Overlooked No More: Elena Zelayeta, Emissary for Mexican Cooking

This article is part of Disregardeda series of obituaries about notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported in The Times.

In 1934, Elena Zelayeta was a promising Mexican chef expecting her second child when her eyesight began to fail. She visited a doctor, who told her there was no hope: a mature cataract and retinal detachment would eventually leave her blind.

Her disability forced her away from Elena’s Mexican Village, the San Francisco restaurant she had been operating for four years, serving chili with ground beef and simmering soups with mounds of fluffy dough and cheese in a rich tomato broth. In the absence of her front man, the restaurant soon found itself crushed by debt, to the point of closing. Zelayeta herself fell into a depression so fierce that she contemplated ending her life.

But after two years of inertia, cooking put her out of her misery. She relied on her other senses, cracking eggs in her palms and separating them letting the sticky insides slide between her fingers; smell deep fat to assess its temperature; and poking the meat with your fingers to determine if it is cooked.

She would go on to write four cookbooks as well as a self-help book and a memoir, star in a cooking show in the early 1950s when food television was in its infancy, and found her own brand of frozen foods in an era in which Swanson’s TV dinners were just beginning to gain favor with the public. All of this made Zelayeta the most prominent evangelist of Mexican cuisine in the United States for three decades.

Its success came at a time when many Americans viewed Mexican cuisine in derogatory terms. “I think Mexican food was thought to be kind of low-level party food,” a granddaughter, also named Elena Zelayeta, after her grandmother, said in an interview. “I don’t think it was thought of as a kitchen.”

Elena Loshuertos was born on October 3, 1897 into a family of Spanish immigrants in Mexico City. Her father, Don Manuel Loshuertos, and her mother, Doña Luisa Soriano, ran an inn and restaurant in El Mineral del Oro, a small mining town about 80 miles northeast of Mexico City.

Elena helped her mother in the kitchen, skewering deep cherry-colored chiles to dry in the sun, grinding cumin seeds in a mortar, and moistening and warming tortillas.

What was going to be a family vacation to San Francisco ended up being a permanent stay with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, when the family home was destroyed.

The family’s first months in San Francisco were “tinged with sadness as we tried with all our might to fit into the strange customs of a new land,” Zelayeta wrote in her self-help book, “Elena’s Lessons in Living” (1947). Discrimination was routine: at school, students made fun of Elena and her siblings for the broken intonation of her speech. To make ends meet, she sold her mother’s tamales door to door.

It was during the throes of the Depression, when work was difficult to find, that Zelayeta decided to realize his long-held dream of running a restaurant. She and her husband, Lorenzo Zelayeta, whose family was also originally from Mexico, began serving stuffed chiles in their seven-room apartment, covering the tables with pastel-colored tablecloths.

His homegrown restaurant was such a success that Zelayeta soon moved it to a building in downtown San Francisco. There, his jubilant personality was as attractive as his enchiladas: he danced for the crowd as they shouted “Olé!

It was a difficult time for Mexican immigrants, and white Americans accused them of depriving them of jobs as laborers. From 1929 to 1936, the government forced sent more than a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Mexico.

“For me, the importance of his work is popularizing Mexican food in the West and eventually throughout the country, during a time when many Americans were openly racist toward Mexican/Mexican-American people and our culture,” he said. Teresa Finney, who runs a microbusiness in Atlanta. -bakery, At Heart Panaderia, she wrote in an email.

As Elena’s Mexican town prospered, her vision deteriorated. The faces of her regular customers and friends became imperceptible to her. She could barely make out her own reflection in the mirror. “I felt that blindness was something she should hide, something she should be ashamed of,” she later recalled.

Zelayeta in the late 1940s. It was during the Depression, when it was difficult to find work, that he decided to open his long-held dream of running a restaurant.Credit…via Zelayeta family

But in time she would take pride in her new identity as a blind woman. “At one point I cried out against her cruelty in taking away my sight,” she wrote in her memoirs, published in 1960. “Now I thank her for the happiness this blindness brought me.”

She taught herself to caramelize sugar without leaving marks on the bottom of the pan, to turn on a stove over and over again until it became second nature to her, to fry stuffed chiles without catching fire.

Her recipe repertoire became so strong that a group of home economists persuaded her to document her knowledge in a cookbook, her first: “Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes” (1944).

The book was a collective effort: He gathered his recipes, including caramel cheese-filled quesadillas, guacamole garnished with pomegranate seeds, and wobbly caramel flan, and dictated them to his friends, who in turn transcribed them on a typewriter. . They then grilled her with questions to make sure her instructions were accurate.

Zelayeta’s first cookbook was a collaborative effort. Having lost her sight, she dictated her recipes to her friends, who then transcribed them with a typewriter. Her subsequent books catapulted her to national fame.Credit…Prentice Hall direct

The cookbook, which appeared during World War II, when Americans were more curious about cuisines beyond their borders, was an immediate success. He reportedly He sold half a million copies during his lifetime.

The appeal of his recipes was expanded by their flexibility. He wrote, for example, that sprinkling American chocolate with cinnamon would suffice if readers couldn’t find Mexican chocolate in a grocery store. Los Angeles Times described He called her a “famous authority on the culinary art of south of the border.”

Even when tragedy struck Zelayeta (her husband would die in a freak car accident), the kitchen kept her tethered. Her friends encouraged her to chronicle her resilience in a self-help book, complete with recipes, which made her a local celebrity in the Bay Area. She began starring in a weekly 15-minute cooking show. show, “It’s fun to eat with Elena,” broadcast throughout California. During broadcasts, crew members pulled on ropes tied to their ankles to indicate which of the two cameras they should look at.

But it was Zelayeta’s later cookbooks that catapulted her to national fame. Craig Claiborne, longtime New York Times food editor, crowned the third of those books, “Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking” (1958), the “definitive volume on the subject.”

She then began packaging her Spanish-style enchiladas, tacos and meatballs into freezer-ready meals, sold throughout Northern California under the Elena’s Food Specialties label. Her social circle came to include Julia Child and the sweet tooth James Beard.

Zelayeta was 70 years old when she published her last cookbook, “Elena’s Favorite Foods Californian Style.” (1967), a praise to the gastronomic cultures of immigrants (Mexican, Japanese, Italian) that had engraved themselves on the palate of the state. By then, other cookbook authors would join in the popularization of Mexican cuisine, even those who had no attachment to Mexico, such as the British Diana Kennedy.

Zelayeta died of complications from a stroke at a nursing home in Pacifica, a city outside San Francisco, on March 31, 1974. He was 76 years old.

Reflecting on her career, she wrote in “Elena’s Life Lessons”: “Of all the disadvantages that afflict us, by far the greatest is fear. We all have it. We must all work to conquer it.”

Mayukh Sen is the author of “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America” (2021). She has won a James Beard Award for her writing on food and her work has been anthologized in three editions of “The Best American Food Writing.”

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