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Sunday, February 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Tasting Traditions: From the stove, heritage is handed down

On a raw, rainy evening, Naomi Andrade Smith gets home from work and, like so many of us on runaway weeknights, realizes she needs a few more ingredients to cook dinner. So she heads to the market.

Into her shopping cart she hefts four yellow onions. A pungent bunch of cilantro. An alligator-skinned avocado. A handful of Roma tomatoes for $2.49. At home, she already has a carton of chicken broth, bundles of dried egg noodles, papery cloves of garlic. In her head, a family recipe for fideo, a golden comfort soup that's the culinary equivalent of an afternoon nap.

This is where the spatula divides Smith from most of the rest of us. Not because Smith is extraordinarily talented at preparing both classic and improvised dishes ("the Duke Ellington of Cooking," her husband calls her). Nor because she's a professional caterer whose menus include burritos tangy with collard greens; black-bean tamales infused with ground avocado leaves; grilled tofu marinated in a paste of five chilies: fresh anchos, smoky chipotles, chocolate-y pasillas, imported guajillos and perfectly round cascabels that rattle when you shake the dried seeds.

What sets Smith apart is her understanding of food and self as history.

"It's like a funnel," she says. "Everybody's got all these people and world events and cultures that make them who they are. Even in the Middle Ages, people were moving, migrating, mixing, creating new traditions. If you understand geography and history and language and culture, it all comes out in the food."

Take the fideo. After unloading groceries in the bright kitchen she designed (wood Ikea cabinets, poured-concrete counters, homey open shelving reminiscent of Mexico), Smith smashes garlic with the broad side of her knife, slices the onion into scimitar shapes and fires up her stainless-steel gas range. She scatters the smashed garlic and onion slivers onto the shimmering hot oil, then crumbles dried angel-hair pasta into the pan, muscling and breaking the starchy bits with a plastic spoon until they glisten and some of the noodle threads darken like shreds of toasted coconut. She adds diced tomatoes, chicken broth, an arc of salt, lets it boil and then simmer. After the soup is ladled into bowls, she tops each portion with a fat half-moon of avocado and sprinkling of cilantro. The high, sweet scent of tomato and deep aroma of garlic ooze through the air.

"I was lucky. I grew up with these incredible smells," Smith says. "We were very poor after my father died. My mother was a widow with two girls, but we never went hungry because she knew how to cook. She made tortillas and beans and rice, picked wild purslane from the fields, cut down nopales so we could eat scrambled eggs with cactus. But more than just feeding us, she was giving us all those people, all that history."

On Friday afternoons when Smith was growing up, her mother would simmer fideo and beans and rice on a little white stove while bathing her daughter. Then she'd give Smith a bowl of the steaming noodle soup and a plate of beans and rice with a banana sliced into it. The little girl would eat, then nap.

"It's just the most wonderful memory," Smith says. "It wasn't until I was an adult I realized the historical implications of all the things that went into the dish. It's got the world in it."

Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. The technique of stir-frying noodles to brown them, like a pilaf, is Arabic; Arabs were in Spain for 800 years. Cilantro sprouted in the Middle East and drifted to China and Mexico. Chicken broth? Chickens originated in Southeast Asia! Smith's sea salt is Mediterranean, the tomatoes and onions are fruits of the New World.

Foods cross centuries and continents and wind up simmering in one pot on a stove. What we eat tantalizes our eyes, wafts past our noses, dissolves on our tongues, digests in our memories.

"What fascinates me is how these things traveled: China, the Middle East, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Africa and then I grew up in Los Angeles," Smith says. "So here's this little black girl eating food cooked by her Mexican mother that was brought to Spain by the Arabs."

•   •   •

PERHAPS HISTORY would be as popular as fusion cooking if people realized it's not just in documents but in their tastebuds, in the way fresh tortilla dough is rolled so it drapes around the hand like a sleepy child, in family stories about eggs and avocados.

Even now, at 53, Smith can't buy an avocado without recalling her mother's story about climbing avocado trees in the mountains outside Michoacan, pockets loaded with chile powder, limes and salt so she and her brother could hide in high limbs, gorging themselves on the smooth, fleshy fruit seasoned with heat, sour and tang.

As a teenager, to rid herself of chicken-pox scars, Smith's mother collected spit from suckling calves early in the morning, spread it on her face, let it dry taut as a facial, then rinsed it off with ice-cold dew gathered from upturned leaves.

"She made me want to see where it was that she came from," Smith says. "I remember my mother, when I was little, flailing her arms, trying to get my attention, telling me how the Aztecs used mortar made of egg white and chicken feathers to hold the pyramids together. She wanted me to understand that Mexico has a great history. It wasn't just a backward country."

The other part of Smith's culinary lineage — her understanding of collard greens, her tender way with biscuits and other baked goods, her taste for homemade ice cream and lemon meringue pie — can be traced to her father's side.

Her father, James Garfield Smith, grew up in Oklahoma and then moved to Mexico. His mother was part African-American and part Chickasaw Native, one of the five Indian nations driven to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. His father's father had been a slave.

"That grandfather was always mistrustful of this country," Smith says. "He had this irrational feeling that slavery would be reinstated." So Smith's great-grandfather moved to eastern Mexico and bought property in Garrapatas (outside Tampico), which was becoming a popular destination for blacks from America, a place where they were treated well and could farm. In 1918, as World War I wound down and racial tensions in America rose to post-Civil War ugliness, he returned to Oklahoma and convinced his son and 18-year-old grandson (Smith's father) and later the rest of the family to sell the farm and vehicles and join him.

On hot flat land graced by chili bushes, they built a square house surrounded by a screened porch just like their house in Ardmore, Okla. — architecture that happens to remind Smith of pictures she's seen of houses in Africa. The family lived well. They raised fruit and vegetables, cows and horses. Smith's father became a foreman for Shell Oil and was especially valued because he was bilingual and could communicate with both English-speaking bosses and Spanish-speaking workers.

He met Smith's mother while walking by her family's house on the way to work. They married in the early 1940s.

Smith's mother, Eva Maria Andrade Ramos, was born in 1911, a year after the Mexican Revolution began. Her father, Rafael Andrade, was an officer in the army of the Old Guard. According to family lore, Andrade had a good reputation even among enemy rebels because he spared many lives. "If he had orders to execute somebody," Smith says, "if that person had children and a wife or was a mother's only son, he'd give them some money and a horse and tell them to beat it and never come back."

Eventually, Andrade hung up his uniform and became an itinerant butcher, traveling from ranch to ranch in the mountains, slaughtering livestock for pay. One fateful day, he was discovered by rebels, roughed up and taken to their leader's hideout. The leader was Pancho Villa, who had heard of Andrade's leniency toward his men.

Is that you, Rafael? Pancho Villa asked him.

Si, mi general, Smith's grandfather replied. He told the rebel leader that his wife was pregnant and expecting any day.

Pancho Villa sent Andrade home, but not before supplying him with a horse, sugar, beans, rice and tablets of chocolate so the butcher's wife would have "plenty of milk for the baby."

That baby was Smith's mother, who repeated the tale over and over the rest of her 81 years.

"Toward the end of her life, I said, 'Are you SURE that really happened?' " Smith says. "Because everyone in Mexico must have some urban folk tale about Pancho Villa, like Jesse James here. But she always insisted she was nourished by the food given to her family by Pancho Villa."

After World War II, there was a sense of renewal in America for black Americans, Smith says, partly because they'd fought in the war on the same side as white Americans and figured they'd be on the same side when they came home.

Smith's father suffered from recurrent malaria that his doctor suggested might get better if he returned to America. So her parents moved to Los Angeles with Smith's older sister, who was then 5, and an older half-sister and half-brother. When the bus stopped for lunch on the American side of the border, Smith's father wasn't allowed to enter the restaurant through the front door because he was black.

"Isn't that weird?" Smith says. "All of a sudden, a second-class citizen."

The family moved into a farm that had been vacated by a Japanese-American family interned during the war. Smith, who was born a few years later, recalls countless stories about the coop where her mother raised chickens and the Japanese-American farmer who gave them food after her father died when she was 8. More than four decades later, Smith still cries remembering her childhood, but not for the reason you'd expect.

"People don't think they're affected by history, but we are, every day. A simple thing like where they lived when they first came to this country. Some Japanese person had had their property confiscated and they were leasing it out. And whatever happened to that person, y'know?"

As a child, Smith developed an affinity for things Japanese, listening to Enka music on a Japanese radio station that played the old pop tunes.

A small cocoa-skinned girl, tummy filled with Mexican-Arabic soup, coming of age with Japanese retro music.

"People aren't what they always appear to be," Smith says. "Most people treated me as a little black girl, but I think I learned how to rise above that, still be my own person, always feel like myself. The great thing about this country is you can do that. If my family stayed in Mexico, it would have been more difficult because the social structures are more stratified and opportunities are not there. You're born into a situation and you kinda have to stay there."

As a young woman, Smith left Los Angeles to visit a friend in Bellingham and never went back. She attended Fairhaven College then left school to work for the City of Bellingham, taking minutes at City Council meetings. She'd get home from late-night meetings and relax by cooking herself something wonderful to eat. She decided to work in restaurants.

At the same time, she nurtured her love of music, this time black gospel. She volunteered to deejay a three-hour, black-gospel-music program on the college radio station at Western Washington University. There, she met her husband, Ken Steiner, a history buff who specialized in Duke Ellington, had a jazz program in Washington, D.C., and was visiting Bellingham for a community radio conference.

"The rest is history," Smith says. Steiner, now a mortgage banker, is still into jazz and writes liner notes about Duke Ellington. Their daughter, a talented harpist who attends Garfield High, has Chickasaw, Oklahoma, Africa, Mexico and Spain in her palate as well as her father's German and French roots.

"I've told her she's never, never going to be like anyone. She's gonna have to approach the world from who she is, not what she is."

•   •   •

WHEN SMITH'S mother passed away 10 years ago, she left a little money for her daughter, which Smith used to buy a piano and a Viking gas range.

"That December, I dunno, I had this thing come over me. I had to make tamales. I had to re-create my mother's Christmas dinner. I had never done it before, hadn't bothered."

Smith made so many trips to Pike Place Market's Mexican Grocery to search for ingredients, the shopkeeper commented, Wow, must be a really special Christmas dinner. Smith burst into tears — "my mother died in June!" — and sobbed on the woman's shoulder. "So here I am, boo-hooing, and I realized I was driven to do it because, I guess, I was becoming my mother."

Smith turned her obsession with cooking her mother's foods into a home-based catering business named Villa Victoria, after the village where her mother went to school until fourth grade. Now Villa Victoria, which also has take-out, is in a cheery Madrona storefront with a polenta-yellow and chile-red canopy. The glass case is filled with trays of tamales steamed in banana leaves, pots of caramelized flan, platters of green beans and peppers.

One of the last recipes Smith's mother taught her was sopa de albóndigas, a soup of rice meatballs spiced with hints of cumin and fresh mint (very Arabic) stewed in a mole verde sauce of tomatillos and chilies (very New World).

"I wanted to make my mother something delicious to eat. She was too old to get up and do anything, but she sat there and walked me through it and seemed to enjoy me saying: How do you do this? And how much of that?"

Smith's mother's version of albóndigas is based around a sofrito, a sauce of sautéed garlic, onion and tomatoes cooked down with bell pepper. First, you cook the meatballs in furiously boiling water until the rice swells. Then, you add the fragrant sofrito so the meatballs bathe in rich stock.

Each region of Mexico has its own way of making sopa de albóndigas. Some use guajillo chilies to make a red sauce, others add ground romaine lettuce to make the mole verde greener. Smith's dream is to visit Mexico often to learn more about its people and food, and to eventually write a culinary history of Afro-Mexicans. That's still to come.

On the way, she's feeding her daughter the taste and smells of recipes passed from generation to generation around the world.

"I'm not teaching her how to cook," Smith says. "That will come some day when she's ready. Right now, I'm teaching her how to eat well."

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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