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The Way We Eat

The Way We Eat: Alina Mendoza, Middle School Math Teacher in Miami

updated Aug 21, 2019
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Name: Alina Mendoza, middle school math teacher
Location: Miami, Florida
Who eats together? Between 2 and 4 people
Avoidances? We have no restrictions, no allergies, but our preference is Cuban food

Alina Mendoza is a middle school math teacher at a private school in Miami, Florida. Her three kids are now grown adults, but she’ll never technically be an empty nester, thanks to a revolving door of family and friends who come for the Cuban food and stay for the company. Here, Alina talks about feeding herself during the school year, forgetting to eat (on occasion), and her one-of-a-kind Coca-Cola kitchen.

Credit: Christine Bauta/Kitchn

Can you PLEASE tell us the story behind your epic kitchen?

When we first moved into this house, I decided that red was going to be the accent color for my kitchen, so people started giving me red things like dish towels, bowls, and the paper towel holder and the thing where you put all your utensils in. I would be like Oh, look how cute that Cocoa-Cola sign is. It’s red and it matches my kitchen! So I’d buy it. That’s how it started and now, 30 years later, here we are.

It’s almost like a shrine to Coca-Cola now. No Pepsi allowed.

I went to Atlanta a few weekends ago for the first time in my life and I went to the Coca-Cola museum and I was so unimpressed. My kitchen has more than the museum! And yes, if someone brings Pepsi here, I kick them out!

Credit: Christine Bauta/Kitchn

Did you buy anything from the gift shop?

Very little because I already had almost everything. I got a few Christmas ornaments that I don’t already have.

What’s your favorite piece of Coke memorabilia?

I have several favorites! I have special pieces. My older sister was a model in Spain (she’s three years older) and I have her ads for Coca-Cola that she did.

And you know how Coke started producing cans and bottles with names on them? My niece found ones in Spain that say Antonio, Catalina, and Victoria — the names of my three kids. So that’s special. Then she found one of the big bottles that had Mendoza on that. By chance, it was just, wow.

Credit: Christine Bauta/Kitchn

Walk me through what a typical day looks like for you.

I am not a morning person, so there’s absolutely no breakfast. I get up and I have a big cold glass of milk with instant Cuban coffee (Bustelo) and sugar. It’s like an instant iced coffee, but mostly milk. And then I go to school where I teach math to the middle schoolers (grades 6 through 8). We have great lunches at the school I teach at, so I just eat there. I don’t have to cook or pack lunch.

So lucky!

Yes, it’s great. In the summer, I don’t eat. I lose all the weight I gained during the school year! I do that diet where you don’t eat for like 16 hours and have one meal a day. When I learned about intermittent fasting I was like Oh, I didn’t know that that had a name! That’s what I do!

Credit: Christine Bauta/Kitchn

What’s the cafeteria food like?

We have a full salad bar, deli bar, a different soup every day, and hot meals you can choose from. There’s pasta, chicken Parmesan, chicken fingers, lo mein, rice and beans with pork, some Cuban food, and there’s always a vegetarian option. We get fed well. The only thing we don’t get is dessert because they don’t want to give sugar to the kids.

That sounds epic. What do you do when you get home?

When I get home, I sit down and I watch TV while I grade papers. A teacher never stops! Then I have dinner at some point. If I don’t cook cook, I always have things to make sandwiches. I’ll either toast it, throw it on the panini press, or just have it not toasted. I make a lot of pasta too, but I don’t consider that cooking. Pasta is easy.

Maybe once a week I make a picadillo, which is ground beef with sauce and rice. When I do cook, I make a lot. The day I make it, we eat it with rice and two fried eggs. The following day, we might eat it just with rice. The third day I add more tomato sauce and make spaghetti and eat it that way.

  • Biggest challenge in eating? Eating all together. My kids are grown-up now and we have a large extended family.
  • Percentage of meals you cook at home every week? Right now I cook 2 to 3 times a week.
  • 5 things on your grocery list every week? Milk, rice, chicken, ham and cheese, bread.
  • Where do you shop, primarily? I shop at Publix.
  • What’s the last food thing you splurged on? Haagen Dazs chocolate ice cream. 
  • Top 3 default dinners? Picadillo (Cuban ground beef) and rice with two fried eggs, breaded chicken cutlets marinated with garlic and sour orange, and chicken with Herbs de Provence.
  • Favorite thing to eat while watching TV? A sandwich with chips.
  • Cookbook you actually cook out of? Cocina al Minuto.
Credit: Christine Bauta/Kitchn

Do you usually only cook for one?

I kind of have a revolving door around here. My kids, Toto, Kika, and Viki, are grown-up and mostly live on their own now. They are always working! I tell them, Hey I’m cooking this or that — you guys want to come? And they’ll sometimes take me up on it.

We have a big extended family too, so someone is always here. This last week I had like 20 people show up in and out for dinner to see photos from our last vacation. Then a few days later, my nieces came to visit from Spain. And then we had my nephew’s birthday here, so another 20 people were here.

Oh, so just small gatherings … what do you make when all these people come over?

A lot of times I make arroz con pollo, which is chicken and yellow rice cooked all together. You can make everything ahead of time, all you have to do is boil the water, put the rice in, and let it all cook together with the chicken and sofrito, which is onions, peppers, and garlic. Is there a name for that in English?

That’s a great question! I’ll look into it.

Ha! I like to make things that I can prepare ahead of time and then just put it all together when everyone is here. I do a lot of black beans and rice. I like to buy pork shoulder; marinate it with a lot of garlic, sour orange, onions; and put it in the oven for like 10 hours. It breaks apart and is so delicious.

Credit: Christine Bauta/Kitchn

Did your kids pay attention and learn how to cook all these things too?

Viki, my youngest, paid attention when I cooked. She did call me a lot for help in the beginning when she first moved out, but she caught on and started experimenting. My son, Toto, likes to cook too. Kika hates cooking. She’ll call and say “This is disgusting! Why did you tell me to go through all of this and make this disgusting thing? I’m never cooking again in my life.” Viki and Toto will keep my recipes going.

Best cooking tip: The best cooking happens low and slow: low temps for a long time.

Credit: Christine Bauta/Kitchn

Okay, so if you rarely eat, what are you sipping on?

I drink water nonstop. I used to be obsessed with Coke, but I had to quit that one. And I don’t like Diet Coke — it’s not the same — so water it is.

Thanks so much for chatting, Alina!

Editor: Ariel Knutson
Editorial Advisor: Leela Cyd

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.