Nobody knows how to make lentil soup like my sister. Maybe it’s the brand she buys, maybe it’s the Serrano ham bone she boils in the broth, or maybe it’s the pieces of plantain she barters for with her favorite marchanta at the market. Whatever it is, all who have been fortunate to taste her thick, fragrant soup unequivocally agree: of all the lentil soups, hers reigns supreme.
The truth is, my sister doesn’t prepare the soup for just anyone. For me she does, because I am her favorite, and because of that history that we share together – a history that somehow has left us in eternal debt with each other. And so, every time she learns that I am going to Veracruz to visit my beloved hometown, she rolls up her sleeves and gets busy in her kitchen. There, in a secret ritual that no one else is privy to, she exhorts the powers of the Culinary Goddess and creates her masterpiece. Year after year she welcomes me thus: with the steaming pot that seals our tacit pact, lentils in exchange for perpetual love. And not just any love, mind you, but real love.Amor de los buenos.
There was a time, now long ago, when my sister prepared a different kind of soup. It was a soup made of tree leaves and dirt from the garden. She served it in small, clay bowls – our reward when we were good little girls at the market; when we carried the morral without complaint; when we didn’t wrinkle our noses at the Don Chemo’s smelly fish; or when we graciously accepted the chunk of beef that Doña Petra lowered from a hook and handed over, wrapped in bloody newspapers. Only then, when we didn’t make a fuss, we earned a prize, which well could have been a paper doll, or those tiny clay bowls with which my sister served her soup of petals and dirt. There, under the cool shade of the flamboyant tree, beside the swings, the Chef would set up her kitchen. Her stove was the tree’s trunk, curved horizontally by too many hurricanes. An empty crate of mangos was her icebox. A big, flat rock her table. No one was allowed to cook. No one else knew the recipes of her concoctions. If I dared touch the pot, she would quickly swat my hand with the spoon, a dry stick, and send me off to set the table. I wasn’t even allowed to decorate the dessert with petals from the Copa de Oro. Presentation was key, and it could take all afternoon, but we, her guest –the stuff animals, myBambán (a black baby doll) and the cat– waited patiently. We didn’t dare leave. It was such a privilege to be invited to saviour her culinary talents.
On the stairs of the patio of our grandparent’s house, she taught me how to make tortillas. We played with sour, leftover masa that the Chef would shape into small little balls, kneading and rolling them until they looked like marbles. Patting them between pieces of cut plastic, she would flatten them, careful not to break them apart as she laid them to “cook” on thecomal –the metal lid of a trash can. I never managed to perfect the technique. All that my awkward hands would yield were grimy little churrosthat looked like African worms from Bambán’shomeland. The only thing that urged me to improve was the warning from the Chef that women who don’t know how to make tortillas were destined to be nuns, live their life without husbands, children, locked in the Carmelite convent.
Maria & the Chef
In the cookie factory of our uncle Manuel, El Cubano, my sister used to make her soup with crumbs. Our uncle would bake the delicious biscuits, filled with peanut cream, in enormous ovens. When the trays fell, as they often did, he would give us the remnant pieces to play with. My sister made all sorts of soups and we ate them until we were stuffed. The pigeons would fly down from the old beams and join the feast. Even today I can still hear their soft cooing when I eat too much.
The Chef improved the quality of her dishes during the summers we spent at uncle Jorge’s ranch, El Coyol. Her first course was either mangos with worms, or sour grapefruit dropped with a branch from the tree. Dessert was always the same: a piece of juicy sugar cane, freshly peeled, which we sucked like a sponge until dry.
More than once the Chef spoiled a dish, like the time of the infamous octopus. She had just turned twelve years old when it decided that we were old enough to learn to cook properly. I would he her helper. Our task was to walk to the market by ourselves, barter with the merchants, buy the freshest goods, and bring them home to prepare them. Our first assigned recipe was that one: octopus in its ink.
At the market, we had no problems. The merchants, who already knew us, indulged us, and even gifted us a head of garlic. We took turns carrying the knapsack all the way home. When we arrived, hot from the sweltering sun, we went straight to the refrigerator and had a drink. We then washed the bag of smelly mollusks. Not an easy job. We had to make sure that not a single, slimy creature, slipped down the drain. To clean them, we first had to remove the tooth from the head and then locate the two sacks, one that contained waste and the other that contained the ink. We removed, one by one, the offensive sacks and when we finally finished, we prepared the stew: three cloves of garlic blended with leek, tomato, and a bay leaf. Soon, a delicious fragrance invaded the kitchen. The Chef trembled with emotion. All was going well until we added the octopus. Suddenly the delicious aroma became a nauseating stench. It was then that we realized our fatal error. We had removed the wrong sack.
When she was sixteen years old the Chef got pregnant, got married, and gave birth to a premature baby. So it was that I lost my childhood companion overnight. After a rushed wedding, she went to live with her husband in an apartment. One afternoon my longing was so great, that in spite of the infernal mid-day heat, I walked over to see her. Deep in my heart, I still hoped that she would come back, even with her baby, to play dolls. As small as he was, I was sure he would fit my Bambán’s clothing perfectly. Together we would prepare his baby food, in our kitchen under the shade of the flamboyant tree, just like we always had. Together we would lull him to sleep in the swings.
I was certain she could be convinced and remained hopeful until I began to climb up the stairs to her apartment. I heard the baby’s shrieks. When I entered, I found her on her knees, franticly cleaning a mess that was dripping down the walls. The baby had a fever. My sister had spent the morning making him his baby food from scratch. Gerbers was outside her newlywed budget. The blender had exploded. She had not allowed the boiled vegetables to cool. The mess had splattered all over the furniture, the appliances, and her tangled hair. Even a renowned Chef, like her, did not know how to do everything.
In spite of multiple trips to the city hospital; in spite of pilgrimages on knees to the Basilica of Guadalupe; and in spite of prayers, many prayers, the baby put his little wings back on and returned to heaven. My sister’s’ innocence went with him. All that remained behind was an empty sister who, shortly thereafter, moved to a finca far, far away, in a place forgotten by God. One of our mother’s uncles had taken pity on them and had offered her husband a job.
Every good chef understands that for a dish to turn out perfect, one must be patient. The recipe never comes out exactly right the first time around. Sometimes, one must bake and throw out twenty cakes before that spongy and golden perfection, worthy of being decorated, is brought forth. This was something my sister knew well. Something she learned back then, at the sea, when she used to make cakes with sand. It takes many tries and often one must beat the egg whites a little longer, or soften the butter a little more, or sift the flour with more persistence. And because she understood she didn’t lose hope. She intuitively knew that, sooner or later, her womb would bake perfection worthy of the bitumen that would cover the bitter cracks of her heart.
And they came, her daughters, one right after the other, in cinnamon and vanilla flavors. They came ready to eat her baby food with hearty gusto. The Chef’s inspiration returned. She quickly ran to the market to demand again the best vegetables, the juiciest fruit of the season, filleted meat, and the freshest fish. She boiled, baked, and cooked, solidifying her love with each dish. And in a fevered tango of pots and pans, my sister fed her flesh and bone dolls, watching with relief over every kilogram of weight gained that made them grow and rooted them firmly to life.
One sad day, her husband left her. He wanted to take the girls but they did not sway; they stayed with their mother. They understood that only she could soften their pains, sweeten their tears, and ripen their memories. Life had suddenly changed the menu… There were difficult moments when my sister thought that she would have to serve petal soup to her daughters. Too many moments, she would say, in which she had to dilute the beans. Fortunately, it was not the first time she had to improvise. She bargained with the merchants and learned to make stews out of bones and vegetable peels and broths with shells. She learned that life is like a cactus salad. The fruit’s delicious pulp is right underneath its spines. My sister endured the pain and earned the fruits of her labor: the respect and love of her daughters. A much better prize, she would say, than paper dolls, or little clay bowls.
Today, in warm kitchen recently decorated by my sister, our grandchildren sit around her table. The Chef serves them a steaming plate of lentils that they devour by the spoonful, fighting over the plantains. And with this sacred ceremony, my sister and I once again seal our pact: lentils in exchange for perpetual love, and not just any love but real love, Amor de los buenos