Lent Control

"Excuse me, sir," I said as I waved my arms, desperately trying to get the man's attention. "You have a little something on your forehead," I whispered, trying not to embarrass this complete stranger. But I turned out to be the one who felt stupid.

Ah, Ash Wednesday, that day of the calendar when non-Catholics wonder why so many people go around looking like they fell face-first in the dirt. But what was my excuse? What kind of Mexican was I not to realize what was going on? Obviously, not one who grew up Catholic.

I had the misfortune of growing up a Jehovah's Witness. But I do have fond memories of my Catholic grandmother making special foods for Cuaresma, or Lent. Despite the leanings of the rest of the family, my grandmother secretly held on to her own Catholic tradition. And starting with Ash Wednesday, for 40 days the Salcido Esparza clan ate special funky foods.

Every Friday it was seafood, poultry or a vegetarian meal. Wonderful delicacies such as chiles rellenos a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with asadero cheese, then covered with an egg-white batter and fried were part of this religious observance. We also ate tortas de nopalitos y camarón (tender nopal cactus and shrimp cakes served with a spicy red chile sauce), pescado Veracruzano (a fish fillet topped with a tropical tomato and caper sauce or pescado frito) or a whole deep-fried fish covered in a garlic sauce.

As if that were not enough, there would be wonderful desserts such as capirotada, a fabulous mélange of piloncillo brown sugar, bread, nonpareil candy, raisins, nuts, cheese and anything else we could think of to add to make this special bread pudding.

I may not have been Catholic, but I sure loved the food that came with observing its practices. But Ash Wednesday also was supposed to mark a time of sacrifice, and luckily, I escaped it. But I had a good friend who, every year, had a tough time during Lent. She was a lush, but she was a very devout believer who would completely give up booze beginning on Ash Wednesday. Talk about a sacrifice! The shaking would start right away, but before long she'd feel terrific and would accomplish a great deal with all of her newfound energy. But after Lent ended on Palm Sunday, she'd be her normal drunken self in no time. The point of that yearly exercise always puzzled me.

I'm just glad I got to take part in a tradition of festive foods, and I respect the notion of rethinking one's priorities. I miss my grandmother and her wonderful Cuaresma foods, so this year I plan on honoring her memory by making special meals every Friday for 40 days. By Silvana Salcido Esparza

The author is a local chef and restaurant owner.

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