“While out of our New England norm, it WAS culturally relevant to eat tamales… With all the tamales I ate on previous visits, I knew my favorite were the ones  wrapped in banana leaves. As I ate through my tamale that Thanksgiving, I got something unexpected…”

Banana Leaf Tamale

Banana Leaf Tamale

Sonodoro’s arrest put a big strain on our relationship. Sure, he was bonded him out of jail (using the car of his best friend’s fiancée). He was able to stay out because the judge gave him community service. But, somewhere before the kidney stones or after the arrest he lost his decent-paying full time job translating and transcribing Spanish commercials to English. His “I hate the world and all my managers are idiots” attitude didn’t curry favor with his supervisors and his inability to keep these jobs put added stress on the remaining “relationship” we had. I was growing increasingly frustrated he wasn’t committing to turning his life around and be the man I needed. I kept trying to fix him and love him into the man I knew he could be.

He was growing harder to love. . . and fix.

My friends who were vocal about their dislike remained steadfast in their dislike, but supported me as I dealt with his undesirable behavior. I maintained mild optimism I could fix this, but my baby sister advised me, “If there’s something you don’t like when you’re dating, it only gets worse when you’re married.” She should know; she was separated from her husband after a year and a half.

I contemplated an exit strategy.

That fall, Nature Chick, my baby sister and I decided the best thing to do was celebrate Thanksgiving together. She and her husband drove 14 hours from Salt Lake City, UT for a visit.

Despite Nature Chick and I holding our unhappiness in, we made the most of it. We still giggle about my cupboards. She marveled I arranged them by nationality. I thought it was an extremely intelligent way to organize. She thought it looked like segregation.

I had a lot to be thankful for that Thanksgiving— Sonodoro was not in jail and I had my sister with me. For dinner, the four of us piled into my SUV, with Nature Chick hiding the secret she knew about Sonodoro’s arrest. When we got to his mother’s apartment, the doors opened revealing the world of glitter and tchotchkes from quinceaneras, trips around Southern California (like Universal Studios and Sea World) and to Latin and South America. My brother-in-law’s reaction was priceless— His face was filled with wonder and fear all at once.

quincera tchotchkes

Even though Sonodoro was growing harder to love, I still loved him and I was thankful to celebrate Thanksgiving with him and his family and not by visiting a jail.  Sonodoro’s mother had a lot to be thankful for too. She thought Sonodoro and I were close to marriage, especially with the visit of Nature Chick and her husband. With the blonde hair and light complexion I looked like the All-American girl and I was her American Dream.

Despite mismanaging her diabetes and poor parenting skills, Sonodoro’s mom was a master at entertaining. She was able to turn her one-bedroom apartment into a comfortable place to feed many. Grandma’s bed was still off her corner of the common room and a banquet table took up the rest of the area. Sonodoro’s brother was there with his family of four and the15 year old sister was there with her boyfriend. All totaled, there were 12 people over the age of 15 and two kids, one seven the other eight.

The guest of honor lounged on the table, looking like the love child of a Thanksgiving turkey and Hawaiian ham. The turkey may have well just come from a Hawaiian Tropic photo shoot. The sugar glistened like it was lacquered for optimum photographic excellence and it wore accouterment of pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. This was slightly (sarcasm) different than the New England Thanksgiving Nature Chick and I grew up with and only served enhanced the deep homesickness we were both feeling.

hawaiian tropic

Sonodoro’s niece and nephew ran amuck and their parents didn’t seem to care. Nature Chick and I were appalled. Not only did the parents not encourage the children to eat with the family, they ate chicken nuggets. ON THANKSGIVING OF ALL THINGS!

Chicken nuggets were not special. They were not culturally relevant to my Guatemalan boyfriend his Mexican sister-in-law or my Jewish brother-in-law. They are boring and something you pop in the oven when you need dinner but are too tired to cook.

Eating chicken nuggets on Thanksgiving is sacrilege!

There’s something about the holidays that makes one a little more optimistic. That Thanksgiving the kernel of optimism spoke through my despair. I told Sonodoro that when we had kids they would not be permitted to eat chicken nuggets on Thanksgiving and they would eat dinner with the rest of the family. He was cranky that I was criticizing his brother (which miffed me), explained that it was easier to feed the kids first, but ultimately agreed with me.

While out of our New England norm, it WAS culturally relevant to eat tamales. I had eaten multiple tamales while visiting Sonodoro’s family and knew that my favorite were the chicken ones wrapped in banana leaves. As I ate through my tamale that Thanksgiving, I got something unexpected–

I found it to be  as empty as my relationship with Sonodoro and my aversion to continuing the relationship was renewed. Instead of finding chicken, I found an old chicken bone that someone decided to reuse after eating the chicken off.

I almost lost my dinner.

I composed myself  and pushed the rest of the tamale to the edge of my plate. Wary of what I may find if I had another tamale, I asked for a helping of turkey. Sonodoro said he thought I liked banana leaf tamales; I tried to quietly explain to  what happened, but nothing could be quiet in that family. Sonodoro was upset which made his older brother  (33 years old) upset and then the brother yelled at the mom (in spanglish), asked her where she bought the tamales and how could she buy from someone who would do that. With my high school level Spanish, I understood that she bought them from someone locally. That person needed money and she wanted to help. Sonodoro gave his exasperated, “Ma,” that he always used in situations like this (when she would use her money to help someone even though she was struggling). The family insisted that she get her money back and not buy from them other again. I tried to defuse the situation giving a “No te preocupes. Todo esta bien.” (Don’t worry about it. It’s all good.)
Thank goodness! The kids wanted dessert and we could get this conversation over with. We had pastry and sweet bread from the local panaderia.

PanaderiaIn addition to being introduced to tamales and sweet breads, Nature Chick discovered the unpredictable personality of Sonodoro’s mother. We both cleared our plates to the kitchen (while her husband and Sonodoro stayed at the table). I left, expecting her to follow me, but Nature Chick stayed in the kitchen to help. Now, many hostesses would playfully banter with their guests or use soft language if they didn’t want help. Even with a language barrier, a simple, “no thank you” (which I had her use on occasion) and gentle push out of the kitchen would suffice. Not Sonodoro’s mother. She yelled at my sister and hit her until she left the kitchen.

We left shortly after.

BANANA LEAF TAMALES WITH CHICKEN (and not just the bone)

This recipe is inspired by Joe Pastry.


1 1/3 cups Crisco
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp baking powder
3 ½ cups masa harina mixed
2 ¼ cups warm water, vegetable stock, or chicken broth

4 pounds tomatillos husked and washed
2 chilies (optional/to taste)
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ TBS olive oil
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
4 cups coarsely shredded cooked chicken
2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

And of course…

2 pkg banana leaves

CHICKEN FILLING: (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.)

Preheat broiler. Line heavy baking sheet with foil. Arrange tomatillos on prepared sheet. Broil until tomatillos blacken in spots, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. When done, transfer tomatillos and any juices to processor and cool. Add chilies and garlic to processor and blend until smooth puree forms. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add tomatillo puree and cook on boil for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add broth. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until sauce coats spoon thickly and is reduced to 1 cup, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Season with salt. Mix in chicken and cilantro. *As an alternate filling, homemade refried black beans works well.


Using electric mixer OR heavy spoon, beat Crisco with salt and baking powder, in large bowl until fluffy. Slowly beat in masa harina. Reduce gradually beat in 1 1/2 cups broth or stock, forming tender dough. If dough seems firm, beat in enough broth, 2 tablespoons at a time, to soften. (*If using an electric mixer, reduce speed!)

banana leaf


1. Cut banana leaves into pieces about 10″ x 10″ (discard stiff stems), then pass the pieces slowly over a gas or electric stove burner to soften them. They’ll become shiny as the waxes on the leaf melt — that tells you they’re done. (Please hold them with tongs so you don’t burn yourself.)

2. With one softened leaf cut strips that are 10 inches long by about 1/4 inch wide. Set strips aside. You will need these later for securing tamales.

3. In a large pot, put your steamer basket. Fill with 2 cups of water.


1. On a flat work surface, place leaf.
2. Spread ¼ cup dough in 4-inch square all the way to one side.
3. Spoon heaping tbs filling in stripe down center of each dough square.
4. Now, like giftwrapping a present: Fold sides of leaf over filling and then fold top and bottom sides to cover.


Tamale tied

Tie with strip of leaf to secure. Stand tamales in steamer basket.



Steamer Basket SmallSteamer Basket Large









*Point to note- Banana leaves are not uniform and sometimes have tears and holes. Be creative using your leaf.  To be green, I try to use only the leaf, but I often see tamales wrapped in aluminum foil.

If necessary to keep tamales upright in steamer, insert pieces of crumpled foil between them.

Bring water in pot to boil. Cover pot and steam tamales until dough is firm to touch (about 45 minutes on a medium low heat). Given that each stovetop is different, at 30 minutes check water level. Add more water if necessary. Let stand 10 minutes.

Tamales can be made 2 days ahead of eating. If you’re going to use another day, Cool 1 hour before chilling. To reheat, re-steam tamales until hot, about 35 minutes. Otherwise, ENJOY!

dancing tamales



Meeting friends and family is a big step in a relationship. Whether you’re introducing your person to these VIPs or you’re the one being introduced, question whirl about your head.

Will my person like my friends and family? 

Will his/her loved ones accept me?

Now that I’m older, I delay introductions, but I dated Sonodro when I was in my early 20s… With youth and familial proximity, I met Sonodoro’s relatives in the first two weeks we dated. After our first couple dates, Sonodoro told me he didn’t have his own wheels. When he came to see me, he took a bus.

This was not his liquor store, but this scene was common across Los Angeles.

This was not his liquor store, but this scene was common across Los Angeles during the riots of 1992. Sonodro was 17.

It was the same routine on the night of the anticipated family dinner; he took a bus to see me. When he got to my place, we jumped into my SUV and drove it to his mom’s, which was probably 4 miles southeast from my apartment. We drove past the seedy strip mall (where I purchased my defense mace, not to be confused with cooking mace), and south on Vermont, towards an area I never visited. When we parked, Sonodoro showed me the liquor store he, his brother and store owner defend during the LA Riots. (I read Twilight Los Angeles in college, but this in-person first-person account was surprising to hear.) He played tackle football on the very street we parked on and his favorite pupusaria was down the block. As I looked upon the 4-story apartment building, I noticed parakeets resting in their cages on the exterior balconies. We had chickens when I was younger and my sister’s high school boyfriend gave her a parakeet for her birthday. Despite these experiences, the desire to cohabitate with a bird is something I didn’t understand. Even if his mom didn’t have birds, the idea of living so close to people that cohabitated with birds put me ill-at-ease. I knew the evening would be an “experience.”

The evening did not disappoint.

I read about the immigrant experience in my sociology classes, but never visited my first-generation friends at their homes. When I stepped into the apartment, I witnessed step-migration and tenement living at its best. In the moderate-size one bedroom apartment lived his mom, grandma and sister. When he was younger he lived there with his brother and sister’s father. Quick math and I realized that 6 people had lived there at one point. The apartment was filled with pictures of family, relatives and friends. Memorabilia from quinceaneras and Guatemalan and Mexican chotchkies (his sister was half Mexican) hung from the ceiling and adorned nearly every inch of wall and table-top space. Despite the sharp contrast to my sheltered childhood and the previous boys I dated, this difference didn’t phase me (too much). I was more worried about being judged by my rudimentary Spanish. When his mom first met me, she exclaimed, “que bonita!”

Yay! She thinks I’m pretty.

Her complement put me at ease, and we were able to have a basic conversation of where I was from, where I lived and what my job was. Anything that required broader explanation, Sonodoro translated. His sister was still in high school so she and I were able to have some girl talk (in English).


A recreation of that first meal. And yes, that white glob is mayonnaise.

Everything was going great… until dinner. I was trying to include his grandma in the basic conversation. I wanted to get her attention, but my brain couldn’t think of the (first-year Spanish) word for grandma (abuela). Too proud to ask for assistance, I called her the next thing I could think of: mamacita. She was petite, after all. She yelled at me. I quickly apologized.

Lo siento.

Between mouthfuls of food and sips of his too sweet Kool-Aide, Sonodro made small effort to get me out of the pickle for calling his grandma a fine girl/hot mama. (Thank you Urban Dictionary.) Beyond being yelled at by his abuelita, (little grandma) dinner was relatively uneventful. That is, until we got out to my car.

Right after we buckled up, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of toilet paper. He carefully unwrapped it, with tears in his eyes, he stammered something about being happy he found me and he was happy his family liked me. (Really? His grandma yelled at me.) He wanted to keep dating and needed a special way to let me know. He showed me two rings. One inscribed with my name (that he would wear) and the other inscribed with his (that I would wear). (The me of today is screaming epithets and telling the young me to run fast and run far. When on earth did he have time to purchase and engrave these rings!?)

4-22-14 Wedding Bands simple

I put it on.

Two weeks in, the gesture felt a little premature, but somehow right. I happily kissed him and accepted.

Is this what love feels like? Maybe.

This was going to lead to something. That something looked like we both had marriage on the mind.

It’s so amazing to have this kind of connection so quickly.

I eventually learned secrets to his mom’s cooking. (I also learned that her cooking techniques resulted in her acquisition of Type 2 Diabetes.) That said, these recipes come with a warning: Don’t use as much oil, cream or sugar as the recipe calls for.

Fruit Punch: Mix a pitcher of Kool-Aid to package instructions. Dissolve an extra cup of sugar in it.

Refried Black Beans: Warm a pan on medium heat. When it’s up to temperature, add butter or oil. When the grease is warm dump in Ducal Black Beans. (I tried using a different brand once and was chastised.) If you can’t find Ducal at your grocery store, fear not. You can add a splash of heavy cream to give them that more decadent or ducal (sweet) consistency.   IMG_1843
Chicken: A cooked standard roaster. Shred it.

Rice: Cook according to package instructions.

These are key. You can purchase a re-heater, but I (and his mom) put them in a plastic bag (leave it open) and microwave for 30 seconds.

The all-important tortilla roll method of consuming the food vessel.

The all-important tortilla roll method. It helps you use this food vessel to shovel more beans into your mouth.

Necessary Condiments: Mayonnaise, Salsa, Hot Sauce

Beyond the vegetables found in the salsa, there were no veggies served at this first encounter meal. When building a Latin-American inspired dish, I often serve it with thinly sliced cabbage. To do this, you need a large (sharp) kitchen knife and patience. Sometimes, I dress the cabbage with a squirt of lime juice for a citrus contrast to the other entree items.


Stages of shredding cabbage.


My first solo apartment was in Los Angeles. The neighborhood was just as colorful as the building mosaic that announced the street name and number.

Thank you Google!

Thank you Google!

An obese bum lived up the road and spent most of his time at the bus stop or under a purple flower shade tree. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic was also on my block, in addition to one school, one church, a mechanic and a smog check place (100% satisfaction guaranteed). Peppered along the street were small homes, condos and/or apartments. Street parking was a premium; a 16-point turn was necessary to get into or out of a spot. Today, a savvy realtor might call this area “Los Feliz Adjacent.” When I lived there it was on the outskirts of Little Armenia and Thai Town was just west of that.

I loved my third floor walk up on the sunny narrow street. Even though it was considered a studio apartment, the closet was nearly 10×7, and could have been used as a bedroom. I was scared of earthquakes and intruders, so I slept on my Craigslist Futon in the main room, where I could keep my eye on the door. The ceilings were high, I painted one wall sun yellow, another blue and my kitchen cabinets Barbie pink. I hate Barbie, but living in Los Angeles in my very first apartment, having brightly colored cabinets felt natural. After all, the girls on Friends had brightly colored cabinets.

3-28-14 Monica's Apartment

Sonodoro and I had our coffee date on Earth Day (April 22, 2003). Despite my attraction, I made him wait the three dates before I cooked for him.

The local Food4Less was only a half-mile away and since I didn’t want to lose my premium parking spot (or pay for gas) I put on my favorite shorts and walked down. This was before I thought 60° was cold and my innocence was as deep as The Marianas Trench. I was excited about cooking for Sonodoro and this probably made my walk a little too flirty. Some guy, slightly older than 23, looked me in the eye and queried, “how much?” Naïve as could be, I ventured:

How much for what?

“For you.”

I snapped. I’m not for sale! I continued on my merry way, pissed but happy. Yeah, he wants me… I can’t wait to make dinner for Sonodoro.

Between savings and my retail job I was just making ends meet. While living away from the safety of college and home, I economized and spent $10 a week (or less) on groceries… all without eating the sodium-rich TopRamen.

Sonodoro was special and dinner needed to be special too; this meant spending money beyond my weekly $10 budget.

In hindsight what I cooked could be considered racially insensitive, but I thought I was being creative and honoring his Latino background. I did fusion pasta and thought of as many veggies that were germane to Latin American cooking as I could. Essentially relying on my fajita and taco experience, I included, cilantro, onion, tomato, various bell peppers and a couple black olives for good measure. (Again, ignorant, I know.) At this point in my life, I couldn’t afford meat, but I bought breakfast sausage to dice up and sauté.

I was anxiously anticipating Sondoro’s phone call telling me he was downstairs. (The buzzer, as with many other things in my building, building was broken. Before I knew it, there was a knock on my door. I still had on my cooking clothes and apron. Neither dinner nor I were ready. I rushed to the door in my apron and answered it.


The big bouquet had white lilies and roses. Holy smokes! Not counting my parents, I only received flowers twice: once at camp (during our mid-summer extravaganza) and once from Cosby Sweater (college boyfriend).

While I finished cooking and setting the table, Sonodoro insisted on helping. While Sondoro scrubbed my pots, we got to know each other. We got to know each other better during dinner and conversation. (Apparently checking out a man’s housekeep skills are part of my foreplay.)

He marveled that I was unconcerned by the ghetto birds. I thought he was talking about pigeons. Again, my naïveté only served to highlight our differences.

No, he meant police helicopters.

Of course I was unconcerned; police are protecting us.  (I assumed police were patrolling. I eventually learned they were looking for perps who were evading arrest.)


Penne Pasta
4 TBS Butter
½ medium white onion
1 green bell pepper
½ red bell pepper
½ yellow bell pepper
2 Roma tomatoes
½ cup black olives, pitted & cut in half
5 sprigs cilantro
1 lime
salt and ground pepper to taste

 2014-03-27 19.34.30

If you desire 5 breakfast sausages diced.


DICE your onion. The pieces should be shouldn’t be too small. If you let them soak in rice vinegar or salt for half an hour before cooking, it will help eliminate some of their bad-breath power.

SEED & CHOP peppers into pieces that are roughly 1” by ½”. Put these in a bowl.

2014-03-27 19.59.01
Half your pitted black olives (about ½ cup) and put in a seperate bowl.

Chop the tomatoes….

Cook according to package instructions.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a heavy pan and slowly cook your onion on a low to medium heat. When it is almost translucent, add the peppers. Let them cook. I like my veggies crisp, so I don’t do too much cooking with any of it. Right before the pasta is done add ¼ cup of pasta water to veggies. Simmer for 1-2 minutes. Add tomatoes, olives, cilantro and lime juice.

A citrus juicer helps make juicing easier.

A citrus juicer helps make juicing easier.

Cover with lid and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Drain water from pasta and toss pasta with veggies. Cook together and keep on low heat until your company arrives and/or is ready to eat.