In this work of fiction, an old family pot teaches an important lesson.
Amarisa lifted the lid off of her cazuela, inhaled and sighed.
What a rich and heady scent! Redolent of herbs and greens, Swiss chard, romaine, epazote, ground almonds, toasted sesame seeds, chunks of pork necks and chicken thighs.
She ladled it over the white rice she had just steamed, and served a bowl of this green mole to Ethan, her 8-year-old son, his head in a comic book, cackling at the adventures of a young boy and his tiger. They both had second helpings. Amarisa corrected the punctuation, citations, and questioned the content of undergraduate essays; her son read his comic book.
What was left in the pot was a perfect amount, as usual, for both their lunches the next day. If she could, she would kiss this essential kitchen tool all over. Instead, she satisfied herself by thanking it and scrupulously scrubbing it clean.
Their tiny guest home smelled of food. It smelled of joy.
It hadn’t always been this way, not even a month ago. It was shameful to be poor, it was shameful to be hungry; it was more shameful to ask, as a mother with a Ph. D., for free lunches at her son’s school. She would not do it, she could not do it; she fried him bacon and eggs in the morning, bacon pieces she had scavenged from the marked down section of the Super A store, eggs she bought by the tray of 18. Eggs she could hard boil for her lunch, or, when feeling flush mix into a can of salmon, or, more frequently, when feeling pinched, crack one into a Styrofoam cup of ramen and pretend she was eating a boiling pot.
She and Ethan rented a tiny guest home on the back lot of old Pasadena money, so old the rental prices were stuck in the 90s. They even had a view of the arroyo below. This was the greatest blessing of Amarisa’s life—she knew friends who couch-surfed, slept in their cars, or never moved out of their ex’s. At times she wondered if this tiny home was the reason Sean, Ethan’s father, had delayed his departure for as long as he had.
Every day her beautiful son’s presence reminded her of the missing father.
How trite, how cliché, worse, how predictable. Leaving them he had said goodbye to their debts incurred together, and farewell to any pretense at child support payments.
She made sure she attended any campus meeting that provided food, and always wrapped up a few pieces for her son, or for the morning. She had days of headaches and nights of insomnia. Ethan took to school paper sacks stuffed with fruit, with cookies, with thick sandwiches of peanut butter and jam until he cried against the injustice of peanut butter.
She said, “If you can hold out the week, on Fridays it’s your choice.”
He nodded gamely.
“What do you want for Friday?”
“A Happy Meal.”
Inwardly she wept. She couldn’t fight the world.
Friday morning the two had to leave the house early to get to their respective destinations on time, but she pulled through and ordered him a Happy Meal. One debit and two credit cards were declined until she found a five dollar bill (!) squeezed into the ash tray. A $5 miracle!
After warning her son against eating his lunch while waiting for school to start, she looked at the fuel gauge and wished she had saved that money for gas. She wished she weren’t alone. She wished the scent of French fries didn’t make her stomach growl. She wished that the day didn’t have to be so cold and crisp and beautiful—as if it mocked her life.
That Friday afternoon Amarisa returned to her guest house with a heavy cardboard box on the entry way—return address Tucson, AZ.
With the passing of your mother last year we have finally sifted through all of her things. As I was not sure what was of most emotional value to you, I have sent you what I thought might bring back positive memories? Desculpame if I have hurt you in any way with this, or made an error of judgement. Love to Ethan.”
Ricardo was actually Richard Kahane from Phoenix, who had lived with her mother for the ten years before her death. Amarisa, as she fled to college, then to graduate school, then to her own pregnancy, had been happy for her mother, but the two of them never returned to the sweet and gentle connection of her childhood.
Ethan said, “I’m hungry. Do we have anything to eat?”
“There are some hard boiled eggs in the refrigerator.”
He made a gagging sound and sat at the dining table.
She would fry some tortillas and mix a few eggs on them for dinner.
Amarisa pulled the cardboard box over the threshold. What would she find inside? She had already, at the funeral, retrieved the photo albums, the threads of memories that pierced her, the ceramic pitchers glazed by her mother’s own hands, the dining table runners, fine and intricate designs crocheted by her mother; a framed photo of her mother in her youth. What had Richard sent along that was so ponderously heavy?
Ripping off the packing tape, digging through the layers of packing materials she found yet another box. Slitting the tape with the kitchen scissors, unfolding the flaps, there, costing a small fortune in postage and packaging alone, sat her grandmother’s cazuela. Her cooking pot.
Amarisa, who had been crouched on her heels, sat on the floor. What a relic from her own long-ago childhood, what a memory of the food her grandmother had cooked, albondigas with its combination of mint and cilantro; pozole with its chewy and deeply satisfying hominy, moles yellow, green and brown.
Just looking at the cooking pot with its streak of glaze and shimmering interior made her think of the Tucson sky, the stretch of saguaros, the family that she had left behind and now no longer existed. The pot contained a deep sadness and equally profound joy.
She rinsed it, dried it, fitted its lid firmly upon it, and whispered to it a memory—that of her grandmother, “cocina, cazuelita, cocina” she repeated the words her grandmother would say before turning to her with a wink and proclaim, “That is the final seasoning.”
She opened the refrigerator in some kind of hope that maybe there would be pork neck bones and half a chicken that she could simmer with onions and garlic and maybe a can of hominy had hidden itself on a too high to reach shelf.
No. There were eggs. Tortillas. On the shelf (all of which were easily in her reach) canned enchilada sauce. She could work with that.
She grabbed her sweats, stepped into the bathroom where she stripped, showered, changed. She spent a few more moments in the mist, sorting herself.
This was just temporary.
Things would get better.
She braced herself for the chilly air outside the bathroom door and the thirty papers she had promised herself she would tackle.
Ethan sat at the table, reading her collection of The Far Side.
“What’s that smell?” she said.
Without looking up Ethan shook his head.
She sat across from her son and started reading through her stack of papers.
Her stomach growled, a rumble which whipped through her core.
“Mom!” her son scolded.
Thrown from her reading the scent was even stronger, but she couldn’t place it. Her hunger became overwhelming. She stepped over to the refrigerator for a hard-boiled egg. A little salt, a little mayo, a little ketchup and she could pretend it was an elegant amuse-bouche, an appetizer, not an appetite suppressant when she stopped and heard an unfamiliar sound. Was the refrigerator making a new noise?
“Oh my God,” she said.
“What?” Ethan looked up at her.
Steam was coming out from under the lid of the cazuela. The sound she had heard was the bubbling of the pot. It was the steam whose aroma now filled their home—she inhaled, and recognized what it was.
She had to dig through three drawers until she found a dish towel. Reverently she lifted the lid: arroz con pollo.
The chicken and rice her grandmother made for special occasions—how it transported her to Sunday dinners! To Christmases past! To her busy, restless grandmother. Amarisa could tell the rice needed a few more minutes. She replaced the lid.
“Dinner should be ready in a few,” she said, a phrase she hadn’t used in she didn’t know how long, but Ethan was too immersed in his comics to care.
As suited a miracle Amarisa dug out into the kitchen drawers and found linen napkins she had impetuously bought at an estate sale. She retrieved a tea light, set it on a saucer and lit it. She dug out the special occasion plates, and searched for two that were unmarred by age or chipping.
With a warm gush of love and pride she served Ethan a helping of chicken and rice flecked with peas, carrots, the yellow tint of saffron, a serving that was almost as large as his head.
She looked into the cazuela, and there was plenty more for her.
Ethan closed his book and looked at the hot plate of food in front of them. The two of them were momentarily mute, reverential, staring at their bounty. Her son looked at her with a solemn face and whispered, “thank you.”
Then they gorged. They ate. They tore the flesh off of the bones, until there were so many bones Amarisa got a dinner plate to hold them all. Ethan served himself again and again, and so did Amarisa, who bite by bite delighted in the succulent flesh of the chicken, the perfect grains of rice, the slivers of caramelized onions, the savory scent of garlic.
From then on each evening, a half hour before dinner, she would place the lid on the cazuela and murmur “cocina, cazuelita, cocina.” Each evening, when enough was leftover for tomorrow’s lunch she would replace the lid, tap it three times and say, “Thank you.” In the months of hearty and delectable dinners to follow, Amarisa swore her son grew three inches. She had the energy and vitality to wow each section she taught, and was fueled with dedication to bring out the best out of each and every one of her 143 students. Her department chair took her aside to quietly compliment her. There was even mention of an opportunity hire at CSULB, which would propel her to the inner circle of a possible tenure track position.
One Thursday afternoon in April, when she was supposed to race against traffic to CSULB, which would include an observation to start her tenure track application, her Kia would not start. She gnawed at her nails while she waited for AAA; a man her age and shade of brown told her the bad news. “It’s not the battery,” he said. “I think it’s the starter. Hey, don’t take it so hard! It’s not as bad as all that! Look, this is my last call of the day; I can tow you wherever you need to go. No charge.”
She nodded. As he lowered the flat bed and winched her car onto it, she called ahead, cancelled the class, gritted her teeth, and steeled herself for whatever astronomic amount the mechanic in Pasadena would charge her. There went her tax return. As she ruminated on this, her missed class, her failed opportunity, she half listened to the driver, Gilbert, as he maintained a cheerful running monologue about all the neighborhoods they passed; he must have lived in half of them, he said. South LA, Lynwood, Maywood, Huntington Park (“best Mexican food, ever, I swear to you,” he said, and she smiled). Her phone rang. “Don’t worry,” her department chair assured her, “We’ll reschedule. These things happen.” All right then. Okay. She could breathe.
Her phone rang again. Ethan.
“Mom?” it was the panic in his voice that sliced her heart in two.
“Mom? I tried to make myself dinner. I said what you say to the pot, and I got the most wonderful macaroni and cheese in the world and I helped myself and sat down to read the Justice League comic you got me and—” he choked off.
“What? What? What?” Gilbert shot her a look of concern.
“It kept cooking! It’s still cooking! There’s macaroni and cheese on the floor, I ran out of there, and now I’m behind our house and it’s still cooking!”
She turned to the passenger window, spoke softly and said, “Okay, look, take a deep breath, you put the lid back on and tap it three times, and say thank you. That’s all. That’s all it takes.”
He began to cry. “I can’t find it anymore! There’s macaroni and cheese everywhere and I don’t know where the lid is!”
She looked at Gilbert. “We need to make a detour,” she said, “and, kind of fast.”
By the time Gilbert pulled her car onto her street, there was a stream of macaroni and cheese that gushed out of the door of her home, flooded the pathway, and fell over the edge and down into the arroyo. Amarisa waved at her son who sat still and weeping in the tree behind their home, and she pushed through into the kitchen. The cazuela sat on the cooktop, a yellow molten mass bubbling over and out onto the floor. The lid was nowhere to be seen.
Amarisa took a deep breath, and began groping through all of the pasta, now lukewarm, on the floor. The cazuela continued to cook and to bubble and to boil. The scent of melted cheddar was sharp. What if the lid were broken? What then?
She plunged around the floor, under the sodden couch, in the corners, then felt something wedged in the doorjamb. Carefully she withdrew it, the lid was whole and intact. She slid through the foodstuffs on the floor, rinsed the lid, then placed it firmly on the pot, tapped it three times and said “Thank you.” The bubbling continued, cheese sauce sputtered out from under the lid, flecks of golden macaroni forced themselves through and bounced onto the floor. Amarisa held her breath. The bubbling slowed. The bubbling stopped.
Amarisa glanced around at the muck at her feet, then slid through and out the door. “It’s all right, Ethan, it’s okay now.” She watched him climb down the tree, slide down its trunk, then pick his way over to her. She hugged his lanky body. He hung onto her as she walked to the edge of the yard. They peered down into the arroyo.
They stared at a sea of dirty yellow elbow macaroni, covering the ground, spilling into the stream, clogging it, spilling out and over it. Hikers scrambled out of its way and up into the hillside. Crows pecked at it.
Gilbert came up to her side and made low, slow whistle.
“This happen a lot in Pasadena?” he asked.
Without her asking the three of them swept, wiped, mopped and scrubbed and aired the guest house out. Happily the bedroom door had been closed and nothing, besides the scent of melting cheese, had been able to get in. Her sofa, however, was disgusting, and after they returned from the mechanic’s—where the repair would cost only a third of her tax return—Gilbert loaded and strapped the sofa onto his tow truck to drive it to his cousin’s in El Monte who knew a thing or two about upholstery.
This story was published in TASTE’s Spring 2017 Fiction Issue. More stories from the issue can be found here.