On Zarela's Mind: Warm Thoughts of Mami

It’s been cold and miserable for too many days and suddenly I miss my mother, Aida Gabilondo. I want her atoles and té de canela.

She was the greatest influence in my life, my guiding light, my friend and my hero. She taught me how to cook and recognized that I could make a career in cooking. She gave me my inheritance and took me to cooking classes and trips back and forth to New York until I settled here. Most of all, she taught me how to enjoy life and she got to enjoy my success. I took her with me when I cooked at the Economic Summit in 1983, and to my many appearances at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival and any other presentation that I thought she would enjoy. She loved to be my straight man. She always wanted to live a life like mine and she did.

Though she thought of herself as the ugly duckling of her family, even in old age mother was a strikingly beautiful woman. She had sparkling, penetrating green eyes, silky alabaster skin, a lush head of shining silver hair and hands that spoke of hard work but were always perfectly manicured. She took great care and pride in her grooming and was disdainful of anyone who didn’t. She had what we call porte (a regal carriage), a brilliant, sharp and curious mind, and a captivating personality. She was irresistible. People fell under her spell.

Mother loved to entertain. It was a way of life for her. We always had company at the ranch—cousins, aunts, uncles, family friends—who’d stay for a weekend or a month. And people would often drop by for breakfast, lunch and dinner in our city home and sit for hours after the meal haciendo sobremesa (the interlude after a meal when people sit and chat for hours). Mother had monthly ladies’ luncheons and set her tables with seasonal motifs and great flair. Her friend stayed for hours and reminisced.

Mother was a gifted and adventuresome cook, with a palate so extraordinary that she could duplicate any flavor she tasted, and she loved to eat. She’d get sudden cravings that demanded instant gratification (a trait that I’ve inherited) and would just as easily whip up some crepes Suzette as an enchilada, spaghetti with meatballs or albóndigas, lamb curry or homey calabacitas con queso. Our whole life revolved around food and still does.

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Civilized, elegant living was essential to my parents. Even at the ranch, we sat down every evening for dinner at a table set with a tablecloth, linen napkins, bone china, wine glasses and candles. And I always think of my mother as I set my tables.

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