The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Julia Lashae


Photo by Elsa Hahne

“My family is from south Texas and my grandfather got a job with Gulf Oil. They had oil camps down in the countries where they had their oil fields, and my grandparents moved down to Venezuela. My father actually spent most of his childhood there. My grandmother started to learn all these Venezuelan recipes and got really good at them. They came back when my father was in college. After my father got married and they had all of us, my grandmother would always make these Venezuelan recipes. Every Saturday, she’d make chilaquiles and chicken mole, she’d make her version of tacos, which were more like flautas—rolled and fried. She’d make guacamole, which is my favorite food, always has been. My mom said that my little sister and I would sit at the table with one tortilla chip, one big Frito, and we would sit there and lick the guacamole off the chip. We didn’t know you were supposed to eat the chip. Being born in the southern part of Texas, we were around Tex-Mex all the time, but you could tell that there was a difference between what we ate at my grandmother’s house and what you ate when you went to the Tex-Mex restaurants in town.

I should make mole more often. I make it more for special occasions these days. I have Celiac disease, so everything has to be gluten-free. Almost everything that my grandmother made from Venezuela is corn-based, and corn doesn’t have gluten in it, so I should make it more often than I do. I tend to make a lot of grilled food, and veggies, but when I have time—I’ll show you, you actually have to let the mole simmer for an hour or two, so it’s not something to make when you’re really hungry and need to eat immediately.

My grandmother always served corn tortillas with butter and salt; that was what we would eat for bread. No Bunny bread. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get diagnosed with Celiac disease until I got older, when I started to eat more whole grain wheat bread, trying to be healthy, but I just got sick, really sick.

With mole, you want to put all of your flavors in with the fat first, and get all of that melded together and then you add your tomato juice and your broth. You need to use a big stew pot. We always cooked big in our family. In our family, we have five kids, and my grandmother was one of nine, so we’re used to making really large amounts.

When my grandmother was getting older, all of us wanted copies of her recipes, this amazing Venezuelan food that we didn’t have access to any other way. We asked her, but she did all of them in her head. She didn’t have anything written down, and she couldn’t tell you.

So for about a week, my older sister followed her and wrote down everything, how she did it. She couldn’t even tell you the measurements. She’d just pour it in her hand and throw it in there, so my sister measured everything, a teaspoon, a tablespoon. This is my older sister’s handwriting.

My grandmother was probably in her late forties when she came back to the States. When my sister went over to her house and followed her, she was close to 80. She had been back for over 30 years and she was still cooking Venezuelan food almost every Saturday. Every now and then, she’d do a pot roast or something, but it was almost always chilaquiles in a casserole style, or chicken mole or the tacos or enchiladas. Every now and then she’d make tamales for us. It was hearty winter food, comfort food. She still made it like she was still there.

I cook mole for Rob, my boyfriend. And when my family gets together, I usually make the chicken enchiladas and we had that instead of turkey at Thanksgiving.

With the enchiladas recipe, we’ve made little adjustments along the way, added different ingredients. Sometimes, we make it with black beans while my grandmother only used pinto beans. We’re not competitive about food, my siblings and I. It’s more that we tend to take the recipes and, ‘Hey, I tried this,’ and get tips from each other, how to make it better, but I don’t think it’s possible to improve on grandma’s recipes. We try different things, but me, I go back to her recipes the way she did them because they taste the best and that’s how I remember it. I’ve tried her guacamole recipe with cooked onions instead of the raw, and that’s really good. But the mole recipe I don’t mess with.”


Grandma Beulah’s Mole Sauce

“I tend to like a thinner sauce because I like it to really soak into the meat and the rice.”

Serve this sauce warm over shredded chicken or pork (or anything, really.) Yields about 2 quarts.

6 tablespoons (mild) chili powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon cocoa
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons lard (chicken fat or bacon drippings)
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
3 cups tomato juice
1 1/2 quarts chicken broth
4 tablespoons corn starch

Mix dry spices. Heat lard in heavy pot or Dutch oven. Fry spices in fat for 1 minute. Stir as not to burn. Add peanut butter and cook slowly about 3 minutes. Add tomato paste and juice. Dissolve cornstarch in one cup of broth, then add this with remaining broth. Cover and simmer for at least 1 hour.