Remembering My Mother, the Queen of Empanadas

Photo Credit: Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

I don’t have a childhood memory in which my mother wasn’t in the kitchen. It was her realm, where she wielded her creativity and love with abandon. Our Filipino culture was centered around the conviviality of the dinner table — every weekend we got together with extended family for potlucks, and meals were served family-style at someone’s home or at the beach, lasting for hours. At the center of it all was my mother, whose gift was evident in the steaming soups and noodle dishes that emerged from the kitchen. Sure, others brought their specialty dishes, but it was my mother’s food that everyone clamored for.

When we immigrated to the United States, our extended-family life shrunk considerably. Gone were the leisurely days of our island life, where time stretched lazily as we gossiped with cousins and laughed with aunts and uncles. Our new American reality became a stringent 9-to-5, where our closest relatives lived hours away and get-togethers were relegated to major holidays. My teenage years were spent in the dry Arizona heat, far from the languorous humidity of the tropics. My weekends, once spent in the lively company of cousins, were now spent in a library in the quiet company of books.

The change was hardest on my mother, whose source of joy — her cooking — was greatly diminished with no large family to cook for.

The change was hardest on my mother, whose source of joy — her cooking — was greatly diminished with no large family to cook for. Worse yet, her teenage daughters, who quickly assimilated into their new environment as children so effortlessly do, were acquiring a taste for expedient American cuisine — burgers and tacos from a drive-thru instead of long family meals. It was around this time that my mother, who never left a challenge unanswered — after all, she single-handedly moved her family across an ocean in search of a better life — began making the one thing that she would be known for: empanadas.

Every Culture Has Them

Empanadas are fried or baked dough pockets stuffed with various things — cheese, meat, potatoes, vegetables — and every culture has some variation of it. (Think calzones, pasties, gyozas, pierogies.) Filipinos learned how to make empanadas from the Spaniards who colonized them centuries ago; my mother learned from a beloved aunt, whose recipe was so secret that it was only ever shared with her. Over the years, my mom mastered the recipe, from the delicate dough and the exact ratio of fillings to the intricate crimping technique that sealed each pouch securely.

When my parents moved to Nevada after my sister and I went off to college, they founded an association for Filipino immigrants that eventually grew to more than 2,000 members. They had potluck parties every weekend, just like back home, and the highlight of every gathering were my mom’s empanadas. They were so popular that,  on special occasions, people would order them by the hundreds.

Every school break I was home from college, there was my mom, shoulders hunched over the kitchen table, painstakingly making empanadas for friends late into the night. She even tried to teach me how to make them, patiently demonstrating the folding and crimping technique, but as a college kid with no acumen in the kitchen and even less of a desire to learn, the lessons never took. Back then, I couldn’t understand why my mom put so much effort into making something that could be eaten in a few bites. Sure, I loved her empanadas, but I took for granted that they would always be there. In the shortsightedness of youth, I thought that my mom would always be around to make them.

When my mother passed away a few years ago, she had so many family and friends that I arranged three memorial services in two countries to accommodate all who wanted to come. As each person spoke about what my mom meant to them, two things came up over and over: her sense of humor (she was the inveterate life of the party) and her empanadas.

A Little Reminder of Home

It was only then that I realized what the empanadas meant to them: Far from their country of birth, it was a little reminder of home. As these immigrants struggled to make it in a place where everything was foreign — the language, the people, the food — here was this small thing that was uncomplicated and familiar, labored over with love, requiring no translation.

In the shortsightedness of youth, I thought that my mom would always be around to make her empanadas.

My mother may have given them a piece of home, but in making the empanadas, she was coming home, too — home to a kitchen that gave her the space to express her love for others, and perhaps a place to feel her sadness, as well. Every piece of dough she kneaded was her way of quieting her immigrant homesickness, that persistent ache for one’s country and those you leave behind.

Today, my mother’s empanada recipe has been entrusted to a few cousins and is not such a secret anymore. And yet, even as we make and eat them during family reunions, we acknowledge that they’re really not the same as how my mom made them, and it makes us miss her even more.

This post is part of a month-long March CircleAround series, tied to Women's History Month — the first since the global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted women around the world — in which we asked writers to explore the topic of women's history in America, from the past to very much the present. To see all the posts in the series — including relevant news stories — visit hereAnd if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to info@circlearound.com or post on our "2021 Inspiration Wall."


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