Ai Meja! Maria De La Luz’ Capirotada : Memories of old and new


Ahhh Capirotada…The smell and taste of it brings back memories of my grandmother Maria De La Luz (Lucy) collecting bread pieces, me wondering why and ends with a full belly and a smile.  As a child I wondered what the heck my grandmother was going to do with all those stale bread pieces saved in a plastic bag.  Finally she fesssed,  “Oh Meija, I’m going to make capirotada, it’ll be good, you just watch!”

My grandmother a few days after marriage in Fort Worth Texas. She had been making Capirotada for her brothers and sisters many years by this time. She probably learned from an aunt as her mother had been passed away many years by this time.

Now Capirotada was a word I could just not get my head around.  Capirotada.  Capiro-WHAT??  I was six years old.  I think I was only being fed two syllable words at school.  Yes Capirotada is a weird word and I have no idea what the origin or etymology of it  is.   That being said, I’ll probably look that up in a minute and add it to this post….  But Capirotada  is a  rich bread pudding derrived of collected and deliciously stale bread.  The bread can be french bread, white bread, wheat or sourdough.  If it’s stale it’s actually better due to the slight sour taste that it imparts in the final dish.  The bread is then soaked in three kinds of milk (for some people it’s preferable to use a mexican condensed milk, and this Mexi-gringa prefers “la Lechera”), and to the uninitiated, a very strange tomato / onion / pilloncillo / clove concoction which is boiled and reduced to a sauce with some tooth to it. 

Originally “Capirotada” was a typical spanish dessert using ingredients placed in layers. Originally there was Olive oil, Cheese and eggs, The second layer added the meats, probably partridge!  (shudder)….The given name comes from “Capirote”  which was a hat that that was worn by Spanish noble women in the early 15th century.  Capirote come from the Latin word “Cappa”  which is cape or cloak.  Today’s Mexican Capirotada is certainly cloaked!  Those bread pieces are hidden and layered with many ingredients!  As the dish was prepared for more of the population and ceased to be exclusive to nobles, meats were left out and sweet overtook savory.  At some point the dish gained more of a religious significance and was prepared during lent so as to provide Christian denizens of the middle ages, sustenance in the way of protein (derived from the cheese and nut ingredients).   As is still common today,  during Lent, meat per se, is not allowed.   The ingredients and recipes for Capirotada have been recorded by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and saved to this day in the archives.

Pre-dating the Spanish appearance, Capirotada’s gastronomic ancestors can be traced back as far as Ancient Rome.  Seen in a dish called  “Sala Cattabia,”  The Romans used a bread for this casserole dish which was baked, covered with a layer of goat cheese, and then layered with chicken, cucumbers,  onions, and pine nuts.  This concoction was cooked with a dressing of raisins,  honey, pepper, and vinegar.  Spainards brought this or a dish like it to  ‘The new Country”  (that would be us  peeps here stateside), who eventually modified it to become the varied Capirotada we know today.  Capirotada is viewed by many Mexican and Mexican-American families as a reminder of the suffering of Christ on Good Friday.  Holding special the symbolism of this ancient dessert, Mexicans believe capirotada’s bread represents the Body of Christ, the syrup, his blood, the cloves, the the nails of the cross.  They believe that the whole cinnamon sticks represent the wood of the cross.  Some say the  melted cheese stands for the Holy Shroud. The truth is that a version of this dish was being served  in Spain at the time of the Conquest.  Here is where you imagine Conquistadores  abducting and  pillaging villagers and then feeding the stragglers dessert nice huh?  While the the conquest was vile and not to be glossed over by history books, the Spanish did bring changes in gastronomy and this one was good.    Mexican Capirotada has evolved to include specific types of Mexican ingredients including a special brown sugar called pilloncillo which is produced and prepared into a large cone and  Queso fresco, a Mexican farmer’s cheese.  The inclusion of  a sweet / savory  tomato ,onion, clove and cinnamon  broth begets a rich and delicious complexity within the pudding.  Some people add  peanuts or pineapple and even add festive cupcake sprinkles on the top of the entire dish.

There are alot of versions of bread pudding possibly all originating during biblical or Roman times, but the one nearest and dearest to my heart is my grandmother’s recipe, and yes it’s a MEXICAN bread pudding.  Although she is half Basque Spanish and half indigenous Mestizo Indian (of the Aztec blood line, a tribe called Tarahumara to be exact ),   The most important thing to me now about Capirotada is it’s power.  My grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease and her memory is fast fading.  When talking about Easter last year, I asked her if she could remember her recipe for Capirotada, I was hoping I could glean a few of her special ingredients, to make sure I was making it right.  I really wanted to make sure and carry on a part of her wonderful food tradition, but I also just wanted to jog her memory.

The Author's son fist bumping with Lucy, his Great-Grandmother

I was desperate to jump start any other memories surrounded by food and family and friends.   Initially I was sad to find that she could not remember ingredients, but she remembered the act of making the capirotada!  In thinking about it, I realized that I could ‘just get a recipe online” (the most authentic I could find of course), and then query her on the particulars of it.  What would she remember? Maybe we could do a process of elimination.  Did she add peanuts? Well that was a yes.  Did she add pineapple? or other fruit?   I had to laugh because mostly she remembered  toasting the bread and layering the pan.  She didn’t remember any pineapple, but she did remember peanuts.  She was insulted when I asked her about sprinkles…so that was a no!  One day she said “Leche” (but I already knew that!)  Still one day she said “sauce” cebolla and tomato…So I selected the recipe with most of the ingredients she had mentioned, and was the oldest syle of preparation, and went to town.     I was so happy to hear some of these things coming back.  She knew that she loved to make Capirotada and and that everyone on the street would stop by to have some and talk.  Her friend Joyce was very clear in her memory, which was very nice to hear, as Joyce was her very best friends and unfortunately passed away in a very sad manner later, but my grandmother’s thoughts of her were happy and included how they used to talk over capirotada and a bit of iced tea.    Funny how older memories can be eased from Alzheimer’s patients via the memories of food.  I finally made my (grandmother’s)  capirotada.  The next day I returned to her “home” with an entire tray of the pudding.  I cut that first wonderful piece as the word got out to caregivers who crowded around.  I served a piece to my grandmother.  Her hand shook, he glasses slipped a little.  She pushed them back up.   She chewed and smiled, she said, “oh Mejia…THAT’S  THE BEST CAPIROTADA that I’ve EVER HAD! ”  Now… my grandmother is not one to dole out compliments easily… or exclusives like that.   She’s usually in her chair complaining and uttering the word “Bah!” when she can’t stand something, or if there’s a situation that she can’t control.  Or in frustration when her  opinion doesn’t get the proper response. So, I was filled with surprise and joy because…well…because she was!

There’s something about that savory bite of cheese hidden within the flavors of cinnamon, cloves and raisins. It’s a natural pairing, even if I did think it was strange as a child. boy how our tastes change as we grow.  This special batch of capirotada  seemed to spark, for my grandmother, a visual, multi-dimensional memory of a happier time. A time when she proudly fed family and friends and would sit down and chat in her kitchen.  A kitchen she misses so dearly!  All she has a is a little room now but it’s necessary for her care.   Funny how food carries such  intense experiential feelings.  Memories through food can be so useful for alzheimer’s patients and for all of us.   Now my grandmother is requesting that I make  her cocido!  and bunelos!   I’m pretty worried about re-creating those recipes,  but I’ll try …. just to help her remember….

"Lucy" about 1946

Maria De La Luz’ Capirotada

1 24-inch loaf of French bread, cubed and toasted (about six cups)
2 cups of brown sugar or 16 oz. of piloncillo
2 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup of shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup of pecans, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup of raisins
½ cup of dried apricots, chopped
1/4 cup of butter, melted
Method:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.Make a syrup by boiling the sugar, water, cinnamon and cloves together for 10 minutes or until it’s slightly thickened and reduced.In a greased large cast-iron skillet or an 8×8 cake pan, place half the bread and pour over it half the melted butter. Toss to coat. Drizzle about ¼ cup of the syrup over the bread and toss to coat. Layer on top of the bread the cheese, pecans, raisins and dried apricots. Place the rest of the bread on top, drizzle over the remaining butter and then pour over the rest of the syrup. Make sure that each piece of bread is properly coated in syrup.Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for fifteen more minutes. I like to eat it warm.

Serves 8.

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Sounds West: Paul Plagens, Patria Jacobs, Greg Franco and more…


PlagensThe best music in Los Angeles right now…

There’s an electric feeling that shivers right up your spine when a singer nails your head and heart at the same time. Whether that song radiates from the artist’s illium, Sacrum or the “I’ve been to the depths of my personal hell, and I’m back to tell you about it!”   You just know when it’s the real deal.   When someone unearths an uncanny knack for finding your bruises and putting a thumb to them, it makes you take notice. Such is the case with John Doe and Exene of “X”, John Prine,  and Alex Chilton, in my humble estimation anyway.  These folks might hail from different times and places within the rock music continuum,  but in my book,they all aged artistically, and experienced new stages of life.  They are still-expanding musical nebulae.  For John Doe,  Moving deep into the California mountains, gave him the ability  to focus on his land, his community and on the tools of songwriting.  The result was the birth of  his  album, “A Year In The Wilderness.”  Far from he and Exene’s 1987 release “See How We are,”  Doe became less plaintive on depicting the visuals for his songs and instead embedded them adeptly into the sounds and song structures that seem to identify ‘The New Americana”  Doe still uses his  lyrics to “tell” the listener what to “see”but  his writing became more complex and compelling for sure.
Not since John Prine have I seen songwriting this affecting and visual. In John Prine we saw a man in “some deep kind of  funk”,  longing or loving,  whether it was for a woman or his own child, Prine’s songs,sometimes sweet, alot of times funny, share two common links with the writers I mentioned earlier,  irony and brazen honesty.  Mr. Prine kept it country and nailed our funny bone just when we needed it most.

Giving me shivers up my spine as a college kid, not only for his looks, but for the mere sound of his voice,  Alex Chilton’s incandescent, “Big Star”  paired deep suffering growls, poppy eclectic grooves with desirous falsettos. Chilton made me melt and best of all I could see a  creative process at work.    It’s that “well thought out” lyrical muscle that was flexed by some and now seems frighteningly flabby in most writers nowadays.  What about that  lyrical twist? Where are the words that make you think?

I decided to wrestle my dial from NPR just for a brief moment this morning as I was feeling a bit  “song-sick.”  I needed  an anthem for the day.  I often seek out something specifically intended to swirl around in my head for the rest of  the day.  All I found was a “sea of nauseatiatingly common method songwriting” or songs wantonly layered with a multitude of trance tracks with  “Akon-like vocal overlays” that simply use alliteration in efforts to qualify as “the new hybrid rap.”

Even though mainstream top 40 charts seem to have lately produced  a world of “word-weary copy-cats”, the musical landscape does reveal shimmers of placer.  At the urging of a friend  I gave a listen to the very English “Duffy” and immediately downloaded her entire album. Her voice was at once very “antique” yet freshly familiar. “A Fine Frenzy” (one Allison Sudol , apparently enamoured with the imagery of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”),  offers a finely tuned sweet and athletic voice.   Her deft lyrics are organic, lively and refreshing and surprising in structure.  Sudol’s Fine Frenzy is guilty of keeping one or two songs in my head for several days now.   If you ever followed Amy Farris  (how we’ll miss that lady…), whether it’s was Dave Alvin’s Guilty Women or a Brian Wilson record, you would again,found that soulful straightforward style, this time with a Viola or a violin.

While bright spots like Duffy, A Fine Frenzy and others are capturing the hearts and minds of listeners nationwide,  “The singer-songwriter genre,” is alive and tangible in our clubs. A trip into Los Angeles reveals the likes of some of the current autuers:  Paul Plagens, Patria Jacobs, Greg Franco of Rough Church and his “big in New Zealand” solo project:  “Greg Franco’s Wandering Bear.” Also sharing a multi-directional inspired genius is Suki Ewers who brings her swirling  personally lyrical songs that take off where Mazzy Star left off.

The great American art of  songwriting didn’t end with Robert Zimmerman, Arlo or Woody, it’s alive and well and it’s here for the listening.

1. Paul Plagens

The”perfect mix” of all the aspects that make a songsmith shine.  Not unlike a contemporary John Prine, Plagens just cannot be missed. I was invited to 2nd St. Jazz for my birthday back in June of this year,  where Patria Jacobs Tex-Pate and former leader of “RubyFish”  consistently hammers  out one after another “Patriaworld”  experiences.  The lean and cool  Plagens played songs such as:  Lovesick Car and others.  That night Paul stood out with his soulful songs and uncommon humor. He’s been a member of the rock / alt band “Greta”, and done tons of studio work for ‘more than famous folks.  In addition to his own projects Plagens “sings honest” affecting well-crafted alliterative stories of real life interspersed  with unexpected hilarity.   He’s a treat to see and experience and in my opinion seems to inhabit that fruitful web of  artists in the vein of Prine, Doe, and Chilton.  Not yet  having garnered the movement that the luxury of time provides, I believe he’s poised to be “that next great singer-songwriter.  Obviously you should not miss Paul Plagens!

2. Patria Jacobs

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“Tex-pate” (L.A. transplant or many years now) and Chanteuse of American indie pop,  Patria’s swooning visceral songs define anyone’s emotional landscape.  Her deft and oceanic songs are not to be missed.  On her new release “Poison of the Sea” Patria’s smoky growl will have you enraptured. From her time as the co-conspirator behind “RubyFish” with Russ Chaput, to the eclectic forary into the pop/electronic visage that is her single “Do the Pink,”  Patria is a purveyor of fine music of Los Angeles often found hammering out another “Patriaworld” where she spotlights great singer-songwriters and multi-member local bands. Always a great host and performer  herself, she is expanding and changing the L.A. music scene.

3. Greg Franco

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The L.A. Weekly called Greg Franco “An Iconic Auteur,” who began his stay on the Los Angeles scene in the very early eighties with the seminal low brow band, The Blashpemous Yellow.   B.Y., sported some type of pounding and often times sweet bleating “grunky” (Grungy-Punk) type of thing… picture the musical love-child resulting from some  operatic tryst between “The Minute and Men” and “Gang of Four” then you might have an idea of the sound.  Crooning about the barrios of Chavez Ravine, and  the dusty in-betweens of San Fernando road, Franco et. al., haunted all the venues that would have them.  Venues such as  The Anti-Club, the Lhasa, The Music Machine, Madame Wong’s, Al’s Bar and many others.   Later the front-man for “Ferdinand”, a  four piece including Laura Smith and David Guerrero of  Third Grade Teacher, shook Silverlake and other venues up and down the coast with crunch alternative rock and roll that you had to eat with a fork.   Franco’s current troupe, Rough Church, is a “states-living but New Zealand famous” quartet. As if Rough Church wasn’t enough, Franco must believe he’s got  more hands than the Hindu god Vishnu herself, as he’s also working on his flagship personal project, “Greg Franco’s wandering bear.”  You can’t keep a good man down.

I can’t wait for these interviews, and videos, which are coming soon.  However, pictures are below.  But come back soon and we’ll finish the gig.

Below are: Patria Jacobs, Paul Plagens and Greg Franco.


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Some celebrities are blessed to have their “looks” (whether natural or manufactured,or a combination of both) for a long time. Some are not. Some hold on to hairstyles that are frighteningly obvious nods to their past glory.  Take Nick Nolte’s blonde slightly wavy early 90’s tresses, that he  had to cooley brush away as he crouched against the fender of a car whilst he slowly grabbing for his gun to take sniperly aim at some nefarious character.  Those tresses are still being rocked!  And now…they’re only food for papparazi. The vermin that creeps along our city streets stalking celebrities just minding their own business (ruthless and innane hairstlyes or not), seems to parallel the massive increase in Celebrity Worship Syndrome.   A man not helping the situation is one Donald Trump!  Maybe his inspiration for the super-wide girth of the comb-over that he mashes down every AM with some type of sheening potion, was the inspired result of his attendance at a “Player” concert back in 1977? (Remember Player’s “Baby Come Back?)….On the original album cover, Check the guy to extreme the left of the lead singer-the bassist Ron Moss.  The Donald must’ve fancied himself as au’ courant as brother Moss. Obviously vulnerable  to the smallest chinook, these folks have got to know how un-daily life-friendly their coiffes actually are, but still they can’t wrangle themselves from the visual ties to their past. Whether it’s the oft heard, “Hey!  it’s trendy again! mantra,…IT’S JUST FOOD FOR THE PAPARAZZI!!   Public complaints from these  waning nebulai about those predatory plebians falls at least on my deaf ears, as these grumps wait with baded breath to get the holy grail of bad hair shots. For example one Mr. Trump, saunters across Las Vegas Boulebard one breezy afternoon (possibly 12 bodyguards in tow),  a soft chinook sweeps across the stinky cigarette and piss soaked Las Vegas Boulevard and  circles up the belly of The Donald, where it devilishly lifts up Mr. Trump’s rug! OOPS!  SNAP!!!  CLICK!!! Literally taking flight (un-Falcon-Heene-like), the “combie” seems to actually wave back at the photog!  Not unlike catching a senegalese tiger in the depths of India in some natural act ‘never before captured on camera,’ the photog is eccstatic! What a snap, what a day!  ‘I don’t have to work for three months!’  I can drive my daughter to Kindercare in the mornings! My wife can dance later at Spearamint Rhino tonight!

..The Donald’s “faux-woven” (new word alert: “Fauxven”) was merely  hanging on by a few fine strands.  More appropriate for a sail than a toupee, Mr. Trump will have gained lift by the time the wind dies down.  Calling for his “boy” to come and re-coiffe his appendage.  The Donald  quickly re-gains swagger and returns on this path to the limo.   Donald, Mr. Nolte, Ms. Lohan and others REALLY ARE good for the economy.  Lessening depression as they wallow in their own, giving people a laugh and helping papparazi and the entire supply chain that goes with those magazines keep their children in Lucky Brand Jeans.  It’s a rough job, but someone’s gotta do it.Picture 23
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