Book Review by Daniel Olivas
In the very first sentence of her new memoir, A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture (Rio Nuevo, paperback $16.95), Denise Chávez warns readers:
"This is not a sweet little book about tacos; it remembers the fights that began at the kitchen table, spilled into the dining room, then moved quickly into the living room and continued into the bedroom with the sudden slam of a door that led to the hushed sound of someone crying behind that door."
But the title of this moving and engrossing "memoir of food" also gives a clue to the story Chávez is about to tell. Chávez does, indeed, offer testimony about growing up in a family dealing with alcoholism as well as her own battles with depression and drugs. But this is far from being a gloomy book. In the end, Chávez inspires and cajoles the reader into learning how to appreciate family, friends, literature and good food.
Of course, the recurring theme of Chávez's memoir is the taco. Reappearing throughout this engaging book are fond memories, recipes, poems and interesting facts related to the taco. For Chávez, it goes beyond delicious nourishment. It symbolizes order and comfort in a household that suffered from the alcoholic abuses of her father, Epifanio, a "brilliant lawyer" who "had no practical living skill" and drank the family into financial jeopardy.
In their neat Las Cruces home, Chávez's mother, Delfina, tried mightily to maintain appearances in her marriage to this handsome and seemingly upright man. But they "lived a family lie." To the outside world, her father was a "successful small-town lawyer" married to an "untroubled beautiful mother from an even smaller town called El Povo, The Dust."
Delfina met Epifanio as a widow with a child. He was supposed to be her salvation, her way of making a home that was torn apart by the untimely death of her first husband. Sadly, Epifanio failed in that regard. They eventually divorced, though Epifanio would sometimes stay overnight during important holidays, his birthday being the most important of all.
In the same way her mother's tacos helped bring some warmth and stability to their home, Chávez admits that this special food came to her rescue while she attended graduate school. Far from home, she suffered from depression, smoked marijuana constantly, skipped meals and began to unravel. Chávez recounts one night when she forced herself to make tacos, all by herself with her family many miles away, to pull herself out of a downward spiral. She would not sleep until she finished cooking. Chávez succeeded in this curative act and unabashedly asserts: "Tacos can save your life."
She has forgiven her father and grown stronger in the process. Now she can look back with great fondness on the good things her family offered: love (though imperfect), a rich culture, education and wonderful, healing food.
Chávez is an engaging writer who has a well-honed talent for describing in intimate detail everything from human foibles to mouthwatering Mexican delicacies. She also confronts life in all its beautiful and painful permutations. This is a testimony well-worth reading. And it wouldn't hurt to have a taco or two nearby once your mouth starts to water.
[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]