Saints of Sausage

Miami's Hispanic grandmothers lead a crusade to preserve the legacy of chorizo

In the farming region of Melena del Sur, about 40 miles southeast of Havana, Dionisia grew up in a family of thirteen. Her people lived richly off the land, the livestock, and the hearth. Domestic life, especially cooking, was the order and the joy of the day.

It was while standing on a wooden box in front of a wood stove, for instance, that she met her lifelong amor. She was twelve and preparing a boliche relleno con chorizo, an elegant meal of sliced beef eye of round medallions stuffed in the center with orange-red sausage. Eusebio was nineteen and had come to dinner; he was suitably impressed. When the lovely Dionisia turned eighteen, they married.

Forty-four years later, in a peach-color three-bedroom house in North Miami, Eusebio and Dionisia Vallejo reside cozily amid framed photographs of two daughters and four grandchildren. Their relationship in one basic respect has not changed a whit since their wedding: He is the man of the house, meaning he's a handyman, and she is the woman, meaning she gives sustenance. "When we got married," recalls Dionisia, a youngish and fit 65, "he told me, 'I'll help you in everything but the kitchen.'" Eusebio has been good to his word. And they've lived harmoniously ever since.

The boliche recipe that inaugurated their lives together still gives them pleasure, closeness, y buen hogar (and good home). It's a customary dish served on special occasions. A tradition not of vague sentiments or hopeless nostalgia but rather of something tangible, as much a link to their past as their undiluted Cuban tongue, the boliche is part of their identity. What could be more life-affirming? They smell the mingled seasonings of sour oranges, garlic, and cooking wine. Together they taste the nice counterpoise of beef and spicy pork sausage. Without thinking about it, their senses -- luxuriating, then satiated -- tell them they're home. A place to relish the home-cooked meals they grew up with.

Dionisia, wearing a floral-pattern apron, prepares the boliche in her tidy kitchen. She cuts a hole all the way through the center of a three-pound beef eye of round and then inserts three chorizos. She pricks the meat with a fork so that it absorbs the seasonings she rubs on: two sour oranges, minced garlic, black pepper, oregano, salt, and bay leaves. She arranges sliced onions over the meat and covers the dish with aluminum foil while it marinates. Once it's ready to cook, Dionisia browns the meat with oil, in an iron pot. Then she adds onions and seasonings, tomato paste, wine, and a cup of water and lets it simmer. When the meat is tender -- boliche.

The dish was one of several recipes Vallejo entered in a recent contest called "Abuela [Grandmother] Search" sponsored by Lugareno, a Hialeah company that sells chorizos, the spicy Spanish-style sausages made primarily of pork, wine, garlic, and paprika. She was one of about 40 respondents to the promotion aimed at preserving and reviving recipes that include chorizo, a basic staple of Hispanic cuisine. With the assimilation of immigrants into a traditionally non-Hispanic culture, reasons Caroline LaBauve, president of Lugareno and creator of the contest, chorizo recipes are in danger of dying out along with the generation of grandmothers who brought them here.

Other typical chorizo recipe entries included a tortilla (chorizo and potato omelette), choripan (a chorizo sandwich), and caldo Gallego (stew). Some abuelas responded with more contemporary recipes like baked clams and chorizo, and turkey with chorizo stuffing.

"These are wonderful women, wonderful cooks, who have folk memories from their various countries of origin where chorizos are very much a part of a taste of history," LaBauve elaborates.

One Abuela Search respondent was not Hispanic but American, a woman who has adopted the Latin lifestyle wholeheartedly. She married a Cuban, a Spaniard, and an Italian.

Back in the Twenties and Thirties, Mariana Beeching Prieto traveled between homes in Cincinnati, Ohio and CamagYey, Cuba, where her father, Charlie Beeching, was vice president of American Steel. In 1936 she married a Cuban, a crafter of handmade classic Spanish furniture. He gave her a Spanish cookbook as an engagement present. "That's how romantic he was," Prieto jests. "Then I spent a week in his mother's kitchen and I learned how to cook the style that he wanted. He was frank about it -- he wanted me to cook what he liked. Why not? I think Latins are more serious than Americans about food, and I think they enjoy it more than Americans. All Latins like to eat, but some of these younger ones don't know the past at all."

Prieto, a grandmother of three, now lives in Coral Gables. Her recipe entry originated in her first grandmother-in-law's kitchen in Mariano, a suburb of Havana. "My husband's plump abuela Maria used to cook this dish," reminisces Prieto of the chorizo casserole with ingredients that include garbanzo beans, potatoes, tomatoes, a diced apple, and chorizo cut in one-inch pieces. "She used a casuela, an earthen pot, and cooked over charcoal."

LaBauve is planning to publish a recipe book with all the entries from her Abuela Search. Besides saving the recipes for posterity, the book will be another step in developing a company she bought two weeks before Hurricane Andrew blew away 60 percent of its local market base -- street vendors, bodegas, and local Latin groceries that never recovered from the storm. Under LaBauve's direction, Lugareno chorizos are now selling in major supermarkets around the country in areas with significant Hispanic populations.

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