Some might say the story of Josefina Cruz and her family serve as a reminder of the power of a mother’s love and resilience — especially on Mother’s Day.
Cruz and her son, Manuel Perez, own and operate Grandma’s Kitchen, 36 S. Colville St., in downtown Walla Walla.
Now at age 89, Cruz still cooks every day to stay active and to share her family’s authentic and traditional recipes with the community.
The restaurant got its name when Cruz’s children and grandchildren came to the same conclusion that grandma’s kitchen is where they all wanted to be.
“Everybody spends a lot of their time in her kitchen,” her son said. “Take Christmas for example. Everyone would come in to see what she was making, and they would all learn how to cook. It was a lot of fun to see the younger generation become interested in how their meal was prepared.”
Cruz was born in a small village in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico. She grew up in an agricultural family that grew and raised every bite they ate. What today’s society would call an “organic diet” was the only way to survive for Cruz and her family.
At age 15, she moved to Mexico City with her godmother, Celia Mercado. Eventually she met her husband, the senior Manuel Perez, and they started a family.
Her son said Cruz loves to cook, but she didn’t come to find that love easily.
At 7:18 a.m. Sept. 19, 1985, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the coast of the Mexican state of Michoacán and caused catastrophic damage in Mexico City.
The Perez family was living on the fourth floor of a building when the ground started to shake. The family rushed outside, but the senior Manuel Perez ran back in to rescue their youngest child, Ricardo, who was 2 years old. Just as he entered, the building collapsed, killing both him and their child. Cruz and the other five children survived.
“We didn’t just lose my father and my brother, we lost a lot of friends and neighbors, too,” Perez said.
An estimated 10,000 people died in the earthquake.
Cruz had to pick up the pieces of the chaos the earthquake brought her and her children, so she began to cook to make enough money for her family to survive.
“She grabbed whatever she could find and started cooking,” Perez said. “She cooked to keep us alive.”
Perez said the earthquake’s aftermath was the first time she had cooked for many people at one time. “She didn’t know that in the future she would do that for a living,” he said.
In 1988, Perez emigrated from Mexico City to the United States, and attended California State University in San Bernardino and Fresno. In 2000, he joined the U.S. Navy and served two deployments over five years. He then served with the National Guard for another five years as an Army Reserve.
In 2007, both Perez and his mother, Cruz, moved to Walla Walla to be closer to family. That same year, they decided to start a business, but Perez said cooking was his mom’s idea.
“We started at the local farmers markets selling sopes, huaraches, flautas and tacos,” Perez said. “We did this for seven years before we had the opportunity to lease this space.”
He said in the beginning, they didn’t have a lot, just a picnic table and some plastic tableware. Today, Grandma’s Kitchen is lined with pots and pans with an artful menu hanging over the kitchen that Perez said hasn’t changed in nine years. Multiple tables and chairs span the floor of the restaurant.
Grandma’s Kitchen serves authentic and traditional food that originate from family recipes from various regions across Mexico. Daily specials are made to make sure the food is as fresh as possible, and it’s all cooked in tradition. Wednesdays call for chile rellenos while on Fridays the special is molé, which Perez said takes days for his mother to make depending on the type.
Perez, who also has a love of cooking, said he learned from his mother and grandmother.
“My grandmother always said just appreciate what mother nature gives you,” he said. “She never stopped cooking either and she was always in the firepit, on her knees, making tortillas or coffee. She would run into the backyard and grab cactus that I would peel and put on the grill. We always had spicy salsa. I can still smell the wood burning from the fire that would sometimes make you cry. Nobody knew why you were crying, either the food was too hot, it was too spicy, or it was the smoke in the kitchen.”
Perez asked his mother, ¿Quién te enseñó a cocinar?
Who taught you to cook?
She replied, “Mi mamá.”
She said the first thing she learned how to do in the kitchen was how to prepare corn to make dough for tortillas. She would tediously pull each kernel off the cob and then grind the corn to flour using a stone molcajete and tejolote, which is like a mortar and pestle.
At 89, Cruz said she cooks to stay active both physically and mentally. “She likes to walk and loves to dance,” Perez said. “She loves music and sometimes she sings. She loves every single one of her grandkids.”
Her family is four generations strong: Cruz, her children, eight grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Through her cooking, Cruz has instilled valuable life lessons in her children to be passed down from generation to generation. Perez said his mother has taught him honesty, responsibility and to always taste the food before you serve it.
“Not too many people have the pleasure of doing what they love,” Perez said. “She doesn’t work. She lives to cook. The reward of her hard work is when people leave happy, and their bellies are full.”