At first glance, I was struck by the variegated ambiance of my mother-in-law's kitchen. On the east wall stood a new (1946) electric range, and in the southwest corner, the old stove my mother-in-law favored for baking breads and cakes. Scarred pine drain boards crowded with mason jars, electrical appliances and draining dishes flanked the sink. Above, tall windows admitted north light and a view of rounded hills bearded with amber Mexican hay. In the center was an oak table big enough for gallons of peaches and plums cut up for compote; corn husks spread for a hundred tamales; a lug of ugerkes (cucumbers) for pickling, or a koldire (feather bed) for a sick child. Near the back door was the pantry where she stored beef and tongue in tall corning crocks with rock-secured lids, tin boxes of homemade sweets and jars of preserved fruits. In days of less money and greater strength, I was told, my mother-in-law kept chickens, turkeys, a cow, and the pantry reeked of newly-laid eggs and curing cheese.
Adjoining the kitchen was the breakfast room with western windows framing a rock-walled desert garden: palo verde, mesquite, ocotillo, a feeder for migrating birds, a hammock stretched between tall junipers and, on the far side of the driveway, a ramada and a native rock barbecue pit. In the background was Ambos Nogales -- Arizona and Sonora -- wearing a gray-blue veil of mesquite cooking smoke and straggly patches of colored lights at night.
I, a city girl, had read about self-sufficient kitchens in isolated country houses, but never one like my mother-in-law's. Taken one at a time, I could identify the smells, tastes, sights and sounds as American, Jewish and Mexican. I grew up in Boyle Heights when the population was predominately Jewish and Mexican, and was a product of the same tri-cultural amalgam. But the blend in my mother-in-law's kitchen was stronger, and closer to the core. Consider the meals my round-faced, -bosomed, -bellied mother-in-law served three times a day, seven days a week.
Breakfast was American fare: canned fruit juice, eggs, cereal, pancakes, waffles, toast, butter and jam. All were cooked to individual order, speedily and efficiently, with the aid of a toaster, percolator, waffle iron, griddle pan, egg timer, blender, mixer. (My father-in-law jokingly complained she had more labor-saving appliances in her kitchen than he had on the shelves of his hardware store.) The breakfast table accommodated six, in a squeeze, eight. You were served, you ate, chatted or studied the matinal desert and cityscape, and were on your way. My mother-in-law and her current assistant -- Juana, Rosita, Felicidad -- whisked away your plate, eager to complete the breakfast chores and start on the next meal.
Lunch was slower, more substantial and, in the Mexican style, followed by a siesta. My father-in-law returned from town to eat each day and often brought guests. The fare then, and at the family's evening meal, most days was a hearty mixture of American and Eastern European Jewish dishes. Each repast had a beginning, middle and end. For starters, there was chopped herring or liver, marinated peppers or fruit. Next came a freshly-made soup -- chicken with noodles or matzo balls, mushroom barley or split pea -- followed by a main course of fowl (some years homegrown), fish, beef or a Russian Jewish delicacy -- cheese blintzes, latkes, knishes, holiskes (cabbage rolls). Then came dessert: fruit, strudel, cookies, honey or sponge cake, sometimes coffee, but mostly tea, a la Russe.
Sunday and holiday lunches were served in the dining room on a home-embroidered tablecloth set with china, silver and crystal. The table extended to seat a seemingly limitless number of guests. According to my mother-in-law, an enthusiastic partygoer, if you want to be invited, you have to invite.
My mother-in-law acquired a taste for Mexican food soon after she settled on the border and learned to prepare local dishes with minor modifications for her own, and by emulation, her family's tastes. Spicy seasonings she loved; I never heard her complain a dish was too picante or chiloso. But pork -- prized by Mexicans, forbidden to observant Jews -- she eschewed, though not for religious reasons. After she left her parents' Orthodox household, her dietary habits were governed by pocketbook and palate. Shellfish and other non-kosher foods she learned to enjoy, but hazer never. So she substituted chicken and easy-to-shred beef for pork, and Fluffo for lard when preparing her enchiladas, tacos, tamales, frijoles, arroz. Most of her children and grandchildren became passionate aficionados of her style of Mexican cooking, and several family members have carried her inventions to new heights. One son tells of a midnight ride on a Nogales-bound bus when he was summoned home from college to visit his mother who was desperately ill with pneumonia. Bouncing along, tears on his cheeks, he guiltily recalls thinking: If Mama dies, who will make the enchiladas?
Marketing for my mother-in-law was both a chore and a social event, especially during the later years. Her husband dead, her children gone, alone in the house except for a housekeeper-companion, she often would go to Puchi's, her favorite market, two or three times a day. She also shopped at the Mexican mercado across the line.
Up until a few years ago, the mercado was crude and countrified. Hooked quarters of beef, chickens, turkeys and rabbits hung from the ceiling, and fish, hacked and oozing, lay on gouged wooden blocks. Blood-splattered entrails, fat and discarded bones were scattered everywhere. Undaunted by the carnage, the swarms of flies, the stench, my mother-in-law plunged in, made her selections, bargained jocularly with the el carnicero (butcher) or el pescadero (the fish vendor), dumped her newspaper-wrapped purchase into her shopping bag and left delighted with her bargain, ganga, metziah. In the produce section she bought Mexican-grown lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cantaloupes, watermelons, which were plentiful and cheap.
From the mercado she'd move on to the panaderia for bolillos (Mexican rolls) and to the tortilleria for handmade tortillas. If she passed the ostionero (the oyster man), she'd stop at his cart and consume on the spot fresh oysters doused with a red cocktail sauce and served in the vendor's only glass. People greeted her on the streets, and she responded in serviceable Spanish bearing the markings of English and Yiddish. Which brings to mind my mother-in-law's language(s). She unconsciously slid from one to another, at times using English, Yiddish, and Spanish in a single sentence. "Formacht la luz in the living room." "Tome this plate fun mir." Adding the suffixes of one language to the roots of another, my mother-in-law created her own words: kvetchton, a big hug or squeeze; besoleh, a little kiss; schmecton, literally, a big smell, figuratively, a look around. She spoke as she moved: rapidly. When someone didn't understand her, she repeated her remarks in Spanish.
With the Sonoran women who worked for her, my mother-in-law was just and straightforward. Having been a seamstress in a sweatshop she was a sympathetic patrona (employer), but everyone worked, and no one longer or harder than she. Able employees earned praise and affection, the distracted, dishonest, or complaining, chastisement. Working side by side, she and her helpers chatted. She knew their origins, vital statistics, and current concerns. Asked or unasked, she offered advice but didn't expect them to alter their ingrained ways. The longstanding ties between her and these women ultimately proved fortuitous. For the last four years of her life, unable to walk, feeble but cheerful, she was cared for consecutively, then jointly, by two sisters, Marta and Consuelo, who saw to her needs as though she were one of them which, in part, she was.
Annie Shapiro Rochlin (1880-1978) was born in Schedrin, a small Russian Jewish village in the farmlands and forests of the Minsk Province. The oldest of eleven children, she was the first to immigrate to the United States. Quickly disenchanted with New York's tumultuous Lower East Side, she pushed on to Winnipeg, Canada, where in 1911 she married Jake Rochlin, a native of Mogilev. Together the pair trekked west in search of work in Calgary, Vancouver and then the American Northwest. In 1917, shortly after their third child was born, Jake tracked rumors of business opportunities on the Arizona-Sonora border. Soon after, he sent for Annie and the children.
As the train approached Nogales, Annie recalled staring horror-struck at a hostile wilderness guarded by giant soldiers. When the giant soldiers turned out to be towering saguaros, she felt better, but not for long. Everything about the place -- climate, terrain, people, languages, customs, foods -- was foreign and forbidding. She was ready to move on, but her husband had at last established a going business. Pregnant with their fourth child, she resigned herself and settled in.
In early 1923, the Rochlins bought twenty acres of rolling desertland three miles east of the city limits. Several months later, a red brick territorial-style house began to rise on the leveled brow of a hill. That November, the youngest of her five children was born in the still unfinished, storm-lashed house.
Annie remained in the house for nearly 50 years; 20 of them on her own, after her children were grown and her husband had died. Almost 90, growing frail, her independence revoked with her driver's license, she finally agreed to leave her desert home and move first to Tucson and then to Los Angeles where her children could look after her.
Arizona Jewish Post, October 23, 1981
© copyright 1981