This article is part of Neglecteda series of obituaries on extraordinary people whose deaths, starting in 1851, were not reported in the Times.
In 1934, Elena Zelayeta was an up-and-coming Mexican chef expecting her second child when her eyesight began to fail. She visited a doctor, who told her there was no hope: a mature cataract and a detached retina would leave her blind.
Her disability forced her away from Elena’s Mexican Village, the San Francisco restaurant she ran for four years, serving chili swimming with ground beef and piping hot soups with mounds of soft, cheesy pasta in a rich tomato broth. In the absence of its reference figure, the restaurant was soon crushed by debt, to the point of closing. Zelayeta herself fell into such a ferocious depression that she considered ending her life.
But after two years of inaction, cooking lifted her out of her misery. She relied on her other senses, cracking the eggs in the palms of her hands and separating them, letting the sticky insides slip between her fingers; smell the fat deeply to evaluate its temperature; and poking the meat with your fingers to determine whether it is done.
She would go on to write four cookbooks, a self-help book, and a memoir, star in a cooking show in the early 1950s, when food television was in its infancy, and start her own frozen food brand in an era when Swanson TV dinners were just starting to gain public favor. All of this made Zelayeta America’s foremost evangelist of Mexican cuisine for three decades.
His success came at a time when many Americans viewed Mexican cuisine in disparaging terms. “I think Mexican food was considered kind of low-level party food,” a granddaughter, also named Elena Zelayeta, after her grandmother, said in an interview. “I don’t think it was intended as a kitchen.”
Elena Loshuertos was born on October 3, 1897 to a family of Spanish immigrants in Mexico City. Her father, Don Manuel Loshuertos, and her mother, Doña Luisa Soriano, operated an inn and restaurant in El Mineral del Oro, a small gold mining town about 80 miles northeast of Mexico City .
Elena helped her mother in the kitchen, stringing bright cherry peppers to dry in the sun, grinding cumin seeds with a mortar and pestle, and moistening and heating tortillas.
What was supposed to be a family vacation in San Francisco turned into a permanent stay with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, when the family home was destroyed.
The family’s first months in San Francisco were “filled with sadness as we tried with all our might to adapt to the strange ways of a new land,” Zelayeta wrote in her self-help book, “Elena’s Life Lessons” ( 1947). Discrimination was routine: At school, students teased Elena and her siblings for the staccato intonation of their speech. To make ends meet, she sold her mother’s tamales door to door.
It was during the bouts of the Depression, when work was difficult to find, that Zelayeta decided to realize his long-held dream of running a restaurant. She and her husband, Lorenzo Zelayeta, whose family also came from Mexico, began serving chiles rellenos, or cheese-stuffed peppers, in their seven-room apartment, covering the tables with pastel-colored tablecloths.
Their local restaurant was such a success that Zelayeta soon moved it to a building in downtown San Francisco. There, his jubilant personality was as much of an attraction as his enchiladas: he danced for the crowd as they shouted “Olé!“
It was a difficult time for Mexican immigrants, with white Americans accusing them of depriving them of their jobs as workers. From 1929 to 1936, the government by force hear more than one million Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Mexico.
“The importance of his work, to me, is to popularize Mexican food in the West, and eventually nationally, during a time when many Americans were openly racist towards Mexican/Mexican American people and our culture,” Teresa Finney, who runs a micro-bakery, At Heart Panaderia, wrote in an email.
As Elena’s Mexican village prospered, her eyesight worsened. The faces of her regulars and friends became imperceptible to her. She could barely make out her reflection in her mirror. “I felt that blindness was something to hide, something to be ashamed of,” she later recalled.
But over time she would become proud of her new identity as a blind woman. “I once cried out against her for her cruelty in taking away my sight,” she wrote in her memoir, published in 1960. “Now I thank her for the happiness this blindness has brought me.”
She taught herself how to caramelize sugar without ruining the bottom of the pan, how to turn on the stove over and over again until it became second nature to her, how to fry chiles rellenos without setting herself on fire.
Her repertoire of recipes became so vast that a group of home economists convinced her to document her knowledge in a cookbook, her first: “Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes” (1944).
The book was a collective effort: She collected her recipes — including quesadillas stuffed with taffy-like cheese, guacamole bejeweled with pomegranate seeds, and flaky caramel flan — and dictated them to friends, who in turn wrote them down on a typewriter. Then they grilled her with questions to make sure her instructions were airtight.
The cookbook, which appeared during World War II, when Americans were increasingly curious about cuisines beyond their borders, was an immediate success. It reportedly it sold half a million copies in its lifetime.
The appeal of his recipes was broadened by their flexibility. He wrote, for example, that sprinkling American chocolate with cinnamon would suffice if readers couldn’t find Mexican chocolate in a grocery store. The Los Angeles Times described she as a “famous authority on south-of-the-border culinary art.”
Even though tragedy struck Zelayeta – her husband would die in a freak car accident – cooking attracted her. Her friends encouraged her to record her resilience in a self-help book, complete with recipes, which made her a local celebrity in the Bay Area. She began starring in a weekly 15-minute cook-off show, “It’s Fun to Eat with Elena,” broadcast throughout California. During broadcasts, crew members would pull on cords attached to his ankles to signal which of the two cameras he should look at.
But it was Zelayeta’s subsequent cookbooks that catapulted her to national fame. Longtime New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne crowned the third of those books, “Secrets of Elena’s Mexican Cooking” (1958), the “definitive volume on the subject.”
She then began packaging her Spanish-style enchiladas, tacos and meatballs into freezer-ready meals, sold throughout Northern California under the Elena’s Food Specialties label. Her social circle came to include Julia Child and foodie James Beard.
Zelayeta was 70 when she published her last cookbook, “Elena’s Favorite Foods California Style” (1967), a eulogy to the food cultures of immigrants – Mexican, Japanese, Italian – that had imprinted themselves on the state’s palate. By then, other cookbook authors would join in popularizing Mexican cuisine, even those without a connection to Mexico, such as British-born Diana Kennedy.
Zelayeta died of complications from a stroke in a convalescent home in Pacifica, a city outside San Francisco, on March 31, 1974. He was 76 years old.
Reflecting on her career, she writes in “Elena’s Life Lessons”: “Of all the handicaps that afflict us, the greatest by far is fear. We all have it. Everyone must work to conquer it.”
Mayukh Sen is the author of “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America” (2021). She has won a James Beard Award for her writing on food and her work has been anthologized in three editions of “The Best American Food Writing.”