Food is the thread that ties families together.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Dolores Durán-Cerda‘s Tucson kitchen, with her blend of Southwestern and Midwestern roots yielding everything from cobblers to tamales.
From Iowa, where she was born and raised, Durán-Cerda offers a Cherry-Pineapple Cobbler.
From Arizona and Sonora, where her mother and mother’s family hails, she offers her mom’s Easy Corn Casserole, which hints of tamale without the hours of work tamales require.
The corn casserole is so popular, the Pima Community College administrator has the instructions at the ready when she takes the dish to potlucks.
“Invariably every time I make it, everyone wants the recipe. They just go nuts for it and they request it,” said Durán-Cerda, 46. “It’s a hit.”
Her Cherry Pineapple Cobbler (aka “Dump Cake”) was certainly popular when her husband, Steve Choice, brought it to the Arizona Daily Star newsroom where he works as a copy editor. His star rose the day he brought in the cobbler, still warm, and tantalizing fragrant.
Durán-Cerda, an only child, lived in Iowa City and she and her parents drove every summer to Douglas, where her mom was born. They stayed at her grandparents’ house; her aunt, uncle and five cousins lived next door.
The women would gather in her grandmother’s kitchen to prepare food and create unbreakable familial bonds: of the five cousins, four live in Tucson; one uncle is in Douglas and one cousin is in California.
“The heart of the home is the kitchen, not only for cooking but catching up — for chatting, even resolving problems, venting, reminiscing,” said Durán-Cerda, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and French secondary education at the University of Iowa, then spent a year doing graduate work there, and moved to Tucson in 1991 to finish her master’s degree in Hispanic literature at the UA.
She has since achieved her doctorate in Latin American literature, with a concentration on poetry. Durán-Cerda spent 10 years teaching at Pima’s Downtown campus — mostly Spanish — and last January became senior assistant to the provost.
“I love to cook. I just wish I had more time to do it,” she said.
Durán-Cerda’s Chilean-born father, Julio Durán-Cerda, was a visiting professor for two years at the UA starting in 1964. He taught Latin-American literature with a focus on theater and met her mom, Martina García Durán-Cerda, a teacher at Rincon High School, here.
They ended up moving to Iowa when he got a job at the University of Iowa. But after spending summers in Douglas, they’d stuff their vehicle with provisions, including food and Spanish music tapes that Durán-Cerda bought in Agua Prieta, Sonora.
“We’d fill the station wagon with green corn and also green chiles and take them back to Iowa, freeze the ingredients and then use them throughout the year.”
Her grandmother Dolores also would mail them goodies such as biscochitos — butter cookies — and gorditas — thick flour tortillas.
“We were always getting treats,” Durán-Cerda said.
And when it came to making red chile tamales they cut no corners.
“We wouldn’t buy the chile paste but actually make the paste, soak the pods, then put them in the blender with garlic and meat broth and blend it all together,” she said.
In Iowa, “Mom would make paella, tortillas, tamales, all sorts of things,” Durán-Cerda said.
She reconnected with Choice, with whom she’d gone to high school, a few years ago when she corrected him when he posted on Facebook that the book closest to him was a Spanish-American dictionary that she considers, well, deficient.
He was in Orlando, Fla., she in Tucson. Long story short, they’re now enjoying a well-fed, happy life in a neighborhood near Rincon High School.
“She’s made a warm, colorful home,” Choice said.
CONNECTING WITH FOOD
At Christmas Durán-Cerda, as usual, prepared the holiday staple of tamales, for herself, to share, and as an homage to her mother, who grew up working as an itinerant farmer with her family, except during the school year, mostly in California.
“My mom would always tell us stories of being a migrant worker and the hardships they went through. That gave her a perspective when she got in with education and wanting to help Latino students because of her experiences,” Durán-Cerda said.
“Traditions were really big,” she said of her mom, who worked with civil-rights advocate and educator Hank Oyama and other Tucsonans to make sure Mexican-American culture got the attention it deserves here.
“She was one of the pioneers that wrote the study called ‘Invisible Minority’ that stimulated funding for bilingual education in the country.”
Durán-Cerda nursed her mom through colon cancer for five years until she died in 2006.
“People think I’m crazy because I make Christmas tamales by myself,” she said.
“Mom served as an inspiration and influence in many ways, not just in cooking but in education. … When I make tamales, for example, I feel somehow connected to my mom.”
Durán-Cerda was determined to keep alive her mother’s cherished recipes.
“Once mom and I knew that she was coming close to the end, I asked her to write down our traditional family recipes,” Durán-Cerda said. “She wrote oodles of recipes down: traditional, everyday dishes as well as the more formal, fancy ones, from Mexico, Chile and Iowa.
“Once she was too weak to write them herself, she would dictate them to me. I now have binders of her recipes that I consistently refer to.”
Her dad, who died in 1994, was not without his own culinary traditions that meshed with her mom’s. He made humitas, a Chilean dish “based on green corn, onions and cheese and that’s it,” Durán-Cerda said. They’re like tamales, but “much easier to make.”
He also prepared chicken cacciatore and Spanish omelettes; he and her mom made Chilean meat-filled empanadas.
“Not only did my mom come from humble beginnings but so did my dad,” Durán-Cerda said: The youngest son of a farmer in Chile, her father was the only one of seven siblings to go to college.
He told Durán-Cerda food encompasses all five senses.
“You see it, you smell it, you taste it, you touch it, sometimes you can even hear it if it’s sizzling or if it’s crunchy.”