular.
“You weren’t really eating rice and beans,” says Sophia. “But I would call my mom or call Grandma Wita, especially for something like Albondigas soup, when I missed a dish.”
Unfortunately, Sophia’s phone-prepped dishes never tasted anything close to what Wita would make.
Sophia admits that she does have some recipes written down at her mom’s house, but that she wants more.
“It’s important for me to have these recipes,” shares Sophia. “Food brings warmth and love to a household and passing down a recipe will continue to pass the love down for generations.”
Today, Sophia seems to have replaced her Aunt Rose as the rallier of the family. Sometimes they plan these family gatherings in advance, but most of the time they aren’t. And, instead of phoning everyone like Rose used to do, Sophia chooses to use a more modern means of communication – the family group text.
“Food is what brought our family together,” says Sophia. “I try my best to still get our family together as much as possible. And the first question asked is, what's for dinner? I love it!”