My Abuela's Long Lunches Taught Me How to Build a Business

Photo credit:  Illustrations by Niege Borges
Photo credit: Illustrations by Niege Borges

In Mexico, Monday is for long family lunches. It is generally understood that you might miss a few sessions here and there: I went last week and I’ve got work to do, so I’m going to sit this one out. But barring the most pressing of responsibilities or greatest of calamities, no one ever missed out on my grandmother Bertha’s gatherings. (I was named after her.) No one bothered to even ask what was on the menu or who would be there before confirming their attendance. She could have served the same exact dish every single time, year after year, and she’d still have filled every seat.

Every meal at my abuela’s home began with a sip of tequila. When I was a little girl, I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to getting older so I could finally take part in the tradition. It's where my love of tequila began.

Bertha Jenkin Villela was many wonderful things. I’m beginning this recollection by explaining her gifts as a chef. Several mornings a week, she’d put on her best dress and head to the Mercado de San Juan. I relished the opportunity to join her on these outings. The market, like many in the capital, was a city unto itself, an overwhelming warren of colors, sounds, people, and scents. She was never fazed by any of it. My abuela knew it like the back of her hand; she knew the best purveyors, and they knew and appreciated her.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

With what she procured she was always able to come up with a different meal. Bertha drew inspiration from fondas, taquerias, fancy restaurants—all sorts of places, all quintessentially Mexican. Her skills made every lunch an event. My siblings and I would spend most of the week daydreaming about what was in store for the next feast. In the winter, we looked forward to all the magic she would conjure with Chico Zapote, one of our favorite fruits. Always, we welcomed the possibility that her famous mole would make an appearance. Sourcing and drying the chiles herself, honing the recipe with every attempt, she made it her own.

My mom has thankfully been able to keep that mole alive, likely because my grandmother, if my experience with her is any indication, excelled at passing on her love of Mexico to those in her orbit; a passion that extended from cuisine to textiles and geography. It certainly helped that Bertha was an elegant, modern, knowledgeable woman—and one who never hesitated to say the thing that needed to be said, even if no one wanted to hear it. As her grandchild, you came to learn that if you wanted to truly hang with her, you had better do your homework. And I don’t mean school assignments, although those were important to her, too. Bertha would read the newspaper from front to back every morning and expect you to pretty much do the same. She made sure to limit small talk at the table and insisted on lively conversation and debate. Until the day she died a decade ago, she remained the best crossword-puzzle player in the family.

Cards, too, now that I think of it.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Yet she was far from intimidating. Visiting her house in Colonia del Valle and hearing the birds upon arrival, I knew that this was my home, as well. We could speak about anything. Love, my career, my bad ideas and good ideas. These discussions would also take place at her house in the countryside of Cuernavaca, the city of eternal spring: another ritual her six grandchildren remember very fondly. The same goes for our yearly trips to Cancun, before that city changed.

There was, in retrospect, a great deal of courage to Bertha’s curiosity. To her ability to be a grandmother in the fullest sense of the word without stifling her own vitality. I can’t help but think that she is the reason Casa Dragones has explored so much in just over a decade since we began our journey. More than that, though, this font of wisdom, meticulousness, generosity, and composure gave me the guts to go out into the world, live, and build something.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story was created as part of From Our Abuelas in partnership with Lexus. From Our Abuelas is a series running across Hearst Magazines to honor and preserve generations of wisdom within Latinx and Hispanic communities. Go to oprahdaily.com/fromourabuelas for the complete portfolio.

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