Cooking as Ceremony

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Slice, peel, crush, knead, tidy….

Kitchens are the storehouse of family rituals that brim with cultural meaning. Families treasure their kitchen methodology and lore, passing along stories, measuring cups and utensils in loving tradition. Kitchens house the practical art that preserve our family stories. In Kitchens there are rituals — ways for communities to come together through food.

Amy Valdez Schweem’s Mano y Metate spice company
Amy Valdés Schwemm’s Mano y Metate spice company

One can never fail to appreciate the ritual dimensions of spice-making, and its position in the larger cycle of foodways. In our region, Amy Valdés Schwemm’s Mano y Metate spice company is renowned for its flavor as well as the intensity of the culture interdependent in its products. Amy shares with BorderLore a recollection of her family and her kitchen:

Elena Fernandez (Valdes), my maternal grandmother, was born in Aguas Calientes, Mexico. My maternal grandfather was Eliud Valdes, born in Dixon, New Mexico. I learned some very important lessons from both families.

My great grandmother Elena Jaudigui (Fernandez) had a metate and molcajete, and made mole in her kitchen. She died long before I was born. Her three daughters, including my grandmother (1913-1998) and dear great aunts, worked to put each other through college, and as working mothers, they did not take the time make mole from scratch. Elena served us mole, buying the paste from a glass jar or even from a casuela in the deli counter. I remember Grandma serving mole with her famous sopa de arroz over turkey or chicken – a dark, thick, sweet sauce. Grandma had quite a sweet tooth, a like for emtomatadas (sweet tomato sauce, corn tortilla, meat filling) and tortillas (gorditas de harina). I liked the mole, but I didn’t love it like Grandma did. Looking back, I think she was remembering her mother’s homemade mole. Later, I learned to make mole from better ingredients (at home), and I understood what Grandma must have had in mind.

Eliud Valdes, my maternal grandfather (1913-1998), fed his family daily and gave food to his neighbors regularly. He grew plants and wild harvested food and medicine, processed big batches jelly and jam, dried fruit and meat, juiced huge bags carrots and citrus, and most importantly roasted gunny sacks full of green chile. He also made soap, grass brooms, red chile ristras. He was always trying something new, very often relearning old ways. He wasn’t a teacher, but he sure led by example! So while I learned about mole from Grandma, I learned about chile from Papa. “Comida sin chile no es comida.”

So years later, I’m learning to make posole from corn that I’ve grown. We were helping my Grandma’s sister, Auntie Bea, move into assisted living, when I found a little cone shaped mano in the kitchen drawer. She told me I could look for the molcajete in the shed. It wasn’t there, but I kept the mano anyway. It turns out that her youngest brother had the molcajete, and that he fondly remembered his mother using it regularly for cooking and making herbal remedies. I decided that the two parts should be together, so I told my great uncle that I would love to give him his mother’s molcajete. But he decided that, no, I should have both parts, since he knew I would use them. What a gift from so many of my favorite family!

I also learned that Auntie Bea had just given away her mother’s metate and mano to some family friends. I didn’t even know there was a family metate and now it was gone! I asked her what it looked like, so that someday I might find one to use on the corn I was growing. Then, she did something I would have never asked her to do. She asked for the gift back, and presented me with her mother’s metate. She explained that there was a molino in the town, so her mother never had to use it for daily corn grinding. She didn’t know where it came from, so it we really don’t know its history past my great grandmother. So many traditions lost, but I can hold the well-worn stone in my hand.”

Inspired by the mole powders that Native Seeds/SEARCH used to import from Mexico, Amy started making mole powders to sell on September 16, 2007. She still uses a health-department approved metal-bladed grinder, to create her spices in batches of about 60. “This seemed small since I was already used to making over 1000 mesquite pancakes each year with my friends at Desert Harvesters,” she says!


  • Mano y Metate website:
  • Hidden Kitchens explores communal kitchens and little-known kitchen rituals from around the world
  • The NY Public Library, via its Rare Book Division, houses a restaurant menu collection of 45,000 menus, from the 1840s- present. The Library, with help of the public, is digitizing the collection, transcribing the menus and filling in missing data in an Under Review section. Contact the Library or to participate.

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