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My students and I volunteered at a facility called Villa Maria.  Villa Maria provides long-term (up to two years) housing for women as they recover from domestic violence and deal with issues such as addiction, unemployment and US residency/citizenship.  We painted walls, buffed and waxed floors, and sorted more cans of diced green chile than I realized existed in the continental United States.  We also met a group of amazing women who survive and thrive in community there.  There are 22 women in Villa Maria’s residential facility take turns making dinner.  One one of the evenings we were there, a woman I’ll call V took her turn in the kitchen.  I found myself helping her prepare food, and I wanted to share her story and her recipe.  She is an inspiring person, and I’d like to see her wisdom passed along.

Students volunteering at Villa Maria

My students and I pose while doing service. I’m pretty sure the floors were cleaner than we were at this point.  I wish I had a photo of V to share instead.  Photo credit: Luciana Rodrigues

V made a chicken dish called “pollo homeless.”  She said that she had been homeless twice.  The second time, it happened right before she was placed in Villa Maria.  The first time happened right after she arrived in the El Paso from her hometown of Juarez.  She had just arrived in the US and found a place to stay for the night when she saw an old man cooking.  She told him his food looked delicious and asked him how to make it.  He gave her a list of ingredients, and she used the money she had to go to the grocery store and buy everything on the list.  When she returned to the place where she was staying, she realized that though she had ingredients, she lacked a pot to cook it in.

So, she took her chicken and all her vegetables, and went asking everyone she could find if they had a pot.  She eventually found yet another old man who told her that he had a pot, but that she would have to help him look for it.  He must have exhibited some hoarding tendencies, because this took them a very long time, and they got to have a conversation as they searched.  She explained that it was her first time cooking, and the old man noted his surprise that she was a woman and she couldn’t cook.  He sent his girlfriend to help her out.  V and the old man’s girlfriend prepared the recipe, but when it came time to preheat the oven, V asked her how to turn it on, only get the similar surprise that she was a Mexican woman and she could not cook.

To this day, V maintains that she can’t cook.  Everyone who ate her dish begged to differ.  It’s called “Pollo Homeless,” and this is how she made it.  Unfortunately, I don’t have exact quantities, as we cooked enough for about 30 people to eat.  As a rule, cover the chicken liberally with all the other ingredients.

Ingredients

  • Chicken, cut into pieces so that breasts, drumsticks, etc. are separate
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Soy Sauce
  • BBQ Sauce

Directions

  • Wash chicken and veggies
  • Arrange chicken in baking pan
  • Top with washed, chopped vegetables (all pieces of broccoli/celery/cauliflower/carrots should be bite sized).
  • Lightly coat chicken/veggie mix with soy sauce.  Use enough that you can tell the soy sauce is there, but not so much as to overwhelm the natural flavors.
  • Add plenty of water to the pan so the chicken will retain moisture, because it will be in the oven for a while.
  • Cover with aluminum foil and bake 2 hours at 400 degrees (it may take less time for smaller portions- we had to make several large pans).
  • Take pan(s) out of oven.  Cover with an ample portion of BBQ sauce.
  • Replace and cook at the same temperature for 30 more minutes.
  • Serve over steamed rice.

I am vegetarian, so trying this would have wreaked havoc on my digestive system, but I considered taking the pollo plunge and trying this.  Despite the long times at hot temperatures, the chicken looked moist and the veggies looked flavorful.

While we were cooking, V shared another story.  When she came to the US, she did not speak English, so she enrolled in community college courses to gain use of the language.  While she was a student, she inquired about finding work in the city.  The staff person at the college told her that she would have to wait three months, but she was persistent in checking in to look for work, and eventually she learned about a job in the museum.  The only problem, she said, was that the hiring manager was a woman with one Spanish word in her vocabulary: “No.”

“I looked at the lady,” she said, “and I told her that was ok, because I only knew one English word: yes.”

V took the bus to the museum, and she realized that she might need to know a little more English to get the job.  A passerby wrote down a short statement about who she was and how she had come to apply for the job.  She practiced reading the statement aloud all the way to the museum, and she had memorized it by the time she arrived.  She approached the hiring manager and told her that she had been sent from the college to interview for the position.  The woman made a response, but she didn’t understand at first, because she spoke in English.  At first V was a little disappointed, but the woman reassured her that she was hired.

V’s positivity and perseverance are inspiring to me.  I felt so lucky to sit with her at the meal she prepared and watch the students and Villa Maria residents as they complimented her on her cooking.  It was a better seat than any chef’s table at any fine restaurant.  I am fortunate to have learned from her about cooking and life.

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