Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking (1958) is a recent find from a local antique shop. The titular Elena is one Elena Zelayeta, born in Mexico in 1898 and emigrated to Northern California as a young woman. She was, at various times in her life, a restaurateur, entrepreneur, cookbook author, culinary instructor, and local television personality. She was also entirely blind. As per the book’s introduction:
Elena’s story is a fascinating one, filled as it is with love and courage, with work and with tragedy… When first she lost her eyesight… she was a young matron with an adoring husband and a darling baby son… and another baby on the way… Elena determined that she herself would do the cooking and care for her sons. [She] taught herself, by trial and many errors, to cook in the dark…
[S]he learned to conquer fear. The kitchen was full of terror – fire, sharp knives, hot fat, can openers. She had to learn all over again how to handle them. Today, she is the one who terrifies her friends as she casually deep-fries buñuelos, or heats tortillas in the open flame, or bones a chicken.
She published her first cookbook in the early 1940s and was beginning to enjoy a small measure of success when tragedy struck again. In 1945 her husband Lawrence was killed in a head on collision with a Greyhound bus, leaving her to raise two teenaged boys on her own. Zelayeta again turned this tragedy into triumph, publishing an inspirational book a few years later and pouring her energy into supporting her family. She may have also used the settlement from the Greyhound company to establish her frozen foods business, Elena’s Food Specialties, in 1952.
In the early 1950s she hosted short cooking segments for local CBS affiliate KPIX, and fortunately there are several surviving clips in San Francisco State University’s online collection. I watched these clips before reading the book’s introduction and it’s not obvious nor acknowledged that Mrs. Zelayeta can’t see unless you know what you’re looking for. She reportedly had rope tied to her pant legs, and producers would tug at them to let her know which camera to turn to. She certainly lives up to the personality in the introduction, which describes her as a “bundle of energy”.
Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking is Mrs. Zelayeta’s third cookbook, a follow up to Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes and Elena’s Fiesta Recipes. Unlike her prior books, Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking takes a systematic, quasi-encyclopedic approach to Mexican cuisine. There are chapters on meats, eggs, and soups as well as dedicated chapters on empanadas, barbacoa, and cooking for large groups. Chapters are interspersed with helpful tips on ingredient acquisition, amusing anecdotes and family stories, and instructions for proper technique and presentation.
I feel somewhat compelled to discuss the authenticity of Mrs. Zelayeta’s recipes, though this seems to be more important to twenty-first century American chefs than it was to Elena herself. In her own words:
Because of my many years in this country, I have learned what Americans like to eat. These recipes have been adapted to suit the palates of my American friends and my American sons, Larry and Bill. Although I have made some slight changes … I have made every effort to keep the recipes authentic. True, I sometimes substitute chili powder for hand-ground chilies, but then so do the Mexicans themselves.
Is Mrs. Zelayeta obsessed with meticulously documenting the culinary habits of her Mexican forebears? Not at all. She’s writing a cookbook for a mid-century American audience who will be unaccustomed to making Mexican food at home.
I haven’t had the opportunity to cook through as much of this book as I’d like, but what recipes that I have tried are exquisite. As I write this I am recovering from a decadent lunch of Mrs. Zelayeta’s Carne de Puerco Con Chile Verde along with sides and sauces from the same book. Each course was rich and boldly flavored, built from authentic ingredients but bearing only a passing resemblance to twenty-first century Mexican cuisine. This may be a function of my recipe selection – I’m naturally attracted to recipes that are “different” – but it is also a function of the time and place in which these recipes were perfected.
If I had to distill the spirit and joie de vivre of into a single recipe it would have to be Frijoles Puercas. Not Frijoles con Puercas, just plain old Frijoles Puercas. The name translates literally as “pig beans”, and while it contains pork products that’s not where it got its name. According to Mrs. Zelayeta these beans are meant to be eaten outdoors, for a picnic perhaps. Pigs also eat outdoors – hence “pig beans”. But I think she’s just being polite. This “side dish” contains a heartstopping amount of bacon and enough cheese and chorizo to be a meal by themselves. “Pig beans” indeed.
Mrs. Zelayeta describes this recipe as a “Mexican whimsy”, and I couldn’t have come up with a better term. At the core of the dish is a traditional scratch preparation of refried beans, using bacon drippings instead of lard, at which point the whimsy takes over. As long as we’re using the drippings we might as well use the bacon – a full half pound’s worth – and maybe throw in a whole chorizo while we’re at it. And a half pound of jack cheese plus a can of sardines for good measure. Because why not? It’s a transformative take on refried beans, especially if you spring for a good-quality smoky bacon. It’s got the texture of homemade refried beans with a core of smoke and spice and a little bit of stringiness from the melted cheese. Consider the sardines optional – you won’t taste them if you add them, but they push the umami over into next week.
Mrs. Zelayeta recommends serving Frijoles Puercas in a casserole dish as part of a picnic potluck. I won’t argue with her – this seems perfect. Your friends or guests will be utterly impressed. At home this could absolutely be a meal by itself, served with a side of rice and a simple salad, and perhaps dressed with some fresh tomatoes to give the impression of trying to eat healthy. It will also work well as half of a traditional rice and beans side in a Mexican meal, except maybe with seafood dishes, or even as a hearty bean dip at a party. I served this to my family paired with Carne de Puerca con Chile Verde and Hominy with Bacon, both from the same cookbook. If you’re counting calories I can’t recommend this option, but it makes for a memorable meal.
- Soak pinto beans overnight in an excess of water. Remove any "floaters", then rinse and drain.
- Bring 1 ½ quarts of salted water and beans to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer 2-3 hours until beans are tender.
- Cut bacon into small pieces. In a large Dutch oven fry over medium heat until bacon is crisp. Do not drain fat.
- Spoon in beans a little bit at a time, along with some of the cooking water. Mash the beans and allow them to fry a little bit in the bacon drippings before adding more beans. Continue until all beans are used and mash until the mixture resembles traditional refried beans. You may have some cooking water left over. Lower the heat to a simmer.
- In a separate skillet, fry chorizo until slightly crispy and stir into bean mixture.
- Cube Monterey Jack cheese and stir into bean mixture until melted.
- If desired, chop sardines coarsely and stir into bean mixture. Simmer until ready to serve, stirring occasionally to prevent the bottom from scorching. If taking to a picnic, transfer to a large casserole dish and keep covered in a warm oven (275º F) until ready to serve.
Note that Mexican chorizo and Spanish chorizo are two very different beasts. Spanish chorizo is a dried, cured sausage similar to salami and absolutely won’t work for this recipe. Be sure to by fresh, ground Mexican chorizo.
Pepperjack cheese is a worthy substitute for Monterey Jack cheese.
If you can’t find sardines in tomato sauce feel free to use smoked sardines packed in water or oil. Drain the liquid before adding to the beans.
Elena Zelayeta died in 1974 , leaving her business – Elena’s Food Specialties – in care of sons Larry and Bobby who expanded into organic foods and other cuisines. The business remained under family control until 2009, when it was sold to an international conglomerate. The Zelayeta family’s products are still sold under the PJ’s Organics and Nate’s Organics brand names across America.
Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking is available used at Amazon and elsewhere. An earlier cookbook, Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes has been reprinted and is available in both hardcover and digital formats. At some point, though, I’d like to be able to track down her autobiography Elena. I feel as though Elena Zelayeta as a person was even more amazing than her recipes. And that’s high praise.