Naomi Andrade Smith is best known for the tamales she sold in the late 1990s out of a tiny takeout window in Madrona under the


Shockingly Late to Pork: Talking with Chef Naomi Andrade Smith

Naomi Andrade Smith is best known for the tamales she sold in the late 1990s out of a tiny takeout window in Madrona under the name Villa Victoria. (Villa Victoria's second incarnation, in Columbia City, was not as successful and closed last year.) Incredible food aside, Smith should be known as Seattle's expert on Mexican cuisine, which she describes as "endlessly fascinating, highly developed, and well thought-out."

"[Mexican food] is not cheap," she continues. "It's the most laborious cuisine out there. The real value is in knowing it, being able to make it." Smith's fascination with Mexican food begins with her own family story, but has grown to take in the disparate cultural influences and ingredients -- Spanish, African, Native American -- that Mexican cuisine contains. It's these complex, cross-cultural, and deeply personal aspects that drive her studies in food and cooking. While she is no longer cooking for the public, Andrade Smith continues to share her explorations on her blog. Her enthusiasm for cooking is intoxicating:

How did you start cooking?

Well. My mother was from Michoacan, Mexico. My father and his family, nine brothers and sisters in all, moved to Mexico in 1920. My parents met there. They lived there.

Why did they move to Mexico? From where?

My grandfather moved there from Oklahoma in 1910 because of Jim Crow laws. It was pretty dangerous to be black back then. They were lynching people. I think they were tired of looking over their shoulder all the time. In 1920, the whole family joined him. They bought property, went to school there.

It sounds like they absorbed another culture.

Yes, they totally changed their reality, changed their culture. After my parents met, my aunts must have taught my mother how to make biscuits and collard greens and cornbread. I grew up eating African American food alongside Mexican food and I always thought it was normal.

Looking back, I was always interested in food. We just ate well. And we ate real food. Once I saw what other people ate, I was always curious about the people whose families made casseroles. You don't start on that stuff when you've grown up on real food.

Can you tell me a little more about the food you made at Villa Victoria? You were known for things like putting collard greens in burritos.

Well, first of all, burritos are not anything you will find in Mexico. Mexicans are dainty eaters, they don't want to eat big, honkin' things. Only Americans want to do that. But people wanted burritos, so I made them, and instead I put in black beans and collard greens, as a syncretism honoring my parents.

What was your favorite meal as a child?

Albondigas, or meatball soup. The meatballs have ground beef, garlic cloves, onion, and little mint, plus egg and rice. You bring water to a violent bowl and put in the meatballs, one by one. Meanwhile, you make a sofrito of garlic, onion, green pepper, and tomatoes, and let that cook down. You add it to the water when the meatballs are done. In 15 minutes you have an instant feast.

Within your study of Mexican cuisine, do you find you there's a region that you have a particular affinity for?

The state of Veracruz is very easy to love. It is so varied: You've got low plains, high mountains, and the coast. There's actually a place in Veracruz -- Perote -- where they grow truffles. They grow truffles, hunt them out, and then they send them to Japan. If you take the bus from Mexico City to Veracruz, you'll see all the different layers. You come down from the mountains and all of a sudden you're in a valley, like Switzerland, with cows and meadows. Further down, you get into the steamy tropical area, where there's coffee growing and lots of fish and vegetables. It's just beautiful.

Do you have a favorite ingredient?

Well, right now I am heavy into coconut oil. Coconut milk, too. I've been cooking my rice in coconut milk. And the other day, at a store down by Ikea, I found a half-gallon of coconut oil for just $15. I'm also really in love with lard right now. I just rendered my own lard from Kurobuta pork and I am loving that. My favorite meat right now is pork! I am coming around to it. I understand it now. It was always a mystery to me.

How is that possible? You grew up in an African-American and Mexican household. Pork should be all over the place.

I know, right? What's up with that? But I grew up with Seventh Day Adventists. No pork. I never tasted pork until I was an adult. On top of that, my mother was a Sephardic Jew.

What? She ever tell you that?

I don't think she even knew. I found out after she was dead. I'm really into my own geneaology. In fact, I'm starting a geneaology class at the University of Washington this fall. I had a clue that she was Jewish. All her food was Jewish, like capirotada (a layered bread pudding). Her parents' surnames are Jewish, but I didn't know that until later. I figured it out after she died.

That is amazing.

It is. And that's exactly what I love. Food travels. People adapt to their surroundings, acquire other cultures through food, then they mix it into their lives and it becomes part of their own traditions.

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