Ten poblano chiles sit scorching on a comal (a flat Latin American griddle) on top of a small stove, filling the cozy apartment kitchen near Mills College with an enticing, spicy aroma. “I do it this way because when my mother made chiles rellenos, I watched her grill the peppers in the flames until they turned black.” says Lupita Peimbert. “I know other people broil their peppers, but I do it over the burners as a connection to my mom.”
I recently met Peimbert at the magnificent Mi Pueblo Market in East Oakland, while researching an article on ethnic markets for Oakland Magazine. She kindly invited me over to watch her transform peppers, onions, tomatoes, cheese and eggs into delicious chiles rellenos, just like her mother used to make.
Peimbert worked for over 15 years as a news reporter for Spanish-language media such as Telemundo, Univision, La Opinion, and CNN Español and is now an independent media and community-relations strategist. The attractive, dark-haired dynamo directs me to dice tomatoes for the sauce, as she sautés onions in a large pot and tells me about her life.
Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, the 11th of 12 children, Peimbert has always been an independent go-getter. When she was 18, she co-produced and co-hosted a daily television program “Entre Amigas,” and was the public relations director for a youth arts organization in Mexico. But she followed her dream to California, the only child in her family to move away from Mexico.
“I saw a few documentaries about the free speech and civil rights movements in Berkeley in the ‘60’s and that did something to me,” she says as she turns the peppers over to blacken the other sides. “I had an idealized vision of California, not about the money but about the ability to be myself and have many options. I came here because I wanted to be part of this culture and embrace the values.”
She adds the diced tomatoes to the sizzling onions and stirs in some canned Mexican tomato sauce and spices and lets the mixture simmer. “I am not the stereotypical impoverished, uneducated immigrant,” says Peimbert, “That doesn’t make me better than anybody else but it clarifies that being an immigrant does not have to mean being ‘less than.’”
“Mexican culture is beautiful but still very traditional. Women are supposed to be married and have children. My mother was blessed with so many kids but she didn’t have opportunities for herself. Her studies ended after junior high and a vocational course to be a secretary, but she read Kahlil Gibran, wrote poetry and was published in our local newspaper.”
Peimbert shows me how to cool the burnt peppers like her mother did, covering them with paper towels and wrapping them in plastic bags for about a half-hour “to sweat out their spice.”
At age 22, Peimbert traveled to Los Angeles. “I was visiting and I stayed. Thank God, I didn’t have to cross the border without papers and endure being called ‘illegal’, but I did live the immigrant experience. I came to LA with no family, not speaking English, so the first three years I needed to work at whatever jobs there were [including cashier at a fast-food restaurant and salesperson at a furniture store] while I worked for free at every Spanish publication I could find. I knew I wanted to be a journalist and I earned my right to do that. I got my first job at La Opinion, a very important newspaper in LA.
Now she quickly slices a disc of cheese into long spears. Peimbert is a ball of energy in the kitchen and the community, devoting time to working for immigrants’ rights, empowering women, improving access to education for minorities, educating Spanish-speaking voters and fostering good relationships among people from different cultures, just to name a few.
“When you go to another country you lose your identity for a while and feel stupid. When I came to the United States, I wanted to embrace everything, but I was shocked at the food. The chicken was dry and the vegetables had no flavor. But I came here to learn, so I was open. Later I did learn a lot about healthy foods. That got my attention, so now I try to eat healthy — most of the time.”
“I’m in love with American culture. I’m not sure if I could have had the same opportunities I’ve had here in another place. Women definitely have more freedom. I love the ability you have here to re-invent yourself and start a second or a third career.”
Peimbert slits the cooled peppers and carefully pulls out the seeds, stems and veins and peels off the blistered skin. “This part always makes me think of my mother,” she says with emotion. “Preparing this dish is not complicated, but it’s time consuming.” She rinses out the peppers to get every last seed.
“My mom made us food that was easy to prepare and enough for everyone: like chicken, beef or vegetable soup and stews like pozole (pork and hominy) and cocido (chickpea) or chiles rellenos. My older sisters cooked too. When you are part of a big family, no one thinks about teaching you how to cook, you just learn by watching and participating.”
As she stuffs each pepper with a spear of cheese, Peimbert has me whip the egg whites into stiff peaks. Later, she adds just a couple of egg yolks (instead of all of them) “to make it healthier.” Each pepper is sprinkled and rubbed with a little flour (she uses gluten-free flour from the Food Mill) so that the egg coating will stick to the pepper. After Peimbert pours oil into a medium-sized frying pan, she turns up the heat.
“This is the messy part, where you get the real flavor. Smell this poblano,” she says, holding it out to me. “This is the art of it, where you add your own flavor. Everyone has a personal seasoning effect – we call it ‘el sazón’. My sister used to say that every person’s hands possess an energetic flavor that can mystically transform everything they touch.” Peimbert gently guides my hand as we dip the poblano pepper into the whipped egg whites and smiles at me. “Now these chiles rellenos will have your ‘sazón’ too.”
The pepper in its fluffy egg white coat is gently laid in the bubbling oil. As the first side browns, Peimbert shows me her secret: ladling a couple of spoonfuls of the hot cooking oil over the top of the pepper to begin cooking the second side. When first side turns brown, she eases the pepper over to fry the second side. It looks like a puffy golden cloud. As the pepper comes out of the frying pan, it is set to drain on paper towels. And the next one gets an egg dip and a hot oil bath.
“A few years ago, I joined Team in Training to run a full or half marathon and raise money for the Leukemia Society. In 2010, for the fundraising part, I made 150 chiles rellenos – imagine that here in my little kitchen! I made them over several days and a friend helped with the chopping, but I fried them one at a time, all 150 of them.”
When the peppers have drained, Peimbert adds them to the pot of tomato sauce, where they will soak up even more flavor. I help by shredding lettuce that she arranges on the plates.
“Now the big thing here is organic,” she says heatedly. “Hey, I grew up eating organic produce, but I didn’t know it was ‘organic.’ And we had weekly farmers markets, too. I get upset when people say that Mexicans are second-class citizens. I think: what do you really know about the culture?”
Peimbert carefully arranges a pepper on each plate, ladles on some extra sauce and tops with a dollop of sour cream.
“My mother passed away, but when I visit my sisters in Mexico, they make great food, especially when the whole family gets together on Sundays. Mexican culture is very group oriented so cooking is a big group effort: one person will cook, one will clean, and the others will help.”
“My mom always told me that what I was doing with my life was exactly what she would have loved to do. She passed her creativity to me. I’ve always felt sad that she didn’t have more opportunities, because she was so creative, but perhaps for most women in Mexico at that time, there was no vacation, no time off.” Now Peimbert adds the finishing touch – her own innovation – slices of kiwi fruit, whose green flesh look pretty against the white sour cream.
“I came here and wanted to absorb the culture; it was out of curiosity. So I opened up to American food and all the other cultures here. I like Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Eritrean food.”
“But at my important occasions, “says Lupita Peimbert pouring us glasses of wine, “Whether inviting friends, a potential boyfriend over, or celebrating a birthday, I always go back to Mexican food, usually chiles rellenos. It connects me to my mother. It’s a comforting piece of my identity that reminds me that, as Californian as I am, my roots are Mexican.”