I answered the quiet knock at my door, wondering who could be there. As an American attending a Spanish language school in Guadalajara, Mexico, I was very new to my neighborhood. A shy smile greeted me, and a 5-year-old little boy said softly, “My mother sent this over for you. She wanted you to try some special Mexican food.” The plate he thrust into my hands contained what I recognized as chiles rellenos, mild chilies stuffed with cheese and fried in a foamy egg batter. They’re delicious! Instead of simply acknowledging my appreciation for his mother’s kind gesture, I followed the local custom of saying, “Thank you, I’ll return the plate later.” I had learned that the one who receives the food should return the plate filled with a similar gift. Inwardly, I congratulated myself on how well I was learning about the culture.
Now, which was good practice then, I wondered what would be the best food to return to my neighbors. It should be something the whole family could enjoy, and it would be nice to give them something typically American as a special treat. As my brain ran through a list of possibilities, it stopped on chocolate chip cookies. What could be better? They would make an especially nice gift because at that time chocolate chips weren’t available in the stores in our area of the city. I had just driven up to the border the week prior to renew my visa and shopped for some staples in a large grocery store while there, so I was well stocked with baking supplies.
As I mixed the dough, I decided to add some nuts and raisins. Okay, so they wouldn’t be typical chocolate chip cookies after all, but my neighbors would enjoy the taste. I had read in a magazine that adding some instant coffee to cookie dough bumps up the flavor, so included a teaspoon of that too.
My sparsely furnished home didn’t have a stove with an oven, but that wasn’t going to ruin my plan. I knew that some cookies could be baked in an electric skillet, so decided to give it a try. I plugged in the skillet and placed a coffee can lid in the center to serve as a trivet. While it heated I looked for a pan that would fit in the limited space the skillet provided. The only one I could find that wasn’t too large was a 9-inch cake pan. That’ll work, I thought. There was just one little problem-the cake pan could only accommodate four cookies at a time. I wasn’t about to give up now. It would just take more batches to use up all of the sweet, spicy dough. When I started my little cooking operation I had no idea that each batch took more than 30 minutes to cook due to the reduced heat. The old electric skillet I had at the time just didn’t match a nice hot oven. Finally, after working in the kitchen for some three hours, all of the cookies were baked and I was feeling quite satisfied with my ingenuity.
The next day when I saw my neighbor boy playing in his yard, I called him over and handed off the plate of cookies to give to his mother. She came over later that afternoon and told me how good the cookies were and that her family enjoyed them very much. “I ate so many of them,” she commented, “and they were delicious. What secret ingredient did you use to make them so tasty?”
I thought about the ingredients the cookies contained, and the only unusual one was the instant coffee. Since I was just learning Spanish, it was a challenge to carry on more than just a very simple conversation. I wanted to explain about the “secret ingredient,” the instant coffee, so I quickly formulated the sentence in my mind before verbalizing it. In English when we combine chocolate and coffee we call the flavor mocha, but how would I say that in Spanish? To tell my neighbor the cookies were mocha flavored I would need to use the phrase savor de moca, but we had just learned in language school that the noun (savor in this case) needed to match the adjective (moca), so I thought the last letter of moca should probably be changed from an “a” to an “o” to make it grammatically correct. Oh well, I thought, what’s one little letter? So I told her my secret ingredient was savor de moco. As soon as the words left my mouth I saw the pleasant expression on her face turn to one of shock. My first thought was that my accent wasn’t good enough and she had misunderstood me, so I repeated the phrase, slowly and more carefully. When her reaction remained the same I knew I had somehow blown it badly. Moco, moco, I thought, where had I heard that word before? And then I remembered-the only time that word had been used in my presence was when my neighbor’s children had very runny noses from a cold! As I fumbled in Spanish, trying to explain what I really meant, the poor woman was probably wondering what kind of a crazy “Gringo” she had living next door. Needless to say, she didn’t send over any more gifts of Mexican food for me to sample.
Oh, sure, I was really understanding the culture and learning the language-right!
Many have heard the story over the years, and all I have to ask when they come to the home is, “cookies, anyone?” and everyone has a good laugh as they remember the “secret ingredient.” They love to say, running the last two words together slightly, “You may think it’s a cookie, but it’s not.”