Authors: Erica Bauermeister
Tags: #Contemporary Fiction, #Cooking
“Mom,” she said, as she carefully set the bowl and fork in front of her mother, “dinner.” Lillian’s mother shifted position in her chair toward the table, the book rotating in front of her body like a compass needle.
Lillian’s mother’s hand reached for the fork, and deftly navigated its way around the
and into the middle of the potatoes. She lifted the fork into the air.
“It was the first time, in a manner, that I had known space and air and freedom, all the music of summer and all the mystery of nature. And then there was consideration—and consideration was sweet. . . .”
The fork finished the journey to Lillian’s mother’s mouth, where it entered, then exited, clean.
“Hmmmm . . .” she said. And then all was quiet.
“I’ve got her,” Lillian told Elizabeth as they sat eating toast with warm peanut butter at Elizabeth’s house after school.
“Because you got her to
talking?” Elizabeth looked skeptical.
“You’ll see,” said Lillian.
Although Lillian’s mother did seem calmer in the following days, the major difference was one that Lillian had not anticipated. Her mother continued to read, but now she was absolutely silent. And while Lillian, who had long ceased to see her mother’s reading aloud as any attempt at communication, was not sorry to no longer be the catch-pan of treasured phrases, this was not the effect she had been hoping for. She had been certain the potatoes would be magic.
ON HER WAY home from school, Lillian took a shortcut down a narrow side street that led from the main arterial to the more rural road to her house. Halfway down the block was a small grocery store that Lillian had found when she was seven years old, on a summer afternoon when she had let go of her mother’s hand in frustration and set off in a previously untraveled direction, wondering if her mother would notice her absence.
On that day years before, she had smelled the store before she saw it, hot and dusty scents tingling her nose and pulling her down the narrow street. The shop itself was tiny, perhaps the size of an apartment living room, its shelves filled with cans written in languages she didn’t recognize and tall candles enclosed in glass, painted with pictures of people with halos and sad faces. A glass display case next to the cash register was filled with pans of food in bright colors—yellows and reds and greens, their smells deep and smoky, sometimes sharp.
The woman behind the counter saw Lillian standing close to the glass case, staring.
“Would you like to try?” she asked.
Not where is your mother, not how old are you, but would you like to try. Lillian looked up and smiled.
The woman reached into the case and pulled out an oblong yellow shape.
“Tamale,” she said, and handed it on a small paper plate to Lillian.
The outside was soft and slightly crunchy, the inside a festival of meat, onions, tomatoes, and something that seemed vaguely like cinnamon.
“You understand food,” the woman commented, nodding, as she watched Lillian eat.
Lillian looked up again, and felt herself folded into the woman’s smile.
“The children call me Abuelita,” she said. “I think I hear your mother coming.”
Lillian listened, and heard the sound of her mother’s reading voice winding its way down the alley. She cast her eyes around the store once more, and noticed an odd wooden object hanging from a hook on one of the shelves.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing.
“What do you think?” Abuelita took it down and handed it to Lillian, who looked at its irregular shape—a six-inch-long stick with a rounded bulb on one end with ridges carved into it like furrows in a field.
“I think it is a magic wand,” Lillian responded.
“Perhaps,” said Abuelita. “Perhaps you should keep it, just in case.”
Lillian took the wand and slid it into her coat pocket like a spy palming a secret missive.
“Come back anytime, little cook,” Abuelita said.
Lillian had returned to the store often over the years. Abuelita had taught her about spices and foods she never encountered in Elizabeth’s or Margaret’s houses. There was avocado, wrinkled and grumpy on the outside, green spring within, creamy as ice cream when smashed into guacamole. There were the smoky flavors of chipotle peppers and the sharp-sweet crunch of cilantro, which Lillian loved so much Abuelita would always give her a sprig to eat as she walked home. Abuelita didn’t talk a lot, but when she did, it was conversation.
So When Lillian walked into the store, a week after making mashed potatoes for her mother, Abuelita looked at her closely for a moment.
“You are missing something,” she noted after a moment.
“It didn’t work,” Lillian replied, despairingly. “I thought I had her, but it didn’t work.”
“Tell me,” said Abuelita simply, and Lillian did, about cookies and spices and Henry James and mashed potatoes and her feeling that perhaps, in the end, food would not be the magic that would wake her mother from her long, literary sleep, that perhaps in the end, sleep was all there was for her mother.
After Lillian ended her story, Abuelita was quiet for a while. “It’s not that what you did was wrong; it’s just that you aren’t finished.”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“Lillian, each person’s heart breaks in its own way. Every cure will be different—but there are some things we all need. Before anything else, we need to feel safe. You did that for her.”
“So why is she still gone?”
“Because to be a part of this world, we need more than safety. Your mother needs to remember what she lost and want it again.
“I have an idea,” Abuelita said. “This may take a few minutes.”
Abuelita handed Lillian a warm corn tortilla and motioned for her to sit at the small round table that stood next to the front door. As Lillian watched, Abuelita tore off the back panel from a small brown paper bag and wrote on it, her forehead furrowing in concentration.
“I am not a writer,” she commented as she finished. “I never thought it was worth much. But you will get the idea.”
She put down the paper, picked up another small grocery bag, and began gathering items off the store shelves, her back to Lillian. Then she folded the paper, placed it in the top of the bag, and held the bag out to Lillian.
“Here,” she said, “let me know how it goes.”
At home, Lillian opened the bag and inhaled aromas of orange, cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate, and something she couldn’t quite identify, deep and mysterious, like perfume lingering in the folds of a cashmere scarf. She emptied the ingredients from the bag onto the kitchen counter and unfolded the paper Abuelita had placed on top, looking at it with a certain reserve. It was a recipe, even if this one was in Abuelita’s writing, each letter thick as a branch and almost as stiff. Lillian’s hand itched to throw the recipe away—but she hesitated as her eyes caught on the first line of the instructions.
Find your magic wand.
“Well, okay, then,” she said. She pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter and stood on it, reaching on top of the cabinet for the small, red tin box where she kept her most valued possessions.
The wand was close to the bottom of the box, underneath her first movie ticket and the miniature replica of a Venetian bridge her father had given her not long before he departed, leaving behind only money and his smell on the sheets, the latter gone long before Lillian learned how to do laundry. Underneath the wand was an old photograph of her mother holding a baby Lillian, her mother’s eyes looking directly into the camera, her smile as huge and rich and gorgeous as any chocolate cake Lillian could think of making.
Lillian gazed at the photograph for a long time, then got down off the chair, the wand gripped in her right hand, and picked up the recipe.
Put milk in a saucepan. Use real milk, the thick kind.
Abuelita was always complaining about the girls from Lillian’s school who wouldn’t eat her tamales, or who asked for enchiladas without sour cream and then carefully peeled off the cheese from the outside.
“Skinny girls,” Abuelita would say with disdain, “they think you attract bees with a stick.”
Make orange curls. Set aside.
Lillian smiled. She felt about her zester the way some women do about a pair of spiky red shoes—a frivolous splurge, good only for parties, but oh so lovely. The day Lillian had found the little utensil at a garage sale a year before, she had brought it to Abuelita, face shining. She didn’t even know what it was for back then, she just knew she loved its slim stainless-steel handle, the fanciful bit of metal at the working end with its five demure little holes, the edge scalloped around the openings like frills on a petticoat. There were so few occasions for a zester; using it felt like a holiday.
Lillian picked up the orange and held it to her nose, breathing in. It smelled of sunshine and sticky hands, shiny green leaves and blue, cloudless skies. An orchard, somewhere—California? Florida?—her parents looking at each other over the top of her head, her mother handing her a yellow-orange fruit, bigger than Lillian’s two hands could hold, laughing, telling her “this is where grocery stores come from.”
Now Lillian took the zester and ran it along the rounded outer surface of the fruit, slicing the rind into five long orange curls, leaving behind the bitter white beneath it.
Break the cinnamon in half.
The cinnamon stick was light, curled around itself like a brittle roll of papyrus. Not a stick at all, Lillian remembered as she looked closer, but bark, the meeting place between inside and out. It crackled as she broke it, releasing a spiciness, part heat, part sweet, that pricked at her eyes and nose, and made her tongue tingle without even tasting it.
Add orange peel and cinnamon to milk. Grate the chocolate.
The hard, round cake of chocolate was wrapped in yellow plastic with red stripes, shiny and dark when she opened it. The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bittersweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds and cinnamon and sugar.
Into the milk it went.
Such a small amount of ground spice in the little bag Abuelita had given her. It lay there quietly, unremarkable, the color of wet beach sand. She undid the tie around the top of the bag and swirls of warm gold and licorice danced up to her nose, bringing with them miles of faraway deserts and a dark, starless sky, a longing she could feel in the back of her eyes, her fingertips. Lillian knew, putting the bag back down on the counter, that the spice was more grown-up than she was.
Really, Abuelita? she asked into the air.
Just a touch. Let it simmer until it all comes together. You’ll know when it does.
Lillian turned the heat on low. She went to the refrigerator, got the whipping cream, and set the mixer on high, checking the saucepan periodically. After a while, she could see the specks of chocolate disappearing into the milk, melting, becoming thicker, creamier, one thing rather than many.
Use your wand.
Lillian picked up the wand, rolling the handle musingly between the palms of her hands. She gripped the slender central stick with purpose and dipped the ridged end into the pan. Rolling the wand forward and back between her palms, she sent the ridges whirling through the liquid, sending the milk and chocolate across the pan in waves, creating bubbles across the top of the surface.
“Abracadabra,” she said. “Please.”
Now add to your mother’s coffee.
One life skill Lillian’s mother had not abandoned for books was making coffee; a pot was always warm on the counter, as dependable as a wool coat. Lillian filled her mother’s mug halfway with coffee, then added the milk chocolate, holding back the orange peels and cinnamon so the liquid would be smooth across the tongue.
Top with whipping cream, for softness. Give to your mother.
“What is that amazing smell?” her mother asked, as Lillian carried the cup into the living room.
“Magic,” Lillian said.
Her mother reached for the cup and raised it to her mouth, blowing gently across the surface, the steam spiraling up to meet her nose. She sipped tentatively, almost puzzled, her eyes looking up from her book to stare at something far away, her face flushing slightly. When she was finished, she handed the cup back to Lillian.
“Where did you learn to make that?” she said, leaning back and closing her eyes.
“That’s Wonderful,” said Abuelita when Lillian recounted the story to her the next day. “You made her remember her life. Now she just needs to reach out to it. That recipe,” Abuelita said in answer to Lillian’s questioning face, “must be yours. But you will find it,” she continued. “You are a cook. It’s a gift from your mother.”
Lillian raised an eyebrow skeptically. Abuelita gazed at her, gently amused.
, our greatest gifts grow from what we are not given.”
Two days later, Lillian headed straight home after classes. The weather had turned during the night, and the air as Lillian left school that day had a clear, brittle edge to it. Lillian walked at a fast pace, to match the air around her. She lived at the edge of town, where a house could still stand next door to a small orchard, and where kitchen gardens served as reminders of larger farms not so long gone. There was one orchard she particularly liked, a grove of apple trees, twisted and leaning, growing toward each other like old cousins. The owner was as old as his trees and wasn’t able to take care of them much anymore. Grass grew thick around their bases and ivy was beginning to grasp its way up their trunks. But the apples seemed not to have noticed the frailty of their source, and were firm and crisp and sweet; Lillian waited for them every year, and for the smile of the old man as he handed them to her across the fence.