Arroz Dulce and My Abuelita
In Remembrance on the Day of the Dead
by Elisa Lucero

November 4 - November 10, 1999

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Fall has arrived, and as the season changes around me I witness it with of all six of my senses. I smell the chile roasting. I see the leaves changing color and falling from trees. I feel the crisp cool air. I hear the wings of sandhill cranes flapping overhead as they migrate north, and my palette experiences the abundance of the harvest. This season awakens the senses, and it also stirs my emotions.

Fall, more than the other seasons, has an ironic twist. It is the time of harvest and bounty, yet also the beginning of death, because as we harvest our crops, we also see an end to them. Leaves fall from the trees in a final blaze of spectacular glory, and the sun abandons us little by little, signaling the change. So it is appropriate that at this time of year we have traditions acknowledging the "other side," the world beyond. Most of us celebrate Halloween, and some of us Dïa de los Muertos, the holiday that, in Mexican culture, involves taking the time to recognize, remember and honor our loved ones who have passed on.

My abuelita, or grandmother, was one of the most significant figures in my life. She didn't have much in the way of material things and since I am one of more than 250 grandchildren, I didn't expect to end up with anything of hers when she passed on. I don't know how it happened, but I ended up with one of the most precious gifts of all: a simple, medium-sized cooking pot. It is the kind you would find in any Mexican kitchen, a spun aluminum pot, smooth and shiny silver on the inside and around the rim, with a coarse, bumpy-textured exterior, which is smooth around the bottom.

I think of her every time I use the pot. I see her taking food to a sick vecino. I see her round little four-foot seven-inch body in the kitchen washing gigantic pots after making tamales. I see her watching "Perry Mason" on TV. I see her eating a sopa of warm, sweetened milk and tortillas.

I wish I could be one-tenth the cook she was. Everything she made was exquisite, whether it was an egg and chorizo burrito, mole, tamales or chilaquiles. She had many specialties, but what I remember most are the simple foods: beans, rice, chile and tortillas. I use her pot to make many things, but there are certain foods that fit it to perfection.

I remember eating arroz dulce from that very pot. What a treat it was when she made sweet rice! Nothing stirs the memory as much as the sense of smell, and when I make arroz dulce, the memory of my abuelita surrounds and embraces me. I feel her spirit when I cook traditional foods in her little pot. Sometimes, in the right light, out of the corner of my eye, I can almost catch a glimpse of her standing in the kitchen by the stove.

Elisa Lucero comes from a family of great cooks and is known as a screamin' cook herself.

Abuelita's Arroz Dulce

  • 4 cups cooked white rice
  • water to cover
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 of one 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large pot, cover rice with water to 1/2 inch over the surface of the rice. Add cinnamon sticks. Simmer and reduce until the cinnamon sticks unravel. Add milk, sugar and vanilla. Simmer 10-15 minutes. Add raisins if desired.

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