Mom-daughter team working today
by Brenda Pedraza-Vidamour, Special to The Newnan Times-Herald
Mirta Pagán, a 59-year-old pastry cook, arrives first thing every morning five days a week to start the prep work at a small Puerto Rican diner in Senoia.
She’ll show up on Mother’s Day, too, because that’s what mothers do for their children. Pagán works with her daughter, Liza Caraballo, at La Perla del Sur, a restaurant that specializes in traditional Boricua-style dishes including pasteles (Puerto Rican tamale) and mofongo (plantain-based dish).
Pagán returned to the States two years ago from Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city. It’s referred to as the island’s capitol of the south or the pearl of the south, hence the restaurant’s homage to its name. Pagán left Ponce in response to pleas from Caraballo’s husband, Jose. He begged his mother-in-law for relief when he realized the demands of running a Puerto Rican kitchen.
“A lot of stuff we make is very time-consuming and labor-intensive,” Liza Caraballo said, such as the two days it takes to prepare the pasteles. “He freaked out.”
Although Liza is a talented chef, Jose convinced his mother-in-law that with her added experience, she would lend a higher degree of authenticity to the dishes. Pagán welcomed the opportunity, and the Caraballos were thrilled.
“Can’t be any more authentic than to have an actual Puerto Rican cooking,” Liza Caraballo said.
Pagán worked for nine years at a country club north of Detroit, an improbable venue for her ethnic cooking. A mother of four, Pagán lived with her 36-year-old daughter in Pontiac, Mich.
When Caraballo relocated to Georgia three years ago after a managerial promotion with Wal-Mart, Pagán returned to Puerto Rico to care for her ailing mother, and then Caraballo left Wal-Mart to pursue her lifelong dream.
“As much as I liked retail, my dream was always to open a restaurant. I’m very proud of my heritage and Puerto Rican culture, and I know here in Georgia there’s not a lot of opportunity to celebrate it,” she said.
To continue preserving their traditions, Caraballo and Pagán are passing on their cooking skills to Caraballo’s teen-aged sons. One regularly prepares some of the mofongo dishes and pastries, but Caraballo concedes the teens, who are good cooks, may not be as up to par on work ethics as their grandmother. It’s a minor point of contention between the two women. Pagán thinks it’s time for the young men to learn they should follow through with tasks like putting away ingredients after preparing a dish.
“There is the oil and garlic already. He finish and don’t say nothing,” Pagán complains about a mess left behind.
Caraballo forgives her sons more readily. “They’re teens, the fact that they come here at all,” to learn and help is impressive enough for her, for now.
Caraballo and Pagán, who spend most of their time together from gym classes to work to church services, will postpone celebrating Mother’s Day until Monday or Tuesday when the restaurant is typically closed.
“We’ll probably offer a mofongo with shrimp on Sunday and some other specialty, like the piña colada cake,” Caraballo said.
While they prepare those specialties, Caraballo expects her mother to be looking over her shoulder ensuring quality control.
“She supervises me a lot. The owner thing (on the business card) is for the public,” she says. “I never tell her what to do.”
“She’s the boss. Sometimes she ask me, but she has the last word,” Pagán counters.
“We tend to say that I’m the owner, but she’s a little more bossy than I am,” Caraballo says, laughing and having that last word.