The Tradition of Traditions
I had it explained to me once why as we get older the years seem to fly by.
It turns out that when you’re say, 5 years old, one year is only one-fifth of your life. That’s a lot! That’s $.20 of a dollar. And a year seems to take forever to pass – like from birthday to birthday or Christmas to Christmas.
That’s why at age 5, a trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Disneyland with your family in a Ford Galaxy 500 with no air conditioning appears to take about 10,000 years in real time. Especially riding on the hump of the back seat because you’re the youngest and your brother and sister always get the window seats. Mom would say “your sister Susan gets car sick.” Baloney, I say. She just wanted to get my goat making me ride the hump while we traverse the northern hemisphere like Lewis and Clark on our way to the happiest place on Earth. Grrrr.
But when you’re 50, one year is only one-fiftieth of your life. One fiftieth!! One-fiftieth of a dollar is $.02. Hence the years pass with frightening speed and seemingly less clarity as one gets older.
When I turned 20, my grandfather whom I greatly admired, pulled me aside and said “Paul Roger, you’re 20 now. Enjoy your twenties, because before you know it, you’ll be 30 and wondering where your 20’s went.” Mind you, this is the same grandfather who taught me at age four how to pour a perfect beer with one inch of foam from the tap in his house. He was awesome. He also taught me how to work on cars, electrical, plumbing and generally figure out how to fix things. Often he would remind me “It’s better to know a little about a lot, than a lot about a little.” He explained that living by this guideline would allow me to walk into nearly any room and have a conversation with just about anyone about almost anything. This teaching has been useful my entire life. Consequently, I have more useless trivia stored in my head than almost anyone I know, making me the perfect Trivial Pursuit partner.
There really should be a marble bust of my Grandpa Garley somewhere. I need to look into that.
Back on topic. He was so right. Before I knew it I was 30, married with a mortgage and a couple of sons to raise. It was “Cats in the Cradle” and I was the son that had become a father.
It’s in these moments that some of life’s more significant epiphanies occur.
Of course I intended to raise them to be honest and hard working. That’s how I was raised. It’s unfathomable to me that any parent wouldn’t want to do that; but I’m not naïve to the world so there was no question that would be my focus as they grew.
The more important question (to borrow a phrase, the QBQ or the Question behind the Question*) was: what am I going to pass on to my children? What would be the intangibles that they would keep with them their entire lives and pass on to their own kids?
The answer to that was “tradition”.
Well, and food. Definitely food.
Rewind a tad. Bear with me, dear Reader; I know this is a 2-level deep “Inception” moment here.
My father is the youngest of 12. All of the Amador siblings were born and raised in the small village of Placitas, NM with my dad having three older brothers and 8 sisters. In the 1940’s in rural New Mexico the more kids you had, the more help you had on the farm. There wasn’t any TV, so you connect the dots.
Most of my aunts lived in Albuquerque and most of them somehow had become amazing cooks in their own right. My Aunt Lina could make Greek and Italian food like no-one’s business. As a child, her food was always so interesting and delicious to me. When she would make Greek food, she would regale me with stories of when her and my uncle were stationed in Greece. She’d describe the people, culture, the clothes, the food, the history, which to an impressionable 10 year old child sounded like a fantastic adventure indeed. Because of her cooking I became a complete Greek mythology nerd.
My Aunt Adela though, was a Rock Star when it came to cooking. From 1993 to 2006 she was a featured writer for New Mexico Magazine with her monthly article “Southwest Flavors” She consequently published a book of the same name containing many of her recipes as well as ago-old family recipes that for the most part had never been written down.
I recall being about 10 years old when we went to my Aunt Adela’s house (she was married to my Uncle Harry Willson, Professor, author and publisher, bee keeper, gardener, decent mandolin player and all around super-cool uncle) where she was making Paella for about 10 of us. This would be my first time trying the uniquely Spanish dish. I was amazed at the size of the pan she was using, it had to be at least 2 feet in diameter and took up tree burners on her gas stove.
As a child I was subject to the notion that children were to be seen and not heard. Not at Aunt Adela and Uncle Harry’s house! My aunt looked at me and said “you’re my helper. I’m going to teach you how to make Paella.” Me? A gawky, spaz of a 10 year old kid? Yup, she said. Get over here and put this apron on.
She taught me how to devein and shell the shrimp, trim the fat off the chicken thighs and how to create the dish in the requisite layers. I recall the finishing touch was adding the saffron to the rice. She took a pinch from a small glass jar, rolled it between her fingers and told me to smell. The scent of the saffron was intense and exotic, like the trail of the spice route in the days of Marco Polo.
When we sat down to eat, everyone dug into the enormous Paella pan and raved about the taste. Each bite of the dish whisked me away as if I were sitting in Spain with the spray of the Mediterranean on my face. It was quite likely the most unique and delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my life. Aunt Adela took almost no credit, saying I did it most of the work, with a wink. Knowing fully well she’d done almost all of it, it still felt good to have been a part of something that people were sitting around the table and enjoying. I think it was in that moment that I knew I wanted to learn how to cook. Not just prepare something (like a can of Ravioli), but actually cook.
On my mother’s side, every Christmas Eve my Grandma Garley would have us over for a literal feast of New Mexican food (yes, Virginia, there IS a difference between New Mexican and Mexican food). She would make Posole (hominy with pork, simmered for 10 hours and quite possibly one of the most memorable smells of my life) Carne Adobada (pork marinated in red chili sauce) tamales (no black olives!) and of course tall stacks of fresh flour tortillas made with her own hands.
Every year until I moved away from Albuquerque I attended this tradition – Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The smell of these wonderful foods was synonymous with Christmas and fortunately for me, still is.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I had a pretty darn good childhood from a culinary perspective.
Back to my kids and what I wanted to leave behind (end double-“Inception” flashback mode).
The way I see it, one of the downsides of life is that only near death do we begin to figure out what legacy to leave behind. It’s taking the time while we’re alive to prepare that legacy is the hard part.
When my kids were still young I took it upon myself to carry on the Christmas Eve tradition my Grandma and Grandpa Garley had started. Each Christmas Eve I would make Posole, Carne Adobada, Tamales, red chili sauce and at times Green Chile stew as well. We’d then have over family and friends to enjoy the feast with us, open some gifts and just genuinely enjoy each other’s company. This year, my wife Allie and I plan to have over 20 people over, eat, drink, play games, open presents and have a great time. I have a personal philosophy that no one should be alone on Christmas. So if you’re going to be alone, come over to the Amador’s. There’s plenty enough to go around.
My son Stephen mentioned to me not long ago that that in his 22 years on the planet he cannot recall a Christmas Eve that didn’t have Posole. All of my sons agree that waking up on Christmas Eve morning to that one-of-a-kind smell is a true sign that the holidays are in fact here.
For me, watching all of our family and friends enjoying steaming bowls of goodness and plates heaped with my homemade cooking is by far one of the most rewarding things I do each year. This is a tradition I intend to carry on for as long as I can. However, I do have a contingency for when that is no longer possible. If life has taught me anything it’s to always have a backup plan.
My youngest son, Tanner has taken up the mantle to learn to make most of the dishes I prepare each year with a large amount of success. He’s made Posole, and the red chili sauce (based on our family recipe) and the Carne Adobada for his friends and they’ve loved it every time.
What better legacy to leave than tradition? Especially the tradition of food.
Good food makes people happy. I like making people happy. It makes me happy.
As my own years appear to fly by at warp speed (I’m currently at one-fifty-second of a dollar, or $.019) and the ever-present, gnawing feeling that there are fewer days ahead than there are behind, it’s wonderfully reassuring to see my sons learn to make the foods that I deeply believe are important not just to carry on our family traditions, but dovetail with carrying on our culture as Hispanics. It’s my wish that in the days to come their own children will wake up Christmas Eve to the smell of Posole and know they’re in a home filled with love, food and tradition.
To know they look forward to partaking of these foods each year and enjoy them so much that they’ve learned to make them is more than any parent could possibly ask. To see their reactions, even still, on Christmas Eve taking turns stirring the Posole (claiming they helped cook but we all know they just want to smell the delicious, steamy broth) with smiles on their faces that all is well and that there is balance in the universe is quite possibly the best Christmas present I get every year.
Happy Holidays to one and all. Long live our families and our traditions.
Please look for my Posole and Red Chile recipes here on thatisallfornow.com. Anyone else hungry now?