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Family Cooking

For once, I have the kitchen to myself. Mama’s gone, Paolo’s picking wedding things up from out of town, and Abuela went to visit an old friend while she’s back in the area.

I start by clearing everything from the countertops and wiping them down. I put loud music on, the kind I can sing along to. I am calm, I tell myself. I like to cook. This is no big deal.

Only, this morning, when I made eggs for the four of us, they came out brown and bitter-smelling and turned the bright green carrot tops in the compost brown and foul when they touched. In fact, they turned everything in the compost bin to something approaching hazardous waste, and I don’t know why, and my mother’s wedding is in a week, and I’m supposed to be making all the food.

For the wedding, I am making arroz con pollo, because it can be made in big batches, and quiche, because I am stupid, and olive dip and crackers, because that is easy, and a fancy braided bread. Also cute little apple tartlets because Mama still talks about how Paolo was the only person who convinced her that apples could be anything other than mealy and sad. I am not, thank goodness, baking the wedding cake.

I start with the bread because I’m nervous, and there’s nothing like slapping dough on a counter for half an hour for distraction. This is the only full run-through I have scheduled before the wedding, and between other preparations and shifts at the cafe, I don’t really have time for another. Mama says there’s no pressure, that we can always order pizza, but that’s a load of horseshit if I’ve ever heard one.

I take the dough in my hands and press it forward onto the counter. Though my hands are dusted liberally with flour, the dough still finds places to stick: the crevices in between my fingers, the top of my thumb. I prod at the tiny part of my mind where the magic lives, ask it to make the bread lovelier, more delicate, perhaps, or laced with the sensation of waking up from a good dream. My family is eating this, I remind it. Help me make them something lovely. Please don’t be literally poisonous.

I add more flour to my wrists, press into the dough again, rocking the pad of my palm against the dough, then the heel. The song changes, and I move my shoulders to the beat, get into a rhythm with the dough.

“Hi Isa!” Abuela’s voice floats through the house.

I turn the music off. “In the kitchen!” She and her friend must not have had that much to catch up on.

I pick the dough up and slam it on the table. This isn’t technically necessary, but when I do it a little bit of the tension in my chest dissipates, and this is only the practice bread anyway.

“Aggressive,” Abuela says from the doorway.

I don’t look at her. “You’ve never had a vendetta against a piece of dough?”

Her voice carries a tinge of amusement. “No. Beads, sometimes, and wire. When I was younger I used to twist naughty wires into little knots as punishment for their misbehavior.” She sticks her tongue out, a little quirk for when she’s said something she shouldn’t. Recognition jumps through me, a bitter aftertaste to its sting. Mama does that. So do I.

“Of course,” I say, hefting the dough up again for another slam, which feels suddenly necessary. “Your magic lies elsewhere.”

It’s an understatement. Most people aren’t led by their magic, only following it when it aligns with their chosen vocation, like me with cooking. People with craft magics become accountants as often as anyone else, though they may be more likely to knit on the side. But Abuela’s magic came late and came strong, sweeping her away from everything when it arrived.

She creeps closer and examines my list. Her eyebrows, painted on, raise in delighted surprise.

“Olive dip? Are you making it with cream cheese?”

“Yeah, of course.”

She smiles a slow genuine smile and touches the necklace at her chest. “That’s my favorite. Always has been. I always like to put extra olives in.”

“Great!” I say, my voice cheery. I hold up the dough, which isn’t quite ready. “Let me just get past you to the cabinet there. This needs to prove.”

The practice dinner takes me an hour and a half longer than I hoped it would. I grit my teeth as I look at it, piled on the table in an unsightly array of mismatched platters because we haven’t had time to run to the church and get the nice ones yet. I’ve taken so long that everyone’s back and waiting around, hungry but too nice to mention it.

Mama puts on a white bathrobe because she thinks she’s funny, and then she and Paolo come in and taste everything. Before they start, I poke the tangle of magic in my skull, and it emits a pleased, self-satisfied hum. That’s got to be a good sign.

They start with the arroz con pollo. The chicken is too dry, and I didn’t add enough green olives, but of course they say only nice things. None of them appears to feel poisoned, which is an excellent sign.

Next they try the two quiches, one with asparagus and spinach, the other potato and mushroom. I burned the crust on two of the potato ones, and Paolo winks at me as he takes a loud, crunchy bite of one of them.

“Yeah, yeah,” I mutter. “It’ll be better for the actual wedding.”

Mama wraps an arm around me, the soft fabric of her bathrobe rubbing dangerously close to my dirty apron. “Of course it will be,” she says. “But nobody needs a perfect wedding anyway.”

Abuela chuckles. “My wedding was perfect, but that didn’t help the marriage.”

Mama winces, almost imperceptibly, but I know Paolo sees it because he rests a hand on her arm. Abuela doesn’t notice. I wish she would.

“Try the bread,” I say.

The bread is a little too dense, underworked, I know, but they take thick slices anyway.

Mama takes a bite, then makes a face. “Kinda bland,” she says.

“Maybe it’s better with the olive dip?”

She tries it, slathering a hefty portion of the dip onto her slice. But as she brings it to her face, she gasps and drops it.

“Ay, Isa,” she says mournfully, looking at the bread where it lays between her slippered feet. “I don’t think that’s good.”

I take a paper towel and pick it up cautiously, holding it at eye level. The red of the crushed pimento isn’t small and diamond-shaped anymore; instead, every speck of red has turned into tiny, angry worms that dart around.

“I’m glad you noticed it,” I tell her. “It’s hard to spot.”

“Well,” she says reluctantly, “I was looking at everything pretty closely, after this morning.”

I carry the paper towel outside and dab some of the dip onto the grass, which immediately dries up to brown, then black. The effect ripples outwards, until there’s a black circle three feet in diameter of dead grass.

Abuela opens the back door and watches me. “That’s a problem with your magic,” she says.

I stare at the circle, shriveled and dark and poisonous, and think, I did that.

She walks up to stand beside me. “It’s okay,” she says, testing the words as she says them. “Just practice it a few times, and it will come out right.”

She’s the one who would know.

Abuela is making Mama a necklace for the wedding, and that necklace will probably be worth more than the whole wedding costs.

You see, Abuela’s story is inspiring. She was in a tragic, loveless marriage when she discovered her magic. They didn’t test for it in schools, then, so it wasn’t until she was twisting paper clips into a crown for my mother that she felt it, that little zing that turns a task or a craft into something more. She made jewelry during the day for a few years, in between making meals and taking my mother to school and learning a new language, but one day she’d had enough. She couldn’t dress my mother for school or clean the house or make one more potato salad for one more goddamned potluck.

And why should she, when she could make art like that? When the practiced skill in her fingers mixed with stronger magic than most people ever even saw?

So she packed her bags and hugged my mother goodbye.

My mother was only six, but she told me once that she remembered it. Abuela bending over her, dark hair already shot through with grey, kissing her on the forehead, wearing the dress she only ever wore to church and her nicest shoes. Telling her to be good and watch T.V. until dad got home.

My mother didn’t see her mother again until she was twenty-two and graduating from college. I hear there was a big scene. No one will tell me about it. Grandpa was dead by then, luckily. Maybe that’s why she finally came back.

I don’t want to know what my grandfather did to my grandmother. What, if anything.

When we took Intro Magic in eighth grade, they said a lot of stuff I didn’t listen to. Mostly we were just there to try stuff, to see if we had magic and mess around with crafts if we didn’t. But near the end of the year, when everyone had tried pottery, knitting, crocheting, woodworking, sewing, cooking, baking, welding, gardening, painting, and everything else, when I knew that I had cooking magic, and most other people knew what they had too, they sat us down and told us about what we could and couldn’t do.

Well, that’s how they framed it. We were thirteen and had just found out we were good at something, even if it wasn’t something we liked. We had a modicum of power in our pubescent lives for once, and we weren’t going to use it to pay attention to our teachers, that was for sure.

So when I examine the olive dip after Mama and Paolo have gone upstairs and Abuela has gone to read in the living room, I don’t have anything to base my experimentation on. All I know is, the olive dip is poisoned, but everything else is fine. Some of it’s good, even.

So what the hell went wrong with the olive dip?

I’m going to make it again. I’m going to make it until I get it right.

It’s not a hard recipe. You don’t even cook it.

I chop the onions, ignoring the sting in my nose and eyes, and dump them in the blender.  The garlic powder goes in next, then the mayo and cream cheese. I check on the little ball of magic in my brain. It’s wound up like normal, reaching in tendrils toward the ingredients on the counter. Be nice, I tell it sternly, work. Not that that’s ever helped before.

I press down on the food processor a little harder than I need to. But it stutters to life all the same. After half a minute I add in the olives and olive brine. Then I add in a little lemon juice just in case.

I step back from the food processor and wash my hands because they still smell like onion. I take a deep breath before dipping my spoon in.

Maybe, I think, maybe if I just eat it quickly and don’t look at it, it won’t be poisonous because it won’t have time to be. Maybe, if it is poisonous, it won’t be poisonous to me, since it’s clearly something that’s fucked up in my head that’s causing this.

But I can’t quite bring the spoon to my mouth without opening my eyes, and when I do, I see that the cream cheese and mayonnaise have clumped into tiny snowmen holding spears made of onion, dripping pimento blood.

I stumble back, swearing. When I sprinkle this one on a few worms outside, one of them keeps moving. The other five die, though, so I’m not putting it in my mouth.

I try again. As I chop the onions, I reach for my magic and think about my mother, wanting her to be happy, wanting her wedding and her marriage to go well. I think about my Abuela, how she’s finally visiting, finally here, and this dip is something she’s looked forward to. When I put the cream cheese in the food processor, I do the breathing exercises we learned in Cooking II, to try to trick the magic to be good this time. To do something unexpected like yield twice as much as the ingredients should, or to be infused with the taste of flowers that will never exist. These things can happen to a good cook. And I want to be a good cook.

This second try turns liquid, scorching hot, that burns through the spoon.

The third just turns black.

I run out of cream cheese after that, even though I stocked up before this. It’s only been an hour since I started.

I put the remaining olives and mayonnaise in the basement fridge, the kitchen fridge already packed with wedding ingredients. We probably should have done it the other way, put the wedding food in the basement. It doesn’t matter.

I poke at my magic again, but it’s the same as it always has been, and as I pause before opening the basement door back into the kitchen, I wonder if I should call someone from middle school, ask if they have notes. Maybe I should try to email my old teacher.

Maybe I should suck it up and ask Abuela.

I find Abuela the next day. She’s taken over half the dining room table with her jewelry making stuff, and she’s twisting some wire around glittering, sharp red beads when I enter. She holds it up when she sees me.

“Look,” she says, “your favorite color. I thought it might go with your dress.”

My favorite color is purple. The neatly organized question I prepared melts away, leaving my brain empty, so I just blurt it out.

“Has your jewelry ever gone bad? Like, tried to hurt people?” I don’t look at her, focusing on the many colorful beads in front of her instead. Orange, yellow, blue, brown, purple. I watch the red beads re-enter the line-up, observe the spots on her hands as she sets the wire down.

“You mean like your cooking? Of course,” she says. “One time I set an earring—a single earring!—on the ground and it turned my whole yard black. I was getting calls from the neighborhood association for months.”

“Do you know why it happened?”

She nods.

“What happened? Did it hurt anyone? Was it obvious? How did you stop it?”

Abuela sighs. “I had agreed to make a jewelry set for someone I hated. A politician. She was paying me ten times my normal fee, but every time I tried putting things together for her, they would unravel. Or the wire would come to life and try to bite. The earring I mentioned dripped ooze and melted into the yard. The gardener got sick later, but only a little. It wasn’t him I hated, and my magic’s not so strong as all that.” She pats my knee reassuringly. “And neither is yours, certainly.”

“Right,” I say. My ears and mouth feel distant from my mind; everything echoes a little inside my skull. “But how did you stop it?”

“I told her I couldn’t do it because she was an evil woman.”

“Oh.”

“There was one other time that it happened,” Abuela says. “It was less noticeable, so…” she shrugs. “I gave it to him anyway.”

“Did he die?”

“No.” She’s not smiling. Her eyes look into the distance. Her mind is elsewhere. “But he got very, very sick for a very long time.”

“Sorry,” she says after a moment. “That can’t be very helpful for you. But I think your problem is along the same lines. Think very carefully: is there anyone you really hate who is going to be at the wedding? Perhaps you have some lingering concerns about Paolo?”

I don’t hate anyone coming to the wedding. Not real hate. Not even Mr. Briney who is always saying I have to move to the city if I want to be a real chef or Demina from down the street who started dating my ex. Not even my ex. I don’t hate Paolo. I’m happy he and my mom are finally getting married. I shake my head. None of it makes any sense.

Abuela frowns. “You’re sure there’s no old enemy who showed up at the cafe recently? No evil former teacher?”

“I’m sure.”

She chews her lip, just the right side, just like Mama does, and I realize.

“Oh,” I say.

“Oh?”

It’s her. I hate Abuela.

Inside my chest, something clenches and unclenches all at once. I hate her a lot.

I test out my theory the next day, running through all the wedding foods that weren’t perfect for the first run-through, which is almost everything. Only, this time I know that Abuela’s not going to eat it. She’s gone to another town to shop for old jewelry she can tear apart and make her own. When I make the olive dip, I chant it to myself. Abuela’s not going to have this. Abuela’s not going to want this. Abuela’s not going to have this.

I undercook the quiche this time, but the bread tastes like mango and the satisfaction of watching a good sunset. My magic is back. The olive dip is great. Almost too salty. Not poisonous at all. Mama and Paolo both try it. I dab some on one of Mama’s succulents—to heavy glares—and nothing withers.

I don’t know what to do after that. I don’t want to even look at Abuela. I’m terrified that the hatred—the pure fury—boiling inside me will be too obvious. Now that I know it’s there it feels like it’s slowly chewing me up from the inside out.

So, the next morning, I go to the park. I go to the grocery store and get more ingredients. I arrive home laden with bags and only go in through the front door once I’m sure nobody’s on the porch.

My mother finds me after I’ve put everything away and am re-organizing cans in the pantry. She’s been at her friend Sofia’s house having her makeup done. They can’t decide what looks best with the dress, so she’s come home with different colored eyelids every Thursday for the last month. Today they’re a silvery blue.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, glancing knowingly at the cabinet.

“Nothing.”

“Did you solve the olive dip problem?”

I gesture at the cream cheese softening on the counter. “Take a guess.”

Her face softens. “You’ll get it,” she says. “You always solve the problems you really put your mind to.”

I think about the spelling bee in eighth grade and AB Calc and The Culinary Institute. “Not always.”

She pulls a chair around from the other side of the counter and sits facing me. A few years ago she would have just sat on the floor, but she’s old now, dyes her brown hair where it goes grey at the temples and sits on chairs with soft cushions and straight backs.

“What do you think would help?” she asks.

“I don’t know! What do you think would help?”

She flinches, just a little, the lines at the corners of her mouth deepening. “I don’t know anything about magic,” she reminds me.

I try to pass the moment off, rolling my eyes like she’s said something obvious. “You don’t have magic, but lots of people you know do. You’re not ignorant.”

“You should talk to someone who knows about magic. I’m sure your abuela would be happy to help.”

“I know what’s wrong with it. I just don’t know how to fix it.”

Now my mother rolls her eyes. “You’re going to turn help down because why? You’re going to turn down help on making my wedding work because you don’t want help from your grandmother?”

“It’s not that,” I mutter.

“Then what is it?”

“I can’t tell you. It’ll make you sad.” Lots of things make Mama sad, which is why it’s good that Paolo’s such a jokester, but this? This is worse than a video of a dog and an owl becoming friends or a movie about a breakup.

Mama taps her fingers on the countertop, thoughtful. “Lots of things make me sad, and yet I carry on.” She hesitates. “Is this about your abuela?”

I shrug. “Maybe.”

She sighs. “Then tell me. She’s like me, you know. Just me once removed. Just she admits her hair is grey and wears it in elegant buns and draws her eyebrows on, and I don’t have to do those things yet.”

“I hate her.” My voice comes out flat and razor sharp, full of ugly truth. I continue. “She’s horrible, Mama. She’s not like you at all. You’re a good mother.”

She tilts her head back, a motion of defeat. “I didn’t want you to think of it that way,” she says quietly. “I wanted you to love her, and for her to love you and visit you and send you presents.” She closes her eyes. “I wanted you to grow up with a grandmother and no complicated feelings about anything at all.”

I reach over and take her hand. Her fingers are cold. “I want those things too, but it’s hard. She hurt you. She still hurts you sometimes. How can I love someone who does that?”

Mama nods. She sits up straighter and looks me in the eye, twists my fingers around hers in a comfortable, familiar gesture. “That’s fine,” she says. “You don’t have to love her, and you especially don’t have to like her. But please, for my sake, don’t hate her.”

My abuela had a hard life, I remind myself as I mix the pimentos into the arroz con pollo. My abuela did the best she could, I think, as I put foil around the crust of the quiche. I find myself disbelieving that, so I try again as I put the olives in the food processor. My abuela is here now because she cares about her family. My abuela has changed. My abuela, like anyone else, is a person.

Most importantly, this is my mother’s wedding, and I am not going to ruin it with bad food or poisoned family members because I love her. And that, I think, staring sternly at the mixture in the food processor, is that on that.

I put the dip into fancy bowls and run to change. Everything else is ready, so I can take the dip out and mingle as people start to arrive and sit in the lawn chairs that we’ve borrowed from everyone on the block and half the people from church. There’s a cute little awning with flowers on it at the front, and Abuela and I will escort my mother there in forty minutes. I can’t wipe my eyes because they’ve been made up for two hours now.

As I come back down, I see Abuela with a plate of crackers looking at the dip. She turns toward me when I come in.

“You look beautiful,” she says, and I laugh. I have two aprons on, just in case something flies around to my back, and the green tulle of my skirt only barely peeks out beneath them. My hair is so stiff I feel like I could safely motorcycle.

“I mean it,” she says. “You’ve grown up in ways I can’t understand.”

I nod at her. “Yes.” I take a deep breath. “But that’s okay. We don’t have to understand each other.” Just love each other, I should say after that, but I don’t. We look at each other for a long, still moment.

She turns back to the dip. “This looks good too,” she says.

“I was just about to take that out,” I say. A lie. I was going to examine it first. I have a backup dip that I bought, just in case.

She holds a cracker up, looks me directly in the eye. “Is it safe, do you think? For me?”

My abuela cares about her family. I care about my mother. I don’t look at the dip.

“Yes,” I say. “It should be good for you.”

 

(Editors’ Note: AnaMaria Curtis is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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AnaMaria Curtis

AnaMaria Curtis is from the part of Illinois that is very much not Chicago. She’s the winner of the LeVar Burton Reads Origins & Encounters Writing Contest and the 2019 Dell Magazines Award. In her free time, AnaMaria enjoys starting fights about 19th century British literature and getting distracted by dogs. You can get in touch or find more of her work at anamariacurtis.com or on Twitter at @AnaMCurtis.

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