• Frida’s Fiesta

    From The Joys of Cooking: A Love Story
    by Judith Newton

    Watermelon sliceThat evening we dressed for the buffet. I wore a long black skirt, a black shell, and a black silk jacket with a necklace I’d made of coral beads and one large turquoise stone. It was supposed to look like one of Frida Kahlo’s. The invitation had borne a photograph of Frida standing in a doorway surrounded by a border of orange and fuchsia flowers. It had described the graduate group party as a “chance to talk politics and wear all your jewelry at once.” Luisa, one of Gabriela’s graduate students, had asked “what does she mean ‘wear all your jewelry at once’?” Gabriela had answered “she means ‘just do it.’ Express yourself, be who you want.”

    I don’t remember when my channeling of Frida began, but it was well underway before the movie of her life came out in 1992. I was driving home from the university one day when an image came to me: I imagined my blood draining from every vein into the Women’s Studies Program. It was an image that reminded me of a Kahlo painting. But it was not an image of suffering. It was a vision of feeding, of nourishing from deep within my own body.

    I did not identify with Frida because she suffered in an ongoing way. What drew me to her was the exuberance that she brought to living despite the suffering. No matter how tired I was from struggling for the program or how discouraged by the administration’s treacheries, I wanted to feel that my life was joyful, intense, and thoughtfully led. Friends had remarked on how my ex-husband Dick had “ventured into life” or how fully he had “embraced growth and change.” Even at the end, “Dick was not dying. He was living.”

    I had ingested what I could of Dick’s spirit. Now I tried to take on the spirit of Frida too; the care she took in decorating herself every morning, the passion she felt for fiestas and cooking. Frida was an “enthusiast,” according to her stepdaughter. The world itself was enough for rejoicing, and everything about her breathed “a roguish glee.” She was affectionate, wore flowers in her hair, and gathered bouquets. She decorated her tables with care and playfulness, served an abundance of food, was fond of mariachis. She invited her guests to come “with their hair down, ready to sing their hearts out.”

    At some point I began collecting objects that I associated with Frida, as if they were talismans that would rub off on me. I had a refrigerator magnet with one of her self-portraits on it, a print of Frida with her monkeys in my dining room, a flaming heart to hang on the kitchen wall. To me it was no longer the heart of Jesus. It was the heart of Frida, hopefully my heart too. Gabriela gave me a blue retablo with Frida’s picture in it. Berenice brought me a bright red heart with flames of green from Mexico. Frida’s image suddenly appeared on the brochure for the Women’s Studies Graduate Emphasis. I asked Ana, chair of Chicana/o Studies, first, “Do you mind if I use a picture of Frida on our brochure?”

    “Frida belongs to the world,” Ana said.

    On the evening of our graduate group fiesta, my Women’s Studies colleague Diana and her husband Luke were the first to arrive, mole in hand. I loved Diana–blonde, kind, immensely creative. Near her house, in a village-like settlement, she and I took power walks up and down the lanes.

    “You know we could apply for money to open a center for culture, society and politics,” I said to her once when the university was offering grants for new projects.

    “Yes, exactly,” she said, not missing a beat. “Let’s see what could we call it? Something that would make a good acronym. How about CUSP?” We added plan after plan, detail after detail, until I felt as if the top of my head were coming off, as if our ideas would shoot us into the sky like a couple of rockets.

    Gabriela was next, with turquoise earrings, a long black skirt, and a wine velvet top, her black hair hanging to the middle of her back. Always careful to mentor her students, to expose them to the heart of university life, she had brought Luisa, who was in black with heavy, silver earrings. Louisa had worn her jewelry; maybe not all of it. Ning, calm and smiling, arrived in her Hawaiian sandals. Students showed up in threes and fours. The rooms began to fill and a certain hum began to vibrate, drawing us together. Elsa, another of my colleagues, burst in. She’d been driving with Patty who had managed to get lost for some twenty minutes.

    “I need a drink,” she said.

    “Would you like a Margarita?” I asked.

    “Just give me the bottle,” she answered. Later she would perform a slow, spontaneous dance with the shawl she’d been wearing.

    Soon, Anna and I brought out the dinner. Frida’s pork roast with ancho chilies, vinegar, garlic, onion, and oregano was sliced and decorated with parsley. It went in the middle of the table that we had pushed against the dining room wall. Two dishes of Gary Danko’s polenta flanked the meat. Frida’s red, white, and green rices were heaped next to each other on a long platter like a flag. Then came her tacos de crema in green tomatillo sauce; her macaroni and spinach, green and gold; her loaf of corn pudding covered in a pale sauce of chilies and cream; the mole, hot and dark, and, last of all, the chilies en nogada with white sauce, pomegranate seeds, and parsley, carefully laid out on a platter.

    The deserts were set on the side board. We’d made Frida’s cat tongues–lozenge-shaped cookies with butter, egg, flour, and vanilla; her stuffed pineapple with cream, chopped pineapple, cherries in syrup, and pine nuts; and Rosca de Reyes–bread with candied citron, cherries, lemon, and raisins all baked in a wreath. There was Mark’s Miller’s polenta cake, Lee Bailey’s chocolate terrine, a lemon curd tart from Martha Stewart, and a quarter of a watermelon carved with “Viva la Vida.”

    “How generous” someone exclaimed. And as people began to gather at the table, to admire the food, fill their plates, drink their wine, a sense of abundance, of the unexpected, of life lived with some intensity settled upon us, entering our bodies, filling our veins, extending our hearts. That night, we were all Frida.

    Stuffed Pineapple
    (Adapted from Frida’s Fiestas)

    For 8

    1 large, ripe pineapple
    1 c. heavy cream
    6 T sugar
    12 cherries in syrup, chopped
    ½ c. pine nuts, finely chopped

    1. Keeping leaves intact, cut a slice of the top of the pineapple and set aside. Scoop out pulp, core, and finely chop it.
    2. Whip the cream with sugar until stiff.
    3. Gently fold in chopped pineapple, cherries, and pine nuts.
    4. Spoon mixture into the pineapple shell and refrigerate for at least 2 hours until the filling has set.

      • Brad

      • April 6, 2011 at 3:33 pm
      • Reply

      What a great way to celebrate a birthday — by memorializing Frida’s exhuberance, joy and enthusiasm for life.

    • This is fabulous! And I want to wear my jewelry all at once EVERY day! What an awesome concept.
      Just love your writing, Judith. It sparkles!

      • Judy

      • April 6, 2011 at 4:52 pm
      • Reply

      Dear Brad and Debra, thanks so much for your good words. Brad, I know you don’t have much jewelry, but Debra, I KNOW you do. Hope we can deck ourselves out together soon!

    • MMMMMMMmmmmmm good!

      • Marit

      • April 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm
      • Reply

      Love this piece and the idea of wearing all your jewelry at once! Sounds like a wonderful party!

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