BERTA ISABEL ARIAS
Wisdom Around Us
My Grandmother's White Rice
(My grandmother, Mima Otra, lived just shy of her 109th birthday, and in August I celebrate her last days with us by sharing with my readers a short story I wrote many years ago.)
There is nothing more delicious than my grandmother’s white rice.
I watch her as she moves slowly around her kitchen, getting ready to once more teach her oldest granddaughter her recipe.
I anticipate her every move. This ritual has occurred at least half a dozen times before, and I still vividly remember when, as a young newlywed, I asked her for this cooking lesson.
Back then, my grandmother’s agility belied her sixty plus years. Her thin, small body darted here and there, first taking the pot for the rice from a shelf over the sink, then grabbing the sack of rice from another spot. And I remember her cooking instructions.
“Dear, there’s nothing special to making this rice. The important thing is to use the long grain type, and to rinse it very well. Afterwards, you add water, a little salt and olive oil, you wait until the water is all absorbed, and that’s it.”
“It can’t be that easy.” I defended myself. “I have followed those steps and my rice doesn’t taste like yours. I’m going to watch your every move.”
“That’s fine. But remember, I don’t measure anything. I just add as I go along.” “And how do you know how much water to add?”
“Well, I always add three fingers’ worth.”
“What does that come to?”
“Come over here.” I obeyed.
“See? The rice is rinsed, and you add water until it is covered with three fingers over the top of the rice.” She showed me her technique. “That’s it.”
“It seems easy.”
“Yes, it is. Now we add a little salt...” She filled the palm of her hand with an enormous amount of the condiment. “A little olive oil...stir everything... and cook at medium heat.”
“It’s very easy, dear heart.”
“I don’t understand. That’s how I prepare it, although with less salt, but my rice doesn’t taste like yours.”
“Well, I don’t know why not. But leave that alone. Come and sit with me. Tell me what’s going on with you while we wait.”
And talk we did. So many stories I have shared with my grandmother over the years waiting for her white rice to cook. Stories of myself as a college student, a world traveler, a newlywed, a professional, a mother; stories of weddings, divorces, and deaths, of joys and disappointments.
And always my stories captured her complete attention, her pure grandmother’s love, her comments guiding me and teaching me, without my realizing it.
Who knows what we talked about during that first lesson in making her special recipe, but it’s not important.
“Oh, look, the rice is cooked,” she said eventually, energetically getting up and standing at the stove. “Now we just add a bit of lard.”
“This gives it the special taste,” she said as she lowered the largest can of Crisco that I had ever seen. “Yes, a little lard makes it taste good.” And with that, my grandmother took a ladle full of the congealed fat and spread it over the rice.
I felt a chill through my body. So this was the secret ingredient. I had never seen anyone use so much white lard, and at that moment, concerned not with health issues but a svelte figure, I saw the Crisco melt and imagined my hips widen.
“It is ready.” She filled two small bowls. “Now the taste test!”
We stood together next to her kitchen counter; the white rice melted in my mouth. How delicious!
And what a proud smile on my grandmother’s face.
Today, more than thirty years have passed since that first lesson, and I watch her head bent low, straining to better see the pot she has under the spigot in the kitchen sink.
“Remember to rinse it until the water runs very, very clear.”
I nod, stifling the impulse to say that many vitamins have also been washed away. This is my grandmother’s recipe.
“You don’t cook a lot though, do you?” she asks as she places the pot inside the electric rice cooker, an upgrade in her kitchen in the last three decades.
“No, but when I do make it, I want it to taste like yours, and it never does.”
From her lips words do not challenge me like others might: But, college professor that you are, you still haven’t learned this recipe after so many years? She enjoys my company and I hers.
We sit to wait for the rice to cook.
“Tell me what’s new with you, Mima Otra. What’s going on with you these days?” “Oh, granddaughter...” begins a long conversation of a thousand and one worries, a thousand and one joys, a thousand and one memories.
Now it is I who encourage and support, I who celebrate everything she talks about in her life of ninety-three years. I want to fill myself with her.
Soon, I remind her that the timer on the rice cooker has gone off. With difficulty she gets up and I hand her the cane purchased in the last few months.
“My God,” she scolds me with a smile. “I don’t need this to take three steps.”
“With the problem you are having with your ankle, it’s a good idea to get used to using it.”
To please me, she takes the cane. I know it will sit in a corner when I leave.
“And now a little lard...”
I sigh, praying that I have inherited my grandmother’s good cholesterol genes. “This makes it tasty.”
“How delicious, Mima Otra.”
“I still make pretty good rice, don’t you think?” she smiles lovingly.
“The best in the world.”
And between laughter and conversation, in her small kitchen bathed in the light of morning, I ask God to bless me with more opportunities to take a cooking lesson for white rice, another day, another time, with my grandmother.