Disclosure: This moment of nostalgia sponsored by Milk Life Lo Que Nos Hace Fuertes. All memories and opinions of my grandfather/ abuelito are my own.
Growing up in a Latino family, you learn 2 things very early on; 1) family is everything and 2) food and drink are the ways you show love to your family. I love milk. My girls do too. It’s nutritious and delicious and something I feel good about serving them. We go through at least 3 gallons a week at my house. It’s sad to think that many kids don’t even get the recommended servings of milk especially since milk is such an integral part of a balanced nutritious meal plan to help children grow up strong. The taste of milk reminds me of home but my love of milk originates back to my childhood and fond memories of my abuelito (grandpa) Manuel in Mexico.
My abuelito, known fondly in his village as Don Manuel, was a humble, quiet man with a wisdom and kindness that exuded from his smile and his eyes. He was a hard worker all of his life. He ran our family ranch until he was in his 80’s when he was thrown from a wild stallion and broke his hip. That was my abuelito.
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He was someone you looked up to because he always did the right thing, even if the right thing was reading and taking time out of your busy day to respond to your young granddaughter’s letters. Even if those letters were her practicing her terrible Spanglish on you by hand writing you the most heinously, grammatically incorrect letters ever. He had patience and always made time to write me back, even when free-time was non-existent in his day.
I remember spending our summers in Etucuaro, the small village in Mexico that my father is from. My abuelito would be up and off to work the ranch and milk the cows before any of us were even awake. He’d be home with a jug full of fresh milk and eating his breakfast by the time I’d stumble into the kitchen and see him hunched over exhausted quietly eating his leche con pan.
What is leche con pan, you ask? It’s exactly what it sounds like bread with milk. It was a foreign concept to me. I was raised in Chicago, not on a farm. I was a kid, he was a very old man, even the first time I met him. Our worlds were very different. He had actually lived in Chicago and spoke English in the 1920’s. Our frames of reference were 60 years apart, but I knew if he liked it, it must have been good.
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” -Cesar Chavez
As a kid, I was all about milk and I loved pan dulce but what he was eating looked like bread rolls and milk. I wasn’t exactly begging him for a bite of his breakfast. Every morning, that I ever saw him, he would eat the same thing. No cereal. No oatmeal. No eggs and sausage. No breakfast burritos. Just kidding, I never saw a breakfast burrito ever in Mexico, unless you count chorizo and eggs on tortillas but no one calls them breakfast burritos. My point is that I thought maybe it was some kind of “old person” thing. I was a kid.
He’d offer me a bite and every day, I’d politely decline; walking away thinking he was really cheating himself and I knew better. Then one day, almost as a dare to myself, I said yes. His eyes lit up and he smiled at me approvingly. He took his spoon and lovingly scooped me out a bite of his breakfast.
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I opened my little kid mouth and happily accepted. I was expecting to be underwhelmed or maybe even want to spit it out. I mean, it was just bread and milk. But it wasn’t. It was a delicately, sweet warm roll (torn up into pieces) covered in sweet, thick fresh milk and it tasted like a hug from my abuelito. If the warmth of his eyes when he smiled at me had a flavor, it would have been leche con pan and ever since milk has been my most favorite thing to drink.
“Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.” -Alan D. Wolfelt
Sadly, my abuelito passed away when I was in college but all I need to do is close my eyes and I’m a little girl again; right back at his kitchen table in Mexico and he’s smiling at me with those gentle, kind eyes of his (the same ones my father has). Sharing his breakfast with me. He’s tanned from years of working the ranch in the hot sun. He’s smaller than he once was and he’s tired from decades of early mornings of milking cows to care for his family. But his heart is full of love for his little granddaughter who writes him those silly letters and he gives her the last bite if she wants it. This is love, this is family and, for me, this is milk.
I don’t make leche con pan for my girls because that was ours, his and mine. Honestly, I’ve never tried to replicate it but my girls are known to enjoy their own version of leche con pan with their own Grandpa Manny (my dad). I’ve loved watching them sit at the kitchen table where I grew up, drinking homemade champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) and eating pan dulce with my own dad. Yes, sometimes, they even dunk their pan dulce in their champurrado. Seeing them there with my father always reminds me of those mornings in Mexico with my abuelito.