By: Jenni Taylor
“Wow, your rice is really good,” he says, scooping up the last bits from the rice cooker before tossing it in the sink. We had just finished one of the three meals I was capable of making. I took the basic compliment.
“I just add some salt and garlic, like Deysi taught me,” I say. I turn on the hot water and begin to wash the pot from the rice cooker. It’s thick. “The trick is to always use a thick pot, the thickest you have,” Deysi had said. She didn’t have a rice cooker. Rice to her was an art, including thick pots, salt and garlic, low heat, plastic bags, and the right spoon.
Deysi was a Peruvian woman who had taken me into her home when it became widely known that la americana couldn’t cook worth a lick. At first I was embarrassed to go. I didn’t mind living off tuna and street hamburgers. But there was Deysi, waiting for me with my covered plate, determined to put extra meat on my bones.
I tried to make excuses during the week, so I would only have to go when I really had nothing. I felt ridiculous taking charity from a woman who had a whole family to feed, this woman I had met a church who always sat in the front on the right and spun to the music in her flowered skirts. But each meal was better than the last, and next thing I knew I was there, every day, 2:00pm Peruvian time.
Our friendship started slowly, cautiously. I would talk about my English students, she would gossip about her neighbors. I would try to wash the dishes and she would firmly push me down in my seat, refusing to let me help. She wouldn’t take money, either, though once or twice I was able to sneak it into her bible when she wasn’t looking. It took me a while to realize the most precious gift I could give her was time.
I stopped showing up for meals and began to show up while she was cooking. She wouldn’t let me touch the food, but would stand there stirring and tell me everything. When she was angry, she chopped. She would chop so hard and fast that I couldn’t listen to her words anymore, just watch her fingers and pray they wouldn’t come off. When she was happy, she would always throw in extra spices, and tell me their strange names in Spanish as long as I promised not to repeat them.
Some days, her family was there. Other days, they would come in and grab their meals to go before heading back to work, and Deysi and I would be left alone at the table. It was our special time together.
La Cocinera gave me family when I had none, and I was her daughter for a brief moment in time. She fed my body and soul, always whispering a kind word as she hugged me before I left, giving me bible verses on slips of paper with cartoon characters, and adamantly taking my side when I had been wronged. We cried together a lot, and laughed together even more. She was energy, she was life, she was strength and health and a bleeding heart still beating out love. She was my friend.
I still can’t cook very well, but I try to use the few secrets she gave me. A thick pot for rice cooking, and a smile even when life hurts. Salt and garlic, and some prayers of thanks. Turn the heat low, and life is going to be okay.
She’s the best cocinera I’ve ever met.