As a little girl growing up in Taos, New Mexico, cookbook memoir author Anita Rodríguez was mocked as a “coyota, coyota, coyota”—a half-Spanish, half-Anglo child in a town where the two cultures never mixed. She began telling stories as a defense and imagined herself a member of a pack of invented coyotes, comforted by Grandma Coyota, a “cross-cultural omnivore who urged me to ‘eat anything.'”
But like the trickster Grandma Coyota, Rodríguez got the last laugh. She grew up to be a painter, writer, storyteller, enjarradora (traditional adobe finisher), and creative multicultural cook. Grandma Coyota’s pronouncement sets the tone for Rodríguez’s newly published memoir–art book–cookbook, Coyota in the Kitchen: A Memoir of New and Old Mexico (University of New Mexico Press). The blending of cultures is everywhere apparent in the hybrid volume. Her sharply observed, often hilarious stories start with the unlikely bicultural union of her parents, a nuevomexicano pharmacist from Taos and a Southern belle who came to New Mexico to study art. Her vibrant paintings are filled with lively Mexican calaveras and imagery from Indian, Catholic, and Crypto-Jewish rituals. And her recipes range from traditional New Mexican Sopa flor de calabasas to her Texan mother’s Mint Juleps, with a substantial side trip to the foods of Mexico, where Rodríguez spent more than a decade painting, giving Tarot card readings, and searching for her ancestral roots.
Coyota in the Kitchen reflects her belief that “not only painting but good eating and fine storytelling are art forms.” Hip Latina talked to Rodríguez about the centrality of food in Latino culture, how food shapes our most important relationships, and how her own multicultural table reflects the large sweep of history.
Hip Latina: Anyone who grew up Latina knows that food plays a special role in our culture. When did you first notice the importance of food—not just as sustenance but as something that carries deeper meaning?
Anita Rodríguez: I was inspired by Günter Grass’s book The Flounder. He talks about food and about women. Then a lot of people in my family all died at once, and a lot of them were the women who were the cooks. Their tables were where all of us went for all of the holidays, and all the feast days. Whenever any event happened in the family, these women were like magnets, and their tables and their food were where we all gathered. And when they were gone all of a sudden it was like the glue was gone. We knew that we might not ever sit down again together in the same way, because Tía Alfonsa wasn’t there anymore.
Whenever there’s anything going on, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s a tragedy or a celebration, we all go in the kitchen. Everything happens at the table. And it was around the first meals that the first stories were told, and we recognized each other as the same family, the same clan. And history began. All this was around food.
HL: How do you see the gathering and cooking and sharing of food as a means of building relationships?
AR: In Latino culture and in Native culture it’s really important to eat together and to converse casually first, to kind of share family news and things that are happening before you get down to business. It makes a big difference in the quality of the interaction. People are more relaxed, they’re more open, they’re more trusting. Es una grosería to do in Mexico what we ordinarily do here in the United States: you have a business meeting, you sit down before the coffee, and you open up the file and you take out the contract and start talking business.
It’s not just food, it’s relationship glue. It’s conversational grease and energy. The book is an homage to the importance of women who cook. The mole and tamales, those are recipes that are based on comadriando. You can’t do it without a bunch of sisters and cousins and comadres. You know, mole has up to 35, 40 ingredients. It really takes two days to make tamales. The food and the cooking tied the women together.
HL: In your book the food also reflects how complicated family relationships are. How does food actually tell the stories of the relationships?
AR: Using my family as an example, here we have people coming from two distinct lineages, two languages, two completely different cultures, and our table was like an edible history book. It had recipes and ingredients that came from both sides of the family. And so it was like a representation of the blending of these two cultures—or actually three, because it’s mestizo food. Tamale comes from the Nahuatl [Aztec]. So it shows migration patterns, intercultural relationships, all kinds of relationships, positive and negative, that were brought about by conquest, by intermarriage, by cultural exchange, by exchange of material culture and of recipes and herbal remedies. And when people who eat completely kinds of food sit down at the table together and start telling stories, possibly stimulated by the food—that’s huge.
Stayed Tuned for part two where we share recipes from Coyota in the Kitchen: A Memoir of New and Old Mexico.