The bread was burned. Smoke swirled around the frying pan. Most of the cheese was moldy. And where was the last, decisive tomato skin?
I tried to make capirotada, the bread pudding that Mexicans on both sides of the border make every Lent. I had already failed my late mother.
In 2019, I wrote a eulogy about her for The Times through the prism of my all-time favorite dessert, one Mommy would never offer me again. Maria de la Luz Arellano died of ovarian cancer at the age of 67, 10 days after my story was published.
I wrote the eulogy to praise her while she lived, but also as a warning to the living: Learn the wisdom of your elders before it’s too late. Accompanying the piece was a recipe for Mommy’s Capirotada, along with a promise to myself at the end to make it for my family the following year, although I’d never attempted anything more complex in the kitchen than a quesadilla.
But when Lent 2020 came around, we all found ourselves in quarantine in our respective homes — and capirotada for one is no fun. I couldn’t bring myself to try it last year because spring just made me sad. Well-meaning aunts fed me other Lenten dishes to lift my spirits—chili rellenos, shrimp fritters, potato tacos, bean gorditas, and more—but I couldn’t bring myself to try their capirotada.
When Ash Wednesday came this year, I swore again to myself that I would do Mommy’s Capirotada… and the excuses came faster than a shohei ohtani fastball. I was too busy with work. I wouldn’t be able to track down the right ingredients. There’s no way I would match the height of Mommy’s fluffy, juicy capirotada.
Also, anything I would do would be disgusting and would disappoint my family.
But when my father narrowly averted a catastrophic car accident, I realized once again that we should honor our parents as long as they live.
So I decided to do this last week.
I dusted Mommy’s recipe off and headed to Northgate González Market, the Latino grocery giant my family has favored since its first location opened on Anaheim Boulevard in Anaheim in 1980, just minutes from our home. I bought raisins, almonds, lard and bread in the form of bolillos – fluffy French buns. Two pounds of piloncillo, four cloves, five tomatillo peels, and six cinnamon sticks for the syrup that gives capirotada its distinctive savory-sweet flavor. Northgate hadn’t affectionately nicknamed the cheese from my ancestral state of Zacatecas paw cheese – foot cheese – because of its funky taste and smell, so I called a friend who had the connection.
I cut the cheese and bolillos into strips and let them air dry for a few days like mommy used to. You should make capirotada on Friday, the big feast after a day without meat. But a column got in the way, so I planned to do everything over the weekend. Oops – an appointment with my helmsman. Monday, I said to myself – then meetings piled up after meetings.
On Tuesday morning I woke up earlier than usual. No more excuses. Better to screw up than not try at all. I would either make my mommy proud – or make her and the saints in heaven laugh.
I screwed it up at first — to the point where my wife went into the kitchen to hear what all the hissing and swearing was about. But I picked up enough momentum to remember my mommy throughout the process.
As I fried the bolillo slices and carefully stacked them in a baking pan while topping them with almonds and raisins, I thanked God for taking my mom with him before the COVID-19 pandemic. The parade of people visiting Mommy in her last few weeks gave her the strength to cope with excruciating pain. The hundreds who attended her wake and funeral provided the support network my family needed.
Without them, I don’t know where we would be mentally. In fact, I do. We would be as desolate as the families of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from COVID-19 who cannot be adequately mourned.
As I prepared a pot for the capirotada syrup, I wondered what mommy would think about the pandemic and 2020. She would have been first in line to get the vaccine, scoffed at my daddy being a pandejo as long as he did, and intimidate anyone within a city block into stabbing them. She would have supported the racial reckoning of the country in general, although I’m sure my siblings and I would have spoken to her about colorism in our own family.
And even though she was a rancho libertarian, mommy never liked Donald Trump, whom she always called Cheat, referring to his ever-pouting lips and big mouth. She would have thought his attempts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election were nothing short of treason.
Once the syrup was ready, I poured it evenly into the baking pan and then placed the capirotada in the oven to bake. I marveled at how Mommy made capirotada or arroz de leche (rice pudding) almost every Friday during Lent for decades. While working full-time as a tomato preserver, then part-time in her later years while looking after the children of immigrants who were learning English. While raising four children, she then babysat her first grandchild. When dealing with my father.
Mommy had way more reasons to skip a capirotada session than I did, but she never did. She even cooked for us while she was battling cancer – until she couldn’t cook anymore.
The dessert’s familiar cinnamon smell filled the kitchen as I took it out to cool. It saw right – but would it be good? I took a bite. It wasn’t half bad – I should have used more cheese, should have soaked the bolillos a bit better.
I gave a bite to my wife who asked for another.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I texted my siblings to see if there was anything they wanted. “I’m not really a fan, but I’ll try,” my brother said. “I’ve never been a fan,” said one sister. Later that night when my youngest sister who does of how Capirotada ate some, she said it was “amazing” and “my mom would be proud of you,” before complaining that I added too many raisins and almonds.
Brothers and sisters, I tell you.
As we chatted playfully via text message for the rest of the day, I realized what mommy was all about making capirotada. The dish wasn’t just her way of treating us to the ultimate fasting dessert. It was a method of transferring multiple lessons with every step and bite.
Good things take time. Take time to do good.
Tradition is important, but love is more important.