Friday, May 6, 2016

In which I learn that cooking equals love // Part 2

I'm posting the second part of my column on cooking here on my personal blog this week. I need a good reason to get you here anyway! Find all my columns on The Holmes County Bargain Hunter. 

In which I learn that cooking equals love: Part 2
By: Melissa Herrera

I sat at the table in my first kitchen looking out over the vast expanse of valley outside my window. I’ll admit to not making coffee before I got married, as I didn’t learn to love it while living at home. But I could smell it, so I figured I was doing something right. I was twenty-one, and had years of Holmes County cooking under my belt, with a husband - who while loving my cooking - sometimes longed for the tastes he’d grown up with. When we left Mexico for home months before, got married, and moved into our own home – I was unwavering in the task set before me. I would learn to cook proper Mexican food even if it killed me.

In between tuna casseroles and chicken and rice meals, I experimented. I started off with the basics, but even that was hard as ingredients for authentic meals were difficult to procure back in 1990. Tortillas had grown in popularity and were readily available, but anything else was a search in vain. Most of what I made had a Tex-Mex bent to it, as that style was – and still is – very popular here. Having lived in San Antonio, Texas where I met George, I was introduced to those excellent and dreamy cooking styles. There ain’t nothing a big, cheesy enchilada with gravy won’t cure.

So I persisted, having set aside the disaster that was my chicken soup and his family. I sliced potatoes, carrots, and onions and boiled them in a soup – adding raw pieces of chicken to the pot. Salt, pepper, and thirty minutes from end cooking time I added a handful of rice. When all was cooked, I sliced up jalapenos, cilantro, and several limes to which I garnished the hot steaming bowl of soup. Setting it in front of George, he smiled and dug in. I knew I was on the right track. When he moved to this area he fell in love with the cream sticks and pan-fried chicken, so there was no love lost for our food. But when he took a bite and was transported to his mom’s table, I knew then that my kitchen would forever be a bilingual one. Thin, pounded round steaks fried with onions and smothered in a spicy tomato-based sauce became another meal I perfected. And rice, let me tell you about the rice in Mexico. There is no small secret to it except that it’s perfection. Huge vats are made at parties and family meals – every single grain cooked to non-mushy perfection. I could hear his mom’s voice in my ear as I prepared it, and my family suffered through many pots of soft rice, hard rice, and almost-right rice. Those long-grain bits of tiny whiteness were a burr under my skin and I had to get it right. I will tell you that my children, now, complain of the rice anywhere they eat it. “Mom, there is no good rice anywhere. Will you send me some?” I am still highly critical of my rice, but I’m the only one. It is gobbled down when I set a steaming pot next to a plate of bubbling enchiladas.

Like white sauce, I consider my success at Mexican rice the penultimate achievement. It’s a rite of passage that must be accomplished before you can move on. I’ve now moved on to tamales, moist and flavorful, tucked inside corn husks, as well as learning to make homemade sopes (thicker tortilla-like discs) that hold beans, cheese, and salsa. Special shout out to Tyler, my eldest daughter’s boyfriend, for buying us a tortilla maker for Christmas – he loves to sit at my table. My kitchen is now stocked with clear containers holding dried guajillo, ancho, and chile de arbol peppers – to which mouth-watering chile salsas (no tomatoes) are created and consumed. I have masa flour on hand and can whip up homemade tortillas on my comal, and cans of chipotle peppers to which I blend with ingredients to make Tinga – a singularly fantastic quick meal of shredded chicken in sauce piled on tostadas. Giant bowls of Posole, a spicy hominy and pork soup - which shredded lettuce, radishes, onions, and oregano are piled on top of – has been perfected and is eaten during the holidays. My tastes tingle when I think of the robust flavors of Mexico and the years it’s taken me to get it right.

If I cooked a meal for them in Mexico – now – how would they react? I still get a flutter in my stomach at that very thought. Do we ever reach the end of learning? If his mom, now in her seventies, could visit us I would make her a well-crafted meal that I believe would make her smile. She worried that this pale girl from America would keep her son fed, and to this I chuckle and think of tonight’s supper. Maybe I’ll make a delicious Cochinita Pibil, a roast shredded pork in a spicy sweet sauce, and raise a glass to cultures that teach us new ways.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Missy's Life inside the Fence

I write what I feel and lately I've been feeling a lot. A little bit like life inside our fence is a bit narrow and tight. Read on from my column on The Holmes County Bargain Hunter

Missy's Life inside the Fence

We built a fence around our yard when we bought our house back in ‘96. Our kids were tiny, and my husband had grown up knowing many fences that surrounded baked-tile courtyards, with stucco buildings. They were warm, happy places you could sit and have coffee in the morning or find shade in the late afternoon as the hot sun slipped away from the day. It wasn’t a way of keeping people out; it was part of their culture, a way of affording privacy in tightly packed streets full of people. I had never had a fence, growing up in the center of Berlin, and was used to running barefoot through the neighbor’s yards. It didn’t matter where you ran; you were always welcome, allowed to roam at will through the neighborhood. There was a wild freedom to it, knowing your light footsteps through your dad’s straight mowing lines and onto the next lawn’s curvy ones wouldn’t get you yelled at. 

From the road, you might not know that our backyard is a nice size. It used to be hemmed in by a grove of pine trees in the back that are now lost to chain saws and pictures. But when we built the fence, it closed the backyard in on all sides except for the back stretch where the pines began. Our kids would cross into the pines and build forts in there, dragging broken branches and leftover trellis pieces to create mansions. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t our land because they were welcome there, unnoticed really, but not causing anyone harm. 

I loved the feeling that the fence created. I could weed in my flower beds when I wanted to, or lay out in the sun on our concrete patio without concern for prying eyes. The kids frolicked in their plastic swimming pools, making a mess of the backyard that most would cringe at. I relished it though, knowing that it was our space in which to create havoc and memories. Childhood is so fleeting and full of emotions that leaving a mess is sometimes easier than constantly trying to clean it up. It’s a futile effort that’s best left for the days when you find yourself, startlingly, in a home that’s empty yet neat as a pin. It’s those times when you long for a bit of mayhem. Tidy, stark rooms — just like safely ensconced empty backyard spaces — aren’t the same when there’s no one there to inhabit them. 

The fence, bit by bit, started to deteriorate. It wasn’t an expensive one, and aside from painting it occasionally, we didn’t do much upkeep on it. The kids grew, not needing to be fenced in anymore, the pine grove was cut down, the swing set sold, and one day I found myself staring forlornly at warped boards that needed repair and replacement. It was in disarray, and I became embarrassed by it. Every year, as the seasons turned the corner and became spring, then summer, I hesitated to look at it because of how ugly it had become. It became a barrier to what was outside of it. The inevitable happened, and as we were re-siding the house, we tore the worst of the old fence down – opening it up to see our neighbors yard for the first time in nearly 20 years. 

I sat awhile, pensive and thoughtful, thinking how closed off we had been. We erected the fence to protect our kids from running onto driveways, or to stay safely away from the several ponds that were/are still behind the house. We did it to stop people from coming into the yard, tucking ourselves — and only us — into its safe confines. But life isn’t always safe. Maybe we’ll tear the whole thing down and never replace it. I want to see what’s on the other side — as well as welcome people into my backyard. That’s what neighbors should do.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

On elections, twitter, and covering our heads

As I contemplated my third cup of coffee this morning, I was also thinking on other things. There's the usual world peace, homelessness, and mom getting her wig today for her upcoming chemo treatments. Lots of things flitting through my mind, per the usual Saturday morning. I sipped leisurely.

There's also things that don't matter as well. Some of those things include whether my toilet has been cleaned, my ignoring the alarmingly large amount of sticks brought down in the front yard over winter, and the size of Donald Trump's privates. For that last thing, I drained my coffee cup and set it down gingerly.

Clearly, the angry people of America will feel better knowing he has the size to handle anything the presidency has to offer. 

Friends, this election has drained me and it's only the first of March. I blame myself for watching all the debates and getting sucked in like a whirling dervish. I'm the first to admit that I live tweet all the action. Here are some of my favorites:

@pourmecoffee: "Is anyone at the Lincoln Memorial right now? Is Abe crying?"

@benhowardOPT: "So there's a GOP Debate, the Dunk contest, and Kanye is tweeting about the Apostle Paul. Happy Valentine's Day! Burn it all down!"

@zhoag: "Tonight’s debate is on Bravo right?"

@umairh: "Ted Cruz has Chris Christie hostage face right now, check it."

I could go on and on. Twitter is the place to be for all live events, I.E. The Oscars, The Grammy's, GOP debates, and Democratic debates, and Brown's games. #BrownsTwitter is an incredibly sad and funny place to browse. There's a lot of talented people tweeting out there in the ether, and I like to add my two cents as well. There's also a bunch of tweeters who don't have good grammar. But that being said, it's where you can plaintively yell your guts out without the repercussions of a Facebook post - because we all know where those lead.

I just have one question, as I sit down after having made another pot of coffee. What are Trump supporters so angry about? Every four years I carefully consider a presidential candidate based on a myriad of things. I've never become angry, (except at ill-crafted Facebook posts) and use my right to vote on all issues. I decide who I like, not based on party lines, and never stoop to telling my small audience of followers that they'll be going to hell shortly based on their voting choice. 

Could it be they're angry at the changing face of the American landscape? The diversity that is slowing changing the "we've always done it this way" crowd? Do they feel out of control and need someone blustery and "big"  to reprimand and maintain order? I have always said that no matter who is in the White House that my life doesn't really change. I get up, get dressed, and go about my day. 

It's your vote and your choice. But don't vote for Donald just to make "America Great Again" because she never STOPPED being great. We live in a country with paved roads, full grocery stores, and fields of grain to be harvested. We need to reach out to those who have less and pull them up, not tear them them down. We need to embrace diversity, not run in fear from it. We can't cover our eyes and say, "Change is bad. Let's seal ourselves inside a wall." And if you vote for Trump on primary day, then election day? 

The fallout won't just be immense, it'll be "yuge." 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

For the moms: Say your name. Now repeat it.

Sappy and sentimental - that's me. But I've learned to let go and that's the key. Read my column posted several weeks ago on The Holmes County Bargain Hunter:

Reaching a moment that you strive for is like taking a drink of water when you are parched beyond measure. For me, it was that moment when you see your kids leave the house for college, or for a job that will take them somewhere that you don't see their faces but several times a year. The house settles into its bones, moving and sinking into a comfort that doesn't hold racing up and down the stairs, or the shaking that comes with sibling fights and rivalries. Like the house, solid and cozy, I let myself sink in and accept my creaks and groans — the settling of a body that's housed three children and bore each fight, scar and tear. I envelope the silence around me, gather it into my palm, and move ahead to what my now entails: words written and organized, songs played against a blank canvas of time and the silent slurp of my spoon dipped into a bowl of food I prepared for my taste buds only.
It's surreal and it's right. Our kids are meant to leave, and not readying them and ourselves will leave us with our hands in our laps, fighting back the tears of a life only lived for someone else. 

Peering through the vapors of time, I see myself with three kids under the age of 5 — each one vying for my attention in different ways. Nights of crying that bring milk-stained memories, rife with emotion and a new mother's worries – tiptoeing out of rooms and lying down to sleep dreamlessly.
First words and steps, racing to grow and smile. Mornings filled with chocolate milk and Barbie dolls, or Power Rangers and Legos scattered across the floor. I can recite every Rugrats episode from memory, hearing the lines and giggles as I moved throughout my day. Days spent with Rollerblades strapped tight around ankles, zooming through the rooms of our tiny house and falling repeatedly, or the whoosh of the bikes as they flew down our neighbors hill and into our driveway. 

There were seconds of time that I longed for the solitude of one moment, just one bathroom break without the banging of the door and the screaming of, “Mom! Mommy! Mom!” piercing my eardrums. There was no Instagram or Facebook to document it, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Etched inside me are the warm dusky smells of tiny necks, sleepy and holding me tightly as they fought the sandman at every turn. The endless drinks of water that were needed before bedtime, and the stacks of books beside their beds that needed read over and over.
And when morning arrived once again, I would fry dippy eggs and cut the warm buttered toasted into tiny squares, just right for tiny hands to sop up the runny goodness. 

I see you, young moms, struggling to get to the grocery store and make it through without a meltdown. I see the endless tiny meals and snacks you prepare, trying to get them to eat something — anything.
I see you wishing for a quiet moment that enables you to remember who you are, what you want. 

I see you, moms of teens, who look at the growing faces of their offspring and wonder what planet they arrived from. Who took over this child who once needed to sit in my lap every day? Where is the child who cried when I left to get groceries, tiny faces pressed up against the window as I backed away, and me — grabbing a moment to settle myself in the rows of a superstore for one blessed moment. First dates, proms, games that involve some sort of ball, graduation, and your heart — beating bloody drops outside your body — as they drive away to their futures. 

If I can give you a word of unsolicited advice, it would be this: Make more chocolate milk, eat more cookies fresh from the oven, let them smear the chocolate on their faces and kiss them while doing it. Stop striving for perfection — it doesn't exist.
Give yourself the gift of a day to go shopping by yourself — you need it to remind yourself who you are. Say your name and don't forget the sound of it. Don't rush home because you feel guilty for leaving them. That guilt is false. Let them cry themselves back to sleep. When they come home late for curfew listen to their reason instead of screaming. Never say my child would never do that, because half the time they did. Be their advocate because no one else will. 

I've earned the solitude I find in my home. I smile, though, when I scroll through the pictures on Facebook and see the babies, toddlers, and the moms who find it hard to laugh some days. I love the pictures of elementary kids, the tweens and the teens whose parents are grasping on just a bit harder than they should. Ready yourself, because your arms will soon be empty. It's startling and it takes your breath away, but it is exhilarating. Repeat your name often. Write down your dreams. Ready your kids to fly, because they do. Abandon yourself to motherhood, but leave a lifeline — one day you'll need it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Inching this holiday season forward

Newest column freshly posted on The Holmes County Bargain Hunter:

I just rolled off the weekend – Thanksgiving weekend – and I do mean roll. 

The table at our family gathering was heavy-laden and food was partaken of at a rapid clip. 

The dressing, glorious in its vintage enamelware pan, is the heaviest of all. In all its fried glory, it is the most anticipated part of the meal – at least for me. I don’t make dressing on a regular basis — who does? If you do, I’m sorry, but there are certain foods I savor on the holiday – unless I’m eating in a local restaurant and get a bug for bready goodness. A dish appears on our table every Thanksgiving called cranberry salad, and lots of noses are turned up. I take a small helping because for one, I like its tart goodness and the way it cleans the palate and enables more food to go down. Bad reason? Nah. Thanksgiving only comes once a cycle. 

With Thanksgiving tucked away, that means one thing – lots of sales! Even though this is true, it also means that my Christmas spirit has arrived. While lots of people get crazy decorating for Christmas on November first, I still find myself in the spooky-fallish-themed-glare of October. It takes me weeks to get on board and realize that Thanksgiving is coming. I will not skip it, jump over it, bypass it, or pretend it’s just a ruse to get to Christmas. I will plant my ceramic turkey on the table and enjoy it until it’s time for him to go. I’m a weird stickler for enjoying each day as it comes, and that means relishing in each holiday – one trick or treat bag or turkey leg at a time. We ventured to a tree farm to pick out a tree the day after Thanksgiving (Go visit Fencerow Productions outside New Bedford), and as we were putting it up — with N’Sync blaring “Merry Christmas Happy Holidays” in the background — I was covertly pitching pumpkins away as the pine was drug out. Bring one in, usher one out. Just as it should be.

My gift lists are not yet made — and nary a longed-for item has been bought — but the coffee is hot as it slides down my throat this morning. I’m not panicked because I decided years ago that I would not let it touch me – that I would not let the madness of the season take over and turn me into something that I’m not. I would much rather shop online for a few things, as well as venturing out into the fray when I decide to and taking advantage of the insanity of markdowns. And oh, are there markdowns. I’ve also been scratching the itch to think outside the gift-giving box and shop at tiny collectives, boutiques, and mom and pop stores. There is a vibrant community outside the glow of the big box stores, and at times we need to detox from their warm lights. While I do and will haunt the big box stores – because who doesn’t need a good pair of jeans marked heftily down – I am making a commitment to finding other things that will tickle the fancy of the gift receiver. 

I stare at my Christmas tree, warm lights tucked inside its Frasier-furred branches, and I ponder. Only half the ornaments are up and it looks a little bare, but I treasure the light that spills from it around the room. There are bags filled with d├ęcor that sit patiently, as well as piles of gold and silver trinkets that await their place on the tree. The manger scene is sitting on the desk with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus haphazardly lying in a pile with sheep and wise men, tangled and expectant. Soon, I’ll arrange them carefully on a surface in my home, thinking of years past when the little hands of my children had this job. I once entered the living room to find the wise men and camels spread out all over the room. When I asked why they weren’t in the manger scene, my son cocked his head and looked at me like I was crazy. “Mom,” he said, “they’re traveling. They haven’t arrived yet because it’s not time.” It made me catch my breath. That particular year, every single day, he inched them closer and closer until they arrived at their destination. That will be me, this month, inching forward day by day. Preparing, nesting and making ready. I wouldn’t want to jump ahead of myself and ruin it all. Instead, I’ll be sipping my coffee and savoring each minute, because each piece I put out has its place – just like each season.

Friday, December 4, 2015

I'm back. Let's catch up.

I'm back writing my column! I've missed it, so swing by The Holmes County Bargain Hunter and have a read. Life is weird, but doesn't that make it interesting? 

Herrera is back and ready to catch up

Friends, I’ve missed you. Life takes a swing and you’re off on another venture, sometimes leaving behind something that was near and dear. This column was near and dear, but I had a few other things to do, so I was gone for a while, stacking up words neatly in piles. I’m bringing them out and dusting them off to let you know what I’ve been up to since we last chatted. 

I’m writing my novel and it’s almost done. 

It was a weight that sat directly on my chest, mostly taunting me through the years to finish. I’m nearly 60,000 words in and can see the finish line — albeit hazy in the distance. The last part of it seems to be moving at a snail’s pace, and that’s not for lack of being a fast typist. I do have typing medals to brag about from Oscar Miller’s class that I wore proudly on my letterman’s jacket but, um, does that date me? Regardless, my classes were in typing, not the newfangled term keyboarding, and I still position my hands over the correct letters before I start. No pecking one finger at a time for me. I value those typing classes every single day when I sit down to write. I’m sure Oscar would be proud of me today, although he might just chuckle and tell me I typed too fast and made too many errors. This is where I like the technology of now — no whiteout to correct mistakes — just backspace and move on. 

In September I traveled solo to Mexico and took part in a writer’s residency I was chosen for. It was a place that sat high in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, and is available for all types of artists to apply their craft. The novel is about my husband’s life, and he is from Oaxaca — can I say match made in heaven? All I needed was a spare room, a desk and a view to sit in front of. I had all that and more as I punched my way through every single day, for three weeks, watching my word count rise and the story evolve. I made several trips to town to do research and visited places that he had been. Emotions and an amazing experience were what I found. The majority of the book was written in that tiny third floor room, and I’m writing as much as I can, now that I’m home, to reach the end. I honestly can’t take in the fact that I’m almost done. It’s been such a far-off thing — an unattainable dream — I short sold myself on. I didn’t believe in ME and my ability to finish. Things happen, friends, when we believe in ourselves. 

Life is a blur of days filled with words and love. My husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary back in May, we sent the younger two kids off to college in the fall, and my house became empty once again. I’m learning to enjoy the silence. Making a pot of coffee and sitting in my chair, while dust motes float through the slices of sun that break through the windows — isn’t this life? Most days I kiss my husband goodbye as he leaves for work, then sit down and begin my freelance work at the kitchen table. Now I can fold in one more thing to that list – this column. Until next week.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Mostly, we ramble along in life doing things the same way because nothing tells us to change. We've always done things a certain way, so we keep on doing them. 

What if something comes along that nudges us and says, "Hey, this is wrong. We need to rethink this. Maybe we need to change how we do it?" There will be stubbornness and whining, because we have to learn a new thing. It's like a child, performing tasks and making mistakes until they learn to do it correctly. They find it annoying, but it's part of life. 

Isn't it the same with us? Everyone is saying we've become too sensitive and touchy - that we call racism and are intolerant of those who "don't really mean anything by it." Either by the words they say, or their actions that speak one way and do another. 


What if we've been doing it wrong all these years? 
What if it's time to change and learn a new way?
The cries ring out, "We used to do it this way! Why does it have to change?"

I'll tell you why. We were wrong.