One in a collection of essays celebrating the cooking of our mothers.

Molletes, a traditional Mexican open-face sandwich of refried beans spread over sliced rolls, topped with cheese and broiled until warm. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

My mom tried to teach me many things when I was young — how to sew, how to garden, how to speak Spanish — but the one thing she didn’t try to teach is the one that really stuck: how to navigate the kitchen.

We didn’t have many things when I was growing up in rural eastern Washington state in the 1990s (the literal largest thing missing from my early years was a television), but we did have a big vegetable garden, tended by my mom and weeded — begrudgingly — by my older sister, Janessa, and me. And when mom was in the kitchen, we’d observe and help. (Or, probably more often, Janessa would help and I would play with the giant tub of flour. See earlier sentence about lack of television.)

Mom, ever a do-it-yourselfer, has always liked being able to control the quality of our food. Processed things were kept at a minimum, partly out of concern about their lack of nutritional value but also to save money. The one store-bought “food” I came to crave most was canned rainbow chip frosting: I didn’t taste it until I was about 10 years old and at a friend’s house, because at home, frosting was just a mix of confectioners’ sugar, milk, vanilla extract and a little melted butter.

From left to right, Lupe Villegas (the author’s great-grandmother), Janessa Russo (the author’s sister), Kara Elder and Tami Elder (the author’s mother) in 1990. (Jerry Elder/Family Photo )

Meat-and-potato dishes were more the norm in our neck of the farm fields, but my mom’s Mexican background — her father’s family had moved to the United States in the early 1920s — helped broaden all our palates, including that of my raised-on-beef stew dad, who was then a farmer. (That didn’t stop me from pouring barbecue sauce over my tacos and instantly rendering them inauthentic, but no matter.)

In the summer of 1995, my mom spent two months studying Mexican anthropology in Guadalajara, Mexico; Janessa joined her after the first month, which meant my dad and I fended for ourselves. We survived on chicken tenders, hot dogs and spaghetti with purchased meatballs, my dad told me recently. He added, “makes me wonder how we didn’t starve.”

When Mom returned, we hadn’t starved, and she had learned how easy it is to make molletes (pronounced moh-YEH-tehs), a traditional Mexican open-face sandwich of refried beans spread over halved bolillos, a type of Mexican roll, then topped with cheese and broiled until warm. The family she lived with in Mexico served them for breakfast or as an afternoon snack, and she soon followed suit when back in Washington. Molletes perfectly encapsulate the foods I most associate with my mom: simple, nutritious without being obnoxious and totally adaptable to whatever ingredients you like or have on hand.

Adaptability and confidence — in my abilities, cooking and otherwise — are some of the most important lessons my mom, however inadvertently, taught me. As she often says when extolling the virtues of homemade pie crust: “It’s three ingredients, and you’re an educated woman. You can do it!”

And so I have. But that — and a killer rhubarb custard pie recipe — is an essay for another time.

More Mother’s Day essays:

My mom doesn’t cook ‘fancy,’ but she inspires me to do just that

In the kitchen, my mother followed the rules — straight from her sister

My mother and I battled over food, until she made one special thing

It didn’t matter that we lived in Denver. In our house, soul food reigned

Mom didn’t teach me to cook. She taught me confidence, in and out the kitchen

A mother’s lesson in cooking for a crowd: Rely on the tried, true and remembered

My mother had no chops in the kitchen, but she pulled off one thing beautifully

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2 to 4 servings

Molletes (pronounced moh-YEH-tehs) traditionally are made with bolillos, a type of Mexican roll; any crusty, chewy bread will do. This is a good use for stale bread, too.

When Tami Elder doesn’t have homemade refried beans on hand or is in a hurry, she rinses canned beans, warms them in the microwave or stove and mashes them with some warm water and a little chili powder.

During peak tomato season, the molletes are even more excellent topped with slices of tomato and a sprinkle of flaked sea salt. Ripe avocado slices are a good alternative.

From Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, resident Tami Elder.


2 large, chewy rolls, preferably bolillos (see headnote)

11/3 cups refried beans (see related recipe)

1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco or cotija cheese

Handful chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for serving (optional)

Salsa or hot sauce, for serving (optional)


Position an oven rack 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Cut each roll in half lengthwise and arrange them on the baking sheet, cut sides up. Spread 1/3 cup of the refried beans on each of the 4 halves and scatter the cheese over the top of each one. Broil for about 5 minutes or until the beans are warmed through and beginning to dry, the bread has darkened around the edges and the cheese is just starting to brown in spots.

Scatter the cilantro on top, if using. Serve hot, with salsa or hot sauce, if desired.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 4): 290 calories, 13 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 490 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Recipe tested by Kara Elder; e-mail questions to