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Come Hear The Kitchen Wisdom Of These Mexican Abuelas

A woman in a white face mask spoons food onto a tortilla against a gleaming stainless steel blacksplash.
Merced Sanchez spoons some of her mole with chicken onto a tortilla for museum guests attending her talk and cooking demo at LA Plaza Cocina.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
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On a recent Saturday morning in a big, noisy demonstration kitchen in downtown Los Angeles, Merced Sanchez was having her celebrity chef moment.

Sanchez warmed up some of her trademark mole poblano as a small audience sat nearby, eager to hear her talk about her life and her cooking — and to have a taste of the mole.

An LA Museum Showcases The Culinary Skills Of Mexican Grandmothers

“It’s delicious,” Sanchez said with a smile, as she shredded chicken to add to the rich, chocolatey mole in the pan. “You know why? Because I made it with lots of love.”

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Sanchez’s talk and cooking demo was part of an exhibit called “Abuelita’s Kitchen” at LA Plaza Cocina, an annex of the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes museum.

The exhibit highlights the kitchen wisdom of 10 local Mexican and Mexican American grandmothers, including Indigenous and Afro-Mexican traditions. There is a documentary, audio stories, recipes and kitchen artifacts — like beloved pots, tortilla presses and wooden spoons — all from the kitchens of the abuelas.

Some, including Sanchez, have given presentations to live audiences in LA Cocina’s demonstration kitchen, sharing the expertise they’ve gleaned over the years in the kitchen and in life.

A grandmother of two, Sanchez is a longtime L.A. street vendor and an immigrant from Puebla. Her family, she said, has been making mole poblano for generations.

A woman's hand reaches for a stack of tortillas next to a large pot.
Merced Sanchez prepares tortillas to hand samples of her mole poblano to guests at LA Plaza Cocina in downtown Los Angeles.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas

“Poblanos — you know what makes us happy? To make a big pot of mole, for whatever reason, and invite all the neighbors,” she told the audience in Spanish as the mole simmered, its aroma filling the room.

The “Abuelita’s Kitchen” project is led by USC Spanish professor Sarah Portnoy, who studies Latino food culture. She said her first thought was to interview women of all ages, but she soon learned who really keeps the kitchen flame going.

She said when she asked the 10 woman featured in the exhibit who taught them how to cook, “nine out of the 10 women” said, “‘Oh, well, I learned from my grandmother.’”

Portnoy worked with former students to develop the documentary and other elements, and with Ximena Martin, director of programs and culinary arts at LA Plaza De Cultura y Artes, to put the exhibit together.

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A tortilla press, a blue pot and a black iron comal (griddle) in a museum display case.
A tortilla press, a black iron comal, or griddle, and a big blue olla (pot) belonging to some of the abuelas, on display at LA Plaza Cocina.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
LAist )

Showcasing the everyday culinary creativity of these grandmothers in a museum is a no-brainer, Martin said, because “cooking is art.” As far as she’s concerned, these ladies are artists — and experts.

“What makes a person an expert is knowledge and experience,” Martin said, “and with cooking and working, with these 10 abuelas, they have so much knowledge, ancestral knowledge.”

A Link Between Old Country And New

Many of the abuelas are a link between the old country and the new.

That’s how it’s been for Margarita Nevarez, another grandmother featured in the exhibit. She grew up in L.A., the daughter of an immigrant mother from the city of Torreon in the north-central Mexican state of Coahuila. She vividly remembers her late mother’s cooking.

“Oh, the smells, the kitchen, the moment you opened the door, it's like, ‘’Oh, Mom's home,” Nevarez reminisced one recent afternoon. ‘You know, ‘Mom is home.’”

Nevarez became a schoolteacher. But as she grew older, she leaned on her mom’s kitchen wisdom, asking her advice as she attempted to make dishes like picadillo, seasoned ground beef.

I feel very proud ... to think that I am an immigrant person who no one knew, and now look ... they are valuing the work of a grandmother.

— Merced Sanchez

“When I got married, I would literally be on the phone for hours: Mom, voy a hacer picadillo, como le hago? and she would walk me through step by step,” Nevarez remembered.

Her mom’s picadillo, her tamales, her delicious coliflor lampreada — a fried cauliflower dish that’s featured in the exhibit — Nevarez absorbed all of it. And through her, so did her own daughter, Tirsa, so much so that Tirsa went to cooking school and now has her own restaurant.

A woman in a black t-shirt, left, poses with a boy and two adults in the background at a street food stand.
Margarita Nevarez, left, poses with (left to right) her grandson, her son-in-law and her daughter at their food stand at the El Sereno Night Market.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas

Once a week, Tirsa and her husband set up a stand at the El Sereno Night Market — and Nevarez is there to help, proudly.

“I passed on to her the fact that she is who she is in terms of her culture, (that) she needs to embrace it,” Nevarez said.

Valuing ‘The Work Of An Abuela’

Speaking in the noisy demonstration kitchen at LA Plaza Cocina, Merced Sanchez regaled her audience with stories about her life as a street vendor, including her work supporting the campaign to legalize street vending.

She told a story about bringing a large pot of mole to City Hall as part of a peaceful protest with other vendors. “I planted myself in front of the door” and handed out chicken mole sandwiches to passersby, Sanchez said.

The police, she told the laughing audience, didn’t want any.

Later, as she cleaned up, Sanchez said being part of the exhibit feels validating. She works hard as a street vendor, selling items like clothing, hats and sunglasses downtown. In her spare time, she makes mole to sell to a restaurant and has a mini-catering business she runs from home.

A little girl in a white sweater hugs a woman in a bright pink and black shirt, with her photo (among other photos) on a wall in the background.
Merced Sanchez, right, hugs her granddaughter Samaidi, 10, who lives with her.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas

She and her husband are also full-time caretakers of their eldest granddaughter, 10-year-old Samaidi, whose mother moved back to Mexico a few years ago.

Sanchez motioned to a row of photos of the grandmothers in the museum kitchen, in which she’s featured, and smiled. Nearby, in a glass case, sat her beloved big wooden spoon, sent to her by her mother in Puebla.

“I feel very proud,” Sanchez said, “Proud to think that I am an immigrant person who no one knew, and now look, here is my photo. I am important for something, to someone. They are valuing the work of a grandmother.”

The exhibit at LA Plaza Cocina runs through Sept. 4.

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