Bread may be the staff of life, but in my family food was surely the stuff of life. When you walked into my parents home, if you were friend or family (in my parents world, there were family, friends and strangers, if they knew you for 10 minutes and liked you, you were immediately friend); so, if you were family or friend you went to the kitchen where the entire contents of the refrigerator appeared on the table. We all sat and ate and talked. But there was no talking before there was eating. No one ever left my parent’s home hungry! So, I fell in love with the story of ropa vieja the second I heard it.
If you know any Spanish at all, you know that ropa vieja means old clothes. So, what does that have to do with food? Just this: old clothes plus love (lots of love) equals food.
In the Canary Islands, Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico the story is told of a man whose family was coming to visit him. He loved his family deeply and wanted to prepare a grand feast to welcome them to his home. But he was a poor man and could not afford to buy food for them. But he deeply wanted to show them his love and to feed them. So, he went to his closet, gathered some of his favorite old clothes (ropa vieja) and imbued those clothes with his love. He then put the clothes in his stew pot and cooked them with the herbs and some vegetables from his garden. By the time his family arrived, the clothes turned into a wonderful beef stew!
Alchemy at its best — the nurturing transformative power of love.
And today, Ropa Vieja is a well loved family meal in the Canary Islands, Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico. The dish might (or might not) have chickpeas or potatoes; sometimes it is just the shredded meat (beef, chicken and/or pork) in sauce. It is often made with mint, garlic, tomatoes, onions and green peppers. It is often served with beans and rice and sweet plantains. For families today, ropa vieja is much like old clothes: warm, comforting and familiar.
Love, let us bask in it. May it flow through all of our lives in abundance. May it nurture us body and mind, heart and soul, even as it knits us ever more closely in the hearts and arms of family and friends.