Since the death of his mother, he had been insatiably hungry.
As Carlos teetered at the edge of the trench, watching her body being swallowed by the shovelfuls of earth, all he could remember feeling was a sickening emptiness rising inside his stomach. Like a helium balloon whose string had just come untied from its owner’s wrist, on the verge of floating away.
During the first week after the funeral, everyone was astonished to witness the voracious appetite he brought to the dinner table. While the rest struggled to put a dent into dad’s clumsy meals, here was the very youngest of the family, lifting up his plate for seconds before he had even finished chewing the first helping.
For his father it was a relief, really, that at least someone in the house seemed to be thriving. “Must be a growth spurt,” he would mutter to himself after dinner while scraping the plates and watching the resulting rain of leftovers plummet into the drain.
But the little boy’s consumption did not stop there.
The rest of his waking hours were spent tiptoeing into the kitchen and slipping into the cabinets or the fridge for anything edible that he could quickly lift and smuggle in his pockets, up his sleeves, or down the front of his shirt. Once alone in his room, he would devour it all, even siphoning any residual crumbs or chunks from the bottom of packages into his desperate chops.
Cookies, chips. Carrots, cheese sticks.
It wasn’t very difficult pulling off these trips unnoticed. His two brothers were all at school most of the day and his father had begun working even more hours to put off the grief.
That left his aunt Leticia, who didn’t hesitate to offer to watch her brother’s last son, but who threw herself headlong into the tragedies of the stars in her favorite soap operas so as to avoid the one being lived by her four-and-a-half-year-old nephew.
“Ay Carlitos”, she would whimper apologetically the times he would catch her staring at him with watery eyes. “Such suffering and heartache!”
He would then look towards the screen glowing at the end of her perfectly pointed red fingertip and nod, pretending to believe she was really talking about the shows and putting up with the kiss she would plant on his forehead before releasing him to his own devices again.
What was strange (and terribly frustrating) was that, no matter what he ate or how much he consumed, everything was virtually tasteless and nothing made him feel full.
Stranger still was the fact that with all the extra calories he was stuffing into his little body, he wasn’t gaining weight. If anything, he had lost a pound or two of late.
Exactly eight days after the burial, Carlos couldn’t take it anymore.
He woke up that Monday morning and made the decision that he
would have one last snack. And if it didn’t satiate this agonizing hunger, he would simply stop eating altogether.
He made his final routine stroll past his Auntie in the family room to the kitchen, where he stood a while looking around at his possibilities.
He realized that after all these clandestine raids, he had not explored the contents in the upper cabinet to the right of the fridge.
There was a reason, of course, why he had not looked there before. As far as he knew, there were only spices there. All his experiences perching on a weathered wooden stool next to his mother at the stove told him this. As desperate as he had been, until now it had not occurred to him to break into the salt, cinnamon or onion powder. Now it had.
He grabbed the very same stool in the opposite corner and slowly dragged it to the counter, pausing when there were quieter moments in the televised melodrama in the next room. Then he hurriedly made the ascent to the countertop where he could open the cabinet door.
Yes, there certainly were a lot of spices in there.
He had only just begun to read, so the identity of many of them (revealed on handwritten labels on the side of each jar) was a complete mystery to him. He twirled the lazy susan, now a fragrant sort of roulette, with the hope that one of the passing swatches of color would stand out and be his lucky choice. Instead a flash of light cast by one of the rotating glass containers diverted his attention towards something at the very back recesses of the shelf.
After some failed attempts with his flailing arms -a few jars were knocked down and had to be put back into place-, he was finally able to get a hold of the volume and fish it out.
During his regular trips to the local library with his mom, he had seen books very much like this one. But he could never touch them: they were in a special case, under very thick glass. She had said it was because they were very old and delicate and that they might be the only copy left or at least one of only a remaining few. After running his palm over and over the dense leather face and spine, he questioned this practice. This thing seemed pretty indestructible; far more so than, say, the skin of a human being. And they didn’t put people under glass, he thought.
When he opened it, the stains, rips and warping provided further proof that this particular book had not received the same sheltered retirement of its library cousins. Along with the marks of wear and tear, the pages were also infused with numbers and words and sketches. Some of these symbols had been blurred by mysterious liquid invasions; others seemed to have faded under the many hands of time.
But one simple drawing at the top of the third page remained immaculately intelligible and immediately gave away the identity of the text to its current reader. It was a simple depiction in ink of a little corn husk package, a swirling line of steam escaping from a knot tied on the top. He did not take the time to try to sound out the caption- tamales de rajas– to confirm what he already knew, but he did notice that its handwriting was identical to what he had seen on the spice labels.
It was a cookbook. His mother’s cookbook.
For a while he just stood there, reeling in the same state of wooziness that he had felt next to her closing grave.
Then he shut the book in a rush of fury, wondering why he had never been shown this book before. His other brothers had been entirely indifferent to their mother’s culinary genius. He was the only one who had taken any remote interest in finding out what went into the delicacies that they all inhaled on a daily basis. He was the one who would come running when he heard the late afternoon clanging of pots and pans, eager to pass his mom ingredients, sometimes taking note of her flawlessly improvised measurements or techniques, but mostly focused on the inevitable opportunity to taste the miracle in the making. Every time, just before the hot meal was transferred to the table, she would turn around for Carlos to loosen the tie cinching the apron around her waist. Then as she would lift the plain, white cloth over her head to hang from a hook next to the light switch, she would always say with a wink,
“M’ijo, someday you will be the one to wear this.”
He had always found this comment a bit odd, but as time went on, it actually became embarrassing. His brothers had begun making some jabs at his girlish tendencies, and he had become more and more interested in tagging along on their exploits, whether they be marbles upstairs or soccer out in the neighbor’s yard. Over the past year, he had shadowed her less and less in the kitchen to the point where he stopped doing it at all.
A soft sigh brought him back around. He plopped himself down on the floor right where he was, and opened the book again to the first page.
The illustration here had been smeared beyond recognition under a red cloud, so he had to pull out his index finger and set about the arduous task of deciphering the sound of the first group of letters:
p o z o l e
They used to eat this hearty soup every Sunday. Now how was it that she made it? He moved on to glance over the list of ingredients:
1/4 de libra de chicharrón en trozos
1 libra de carne de puerco
1 libra de Maíz Pozolero precocido
5 Chiles Guajillos
2 Chiles Anchos
1/4 de Lechuga
2 dientes de Ajo
2 hojas de laurel
2 cucharadas de Orégano
1 cucharada de Aceite de Oliva
Pimienta al gusto
1 cucharada de Sal*
He was already feeling overwhelmed. Luckily his curiosity (and his hunger) fueled him to continue the monumental task of reading, so he placed his finger back down, this time directly beneath the first ingredient, and moved his face closer to the page. He painstakingly shifted his finger from ¼ to ‘de libra de’ with no satisfaction. He didn’t know what a ¼ of a pound was, and it didn’t sound remotely delicious or even edible. But the moment he touched the ‘ch’ of ‘chicharrón’, he was hit with the most powerful aroma of fried pork rinds. He closed his eyes as he sucked in the smell and sat with it billowing inside his nostrils. Impatient to experience more, he dropped the idea of trying to read and simply slid his finger over the next line. Pork.
Then the next. Hominy. And then the next four without pausing between them. Two types of chilies, lemon, radishes. At this point he lost all restraint and with the paper now an inch or so away from his face, he found himself sticking out his tongue and licking the next line. His taste buds picked up the distinct flavor of ripe, creamy avocado.
“Carlitos, why don’t find a place with brighter lights so you can see your book a little better?”
Luckily his back was turned towards the entryway of the kitchen that led to the family room. His aunt was still oblivious to his strange behavior and his astounding discovery.
He stood up and scooped up the book, pressing it against his chest as he trotted out of the kitchen, back past the blaring set, and up the short flight of stairs to his room. His heart was still thumping against the back cover when he had climbed on his bed on the lower bunk.
He opened the cookbook to the first page again, hardly believing what he was about to do but unable to stop himself from doing it.
He pushed his left palm on the inside of the cover to steady the book. Then he softly pinched the upper right corner of the page and began to pull outwards and downwards, tearing the paper from the spine where it had been bound. Once it was loose, he raised it to his mouth and took a bite.
The moment his lips closed around the ragged chunk of paper, it softened and expanded in his mouth to the exact consistency of, well, the very pozole recipe that it used to describe. As he swirled it around with his tongue and began to chew, every little nuance particular to his mother’s countless reproductions of this dish was there: the velvety kick of the guajillo in the broth, just enough deep comfort of from the bay leaf to temper the spirited flash of oregano, the two or three extra twists of ground pepper…
And it went down his throat like a true mouthful of food.
Soon the entire page was in his tummy, leaving him the fullest he had been in weeks.
A delicious kind of sleepiness spread through his body. He tucked the book under his mattress, lay back on his pillow, and was soon asleep for a long nap.
For the next two months or so, every one of Carlos’s weekdays revolved around this newfound ritual. He would leaf through the cookbook until one of the pages caught his eye, then run his finger over the words, his nose right there to catch the trail of the scent released from the paper. Next came the slow ingestion of the page, piece by piece, each bite carefully tasted and relished before letting it go down his esophagus to quiet his longing. A couple of the recipes had been drinks or appetizers. Those usually were too scant to satisfy him completely so he would end up eating two pages on those days. Yesterday was one of those days, when he had drunk an entire pitcher’s worth of the agua de tamarindo recipe, but immediately followed it with the page that took the shape of stuffed, baked chayotes on his palate.
During this time, he found he even enjoyed the dishes that he had dreaded seeing under the lids of the pans his mother would escort to the dinner table when she was still alive. What surprised him the most in this regard were the calamares en su tinta. Normally when that particular seafood smell reached him, he was immediately nauseous. This time he discovered it got him salivating. How pleased his mother would have been, he thought, to see him devouring those chewy tentacle chunks swathed in their own ink.
But the book had gotten thinner and thinner, until the day that Carlos was left with only one page remaining.
He had saved page number three, his favorite recipe, for last.
Tamales de rajas were a mainstay for his family. For holidays, rainy days, and everything in between. For Carlos they were the quintessential comfort food. So, much more time was spent smoothing his finger over each line of the increasingly legible ingredients, measurements and instructions. As he did so, stunning memories mixed in with the aromas of the recipe. Chiles poblanos being stripped of their charred skins on the orange plastic cutting board. Steamed tomatoes dancing in the blender (one time the top had come loose and the pureé had sprayed all over the cabinets and ceiling while his mother hopped and shrieked around the kitchen). The sizzle of chopped onion being joined in the frying pan by the former two ingredients. The masa forming a soft mountain in the bowl under Mami’s omnipotent hands.
Next, the most wonderful part of all: the forming and wrapping of the tamales. There was something hypnotic about the process. A calm settled into your mind as your hands cycled through the movements. Corn husk down. Three more layers to go. Masa, chile mixture, queso oaxacano. Fold in, left, right. Fold in, down, up. Corn husk strip winding around and around, finished with a knot on top.
And into the steamer they go.
Once at the end of the recipe, Carlos closed his eyes for a while. When he open them again, in one violent jerk he tore the very last page from the battered volume, crumpled it up into a tight ball, and stuffed it all into his mouth at once. He had meant to continue with the same leisurely pace that he had maintained while going over the recipe. Yet there he was, his cheeks bulging and his jaws possessed by a locomotive pumping. One big, painful swallow and it was all gone.
Carlos cried harder than he had ever done in his brief but rather intense four and a half years. He didn’t bother wiping the tears and snot that had coated his face and were making their way along his neck and under the collar of his shirt.
He grabbed the drooping cookbook and slunk downstairs and into the family room. Leticia was in the bathroom. After staring blankly for a moment at the big-busted woman on TV, mascara tracks cascading down her cheeks from her own recent sobbing session, he continued on his way to the kitchen. Head down, he shuffled to the corner with the stool, placed the book on top of the stool, and dragged everything back to the countertop next to the fridge. Then he climbed up and opened the cabinet to drop the book back into place.
As he was extracting his hands from the darkness of the shelf, they brushed against the spice rack. Something compelled him to pause a moment and study the jar at the very front of the circular platform.
Without hesitation, he was able read the label and identify the spice.
He tried with a couple more at random. Laurel (bay leaf). Comino (Cumin). In a matter of minutes, he had gone through all 29 of his mother’s jars and had instantly recognized the name and appearance of each and every one of them.
His eyes pored over every other detail of the kitchen, as if seeing it all for the first time.
Finally his field of vision became fixed on an object at the opposite side of the room. It made him smile.
He left the cabinet door open, clambered back down from the counter to the floor, and hurried the stool to its original spot.
Scampering back on top of the stool again, his arrowed hands shot up towards the hook on the wall. Carlos then plucked up the neck string of the apron and gradually lowered it over his head.
*Source of pozole recipe: http://www.mexican-authentic-recipes.com/puerco-pozole_rojo_puerco.html