I once asked my mother how to make rice, which is as close to sacrilege as you can get in a Puerto Rican household. She told me that to measure four servings, you need to use one specific metal spoon (one that’s probably been in the family for longer than me) and add enough rice to the pot so when you submerge all of it, it only peaks over the murky water when you push that particular spoon toward the middle of the pot. If that description sounds confusing that's because, well, it is. I still don’t know how to make rice unless it comes in a microwavable, single-serving package.
Her illusive cooking skills aside, my mother has rarely made a meal that I didn't like. Food is our way of connecting. A big meal after a busy day at work. The chewy snacks she’d bring on airplanes because my ears would always pop. The miniature Snickers bars she’d have on hand to keep me busy when I had to go with her to work functions as a kid.
It’s for this reason that I wouldn’t necessarily call my mother a cook. She’s more of a visionary. A meal of hers isn’t just the result of ingredients mixed together perfectly, but rather a beautiful sum of its parts. But the same attention to detail she had with every other item of food she’d serve me never seemed to go into the pork chops I remember from our childhood dinners, around 2004 to 2005. I was eight then and I’ve spent over a decade wondering about these goddamn pork chops.
The meat was too seasoned—with Adobo, of course. Much too dry and too frequent in our dinner rotation for me to actually enjoy them, even as a kid who liked everything. They were plain and simple enough (with the flavor to match!) to be something my dad could pop in the oven after he was done with work to make sure my sister and I were fed before whatever prior engagements we had that night. Gymnastics or Girl Scouts or soccer or CCD or softball or knitting club or whatever other activities it was that our mother encouraged us to pursue even if we were no good at it. We were always made to feel that we could do it all.
The texture of these pork chops was nothing like the bistec encebollado she’d make nearly 15 years later per tradition on my first night back during every college break. Beef marinated in oil, vinegar, salt, peppercorns, onions, and so much garlic, cooked on low until the vinegar started bubbling and the meat started browning as she left it to simmer on the burner while she prepared the rice and plantains. The crunch of those pork chops was nothing like that of the tostones she'd so expertly make while standing one-legged at the countertop with one foot resting on the inside of her other leg’s knee. It was like those pork chops left our cycle of planned meals as quickly as they came, not leaving any real blemish on my mom's overall perfect culinary record yet still sticking in the back of my head, and for what?
Unlike her cooking now, the pork chops were dry, leaving your bloated like when you eat peanut butter with nothing to wash it down with. They were thin and unsatisfying, making them the one meal from my childhood that I don’t look back on fondly. I would never say anything, though, and instead would pool Heinz ketchup in the corner of my plate without drawing any attention to the fact that I was doing so. Sometimes my sister would join me, and on particular pork-chops-for-dinner days, we’d opt for barbecue sauce.
It has since become clear to me now, on all of the late nights when we sit at our dinner table long after the food is eaten and the dishes are washed to talk about anything and everything (oftentimes after a few drinks) that there are three sides to every memory I have: what I thought at that age, the narrative my parents told me at the time, and the truth. As of late, maybe because my parents are finally coming to terms with the fact that I really am an adult, my mother is much keener on sharing the context behind the way I remember things. That's precisely what happened when I asked her about the pork chops several months ago while we sat at the dinner table.
I asked her about the pork chops while we were eating our family’s new and improved pork chops for dinner, ones that have been in the making for years and were finally perfected at some point during quarantine. Juicy, charred on a cast-iron skillet, and covered in a marinade that accomplishes a thin crust to complement each flavorful bite.
Come to find out, like all of the meals my mother has ever made, there was a purpose—or at least a reason—for the bleak pork chops I remember eating time and time again during those two years. It was at that time that my mother was back at school to get her second master's degree. Which, while I'm bragging about her, is only one of the four degrees she has.
My mom would have her classes late at night after leaving her teaching job while my dad would be returning from his corporate job. My sister may have been old enough to watch me during that simultaneous gap of parental supervision at home, but she wasn’t old enough to use the stove or oven yet.
The truth is, that after the full day at work, the full night of classes, and the commute home, my mom would stay up at night and pre-season pork chops to ensure there was dinner on the table the next day and no one had to worry about it.
I had never made this connection before until she told me herself. Because rather than remembering her absence on the nights she had late exams, or study groups, or work functions...I remember that we had food on the table. Even if it wasn’t my favorite thing to eat.
I sit here realizing now that perhaps those pork chops, so dry to the point of nearly crumbling, are the best thing my mother has ever prepared for me. Because even if they didn’t taste as good as her bubble-less flan or her fresh black bean salad or her egg yolk omelets they were memorable enough for me to recall exactly how they felt on the roof of my mouth. And isn’t tasting food made by your mother almost as good as hugging her after it’s been a while or having her scratch your head when you’re sick? Isn’t there something to say about the women that ensure our literal plates are full while their figurative plates are overflowing with to-dos?
So I stand by it: My mother is not a cook. She’s a visionary. And she’s a friend, a listener, and a person who gets it done no matter the circumstances. No matter if over-seasoned and overcooked meat is for dinner….because in that case, there’s always ketchup.
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