Mi casa es tu casa, the famous phrase meaning literally “my home is your home” thrived in each house I entered during my upbringing in Venezuela. Family and neighbors alike extended their homes to me. The comfy sofas served to jump on, the plentiful fridges served to peruse in, and the abundant CDs served to liven the night. These things were always extended to me with an overriding sense of welcome and invitation. Each visit was sealed with a home cooked meal served to stuff and satisfy.
My favorite houses to visit were those where cachapas (pronounced ka-CHA-pas) were served. Cachapas are a traditional Venezuelan food made from grinding fresh corn to a thick batter with sugar and water, cooked like a pancake on a frying pan. Once cooked, a thick piece Mozzarella-like cheese is placed on top, the “pancake” is then folded and topped with butter which melts into the cachapa.
The tables were regularly filled past capacity, as it was when 12 of us sat in a table for 10. I asked for the cachapas knowing that my day was about to be made. Happiness inevitability would emerge in me while taking in the golden-brown delicacies. As the feast absorbed me, I never observed the art of preparing them. An art that my grandmother practiced flawlessly.
Taking this further, I remember vividly that my grandmother, the best chef in my world, would tell me that her biggest joy would be watching me and my brother eat. Her notion and her wide endearing smile made my cheeks flush. I knew there was something special about her, something she imbued through her life acts. Her amazingly prepared dishes, her beautifully articulated song and her profoundly expressed love were linked in inexplicable ways. After some years, I gained some insight into this on a trip to Brazil.
My Father orchestrated this trip to Brazil for just the boys (My brother, my dad and me). As we began the trip we had no idea about the rich memories that would soon be impressed in our minds. Driving in a car, just the three of us, we came across a tiny town on the far outskirts of Venezuela, nearing the border of Brazil. I do not remember the name of the town, but I do remember the road we traveled on. It was their main “road”, a dirt road that winded through the small town, a few feet from the houses. There were seldom places to stop, and my starving stomach, unfortunately, did not make restaurants materialize. Unlike the main roads of metropolitan Caracas, there are no “exits” marking places to eat, or no street signs denoting where to turn. But like in Caracas, there was a tangible sense of brotherhood and community.
I saw a black-markered sign that said “Se vende cachapas” (cachapas for sale). I exploded with enthusiasm as I told my dad “LOOK DAD! CACHAPAS!” My dad turned his head to the small blue-painted house I had my eyes on and pulled over to the side of the road. My brother’s groan and mumbling could not tamper with my enthusiasm. It wasn’t my fault that he was the only Venezuelan in the entire country who didn’t like cachapas. Besides, there really weren’t other places to eat.
We walked in to an empty room with a white plastic table in the middle and my dad said “¿Aló … Estan abiertos?” (Hello… is anyone here?) Before I got a chance to be disappointed, a beautiful woman with the kindness of an angel walked in and invited us to sit down. She extended her heart and her home to us, with a simple gesture she sat us down at her dinner table.
My dad asked for a menu and the woman recited the options. She had, plain cachapas, ham cachapas and traditional cheese cachapas. What a place! I couldn’t have asked for anything more fitting. We ordered 4 full-sized cachapas; a ham for my brother, a cheese for my dad and one of each a cheese and a ham for me.
Whoever coined “labor of love” must have witnessed an angel like her pamper us in a similar fashion. She lightly informed us in Spanish “give me a couple of minutes, I am going to go grind the corn”. The ears of corn were very nearby and she conversed with us as she opened them up and cut off the kernels with her kitchen knife. She gathered the kernels together into her grinding machine and manually wound the handle to make the corn paste for the cachapas.
She took all of her ingredients and excused herself to the kitchen. I whispered to my dad that I really didn’t know how cachapas were made! He enjoyed this moment, I could tell in his laughter. My brother was similarly impressed with the machine and the process.
The cachapas’s smell hit me before they came out. The freshly-cut and cooked corn’s aroma filled the room, and the glorious cachapas came out in paper plates that could hardly contain them. The cheese oozed on the edges and the butter rested on the top, melting and sliding steadily. We feasted on these cachapas like never before. There was not a restaurant in the world that had such quality food. Even my brother admitted that they surpassed his every expectation.
I could feel that our angel was flattered by our enormous gratitude for our evening together. I know that she welcomes “strangers” like us to her home regularly. They are not strangers though, they are her brothers and her sisters, fellow Venezuelans coming into one of their many homes across the country, Su casa es mi casa, her home is my home. There was no denying that fact, it could be felt with every action.
As we rolled down the dirt road of the small town, the darkness now above, I asked my dad. “How do you think she makes such good cachapas?” He asserted that homemade cachapas always taste better because they are made with love. Still skeptical at the time, I asked him “Do you really think so, Dad?” my brother barged in “Cmon’ guys, you can’t taste love, it’s probably the corn, it’s organic or something”.