For the love of art — and great food

If we were to define the life of Guadalupe Riess in two words, they would be dance and food. Her father, an Austrian engineer who immigrated to Mexico in the 1920s, inspired her to become a professional ballet dancer in her early youth. Her mother, a member of a family of farmers and fishermen from the Mexican Northwest, taught her the value of fresh and diverse meals. Then destiny took care of the rest.

Her parents moved to the Yucatan in the 1940s. The house they set in was in the heart of Merida’s Lebanese neighborhood. Between school and ballet lessons, Guadalupe would be by her mother’s side, as she mingled with the women of the neighborhood, learning the recipes that make the Middle Eastern cuisine so rich. But that was not all.

Yucatan, home of the ancient Mayan civilization, is also home of Mexico’s richest cuisine as a result of the blending of traditional European dishes, and the indigenous flare. Guadalupe’s mind is full of childhood memories around that culinary tradition.

“I remember waking up before dawn at our beach house to help my mother collect conch from the shore and then spending all morning making the most delicious caracol en escabeche I’ve ever tasted,” she recalls. “I also remember helping my mother make Lebanese cabbage rolls for her monthly reunion with the neighborhood ladies, or wrapping the freshly-made cornmeal in banana leaves to make tamales from scratch for the block’s annual Christmas party.”

Big meals were always part of Guadalupe’s life, as the Riesses loved to host large groups of artists and intellectuals. “Every weekend our house was full of musicians, poets, artists and such,” Guadalupe recalls. “And every weekend I was there to help my mother cooking for the gathering.”

When Guadalupe opened her first dance academy teaching classic ballet, Polynesian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Spanish dances, such Bohemian lifestyle came in hand. Over the years, the academy’s graduation festivals —a combination of dance performances and food from all those parts of the world— became famous in town. Soon, people began to ask her to cater for family events and parties. It wasn’t long before Guadalupe found herself managing her dance academy, directing the state’s Fine Arts Institute, and launching a small catering business.

Such a busy life led Guadalupe to an early retirement from teaching ballet and into the food business, as she opened her first restaurant. But life had other plans for her.

It is no surprise that Guadalupe’s only daughter also became a ballerina. When Erika moved to Havana to be a part of Cuban's National Dance Company, Guadalupe was frequently on Cuban soil making sure her daughter had all she needed to excel as a dancer. Those trips to Cuba changed —once again— Guadalupe’s life, she fell in love with the island’s spirituality and, of course, with its food.

“Soon enough I found myself cooking congrí for a large group of people in Havana,” she recalls. “At first the ladies in the group were skeptical. After all, there was this Mexican woman cooking Cuba’s most famous dish. But when they had a taste of it, they loved it. It was the beginning of a great relationship with Cuba.”

Guadalupe’s book of recipes continued to grow. Her catering business menu now included Yucatecan, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Hawaiian, and Caribbean cuisine, but life had yet, another surprise for her.

When Guadalupe’s son, Francisco, moved to North Carolina, she flirted with the idea of living in the U.S. which would allow her to spend more time with her grandson, Patricio. After a quick visit to Winston-Salem, she was enchanted by the city and decided to move there and start a new life. She soon found herself helping the local library in their efforts to bring the love of arts to Hispanic children. A year after her arrival, Guadalupe received the Volunteer of the Year Award by then governor Mike Easley.

Through the Hispanic Arts Initiative, Guadalupe met a group of local and foreign artists. What followed was a reenactment of the famous gatherings at the Riess home back in Merida —with these came the Lebanese rolls, the Yucatecan tamales, the Cuban congrí and much more.

One summer afternoon, during a festival in downtown Winston-Salem, surrounded by music and Southern cuisine, Guadalupe met a tall American named Joe. She loved the way he danced. He fell in love with her joy. And once again, Guadalupe’s book of recipes continued to grow.