By Larry Levine –

The first time I saw Yolanda Quintero she was sitting on a bench in the shade near the sun-drenched concrete playground at the elementary school we attended near downtown Los Angeles. She was 12; I was 10.

Yolanda was the first Mexican person I ever met. I thought she was beautiful and I was fascinated by her accent. Her family immigrated from Mexico long before immigration would become the political tinderbox it is now.

We went to the movie theater together a couple of times a month. We did homework together at her home after school. I ate Mexican food for the first time with her family at their home. Her mother taught me how to make tortillas and said she thought I was Mexican in my heart.

I was invited to spend Cinco de Mayo with her father, mother and two brothers at their home. The back yard was filled with uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces. They had found out my birthday was May 5 and had a special birthday pinata for me.

Yolanda and I were virtually inseparable that school year. Then we moved away and I never saw her again. But I took with me many things I’ve treasured through my life. The culture I found with the Quintero family is filled with many of the same things as my Jewish culture – family, food, music, and laughter. In my bachelor years, trips to Mexico for long weekends became favorite destinations. As the Mexican immigrant population grew, I heard the language around me as music. I love Mexican food and music. One day, as I stood in the checkout line at my local supermarket, I was softly singing You Belong to My Heart. The clerk asked if that was Solamente Una Vis. I told her it was the English language version of the song. She started singing the Mexican lyric and I made it a bi-lingual duet.

When my cardiologist told me, after my coronary bypass surgery, I should not eat in Mexican restaurants because of the fat content of the food, I resolved to cook Mexican food at home with far less fat.

The story of Yolanda and me as friends is chapter four – California Here I Am – in my food memoir, Cooking for a Beautiful Woman. ( Here’s my personal recipe for guacamole. The chapter also includes recipes for chili con carne, beef tacos, chicken tacos, cheese enchiladas, chicken enchiladas, steak ranchero, shrimp ranchero, and Spanish rice.

4 large avocados, mashed
¼ cup onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice (or more to taste)
1.2 teaspoon sweet paprika
salt to taste
Tabasco sauce to taste
¼ teaspoon chili powder (or more to taste)
1 medium tomato, chopped (or more to taste)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

With a fork, mix together the avocados, onion, lime juice, and paprika. Mix in the salt and tabasco. Mix in the chili powder. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Stir in the tomatoes and cilantro. Taste again and adjust. For a creamier Guacamole, mix in some olive oil to taste.

Serve with tortilla chips.

Makes about three to four cups of dip or topping.

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