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Poetic License: ‘Comida (Nutrition)’

By JOE PACHECO - | Oct 27, 2020


(From the Mama Carmen Suite)

She was plumper than a calabaza

yet never sat down to eat at the table

with the rest of the family,

but picked bits and pieces

from the memorable dishes

she spent most of the day preparing,

tasting, correcting, re-tasting

and finally serving,

often right from the enormous sartén,

the black cast iron frying pan

she had brought from Vieques

and that once, in a prior century,

had been shiny and much lighter,

but by then aged and encrusted

with the soot and grease

of fifty thousand lard-fried dishes —

weighing almost five pounds,

half an inch thick at the sides:

its residue of three generations

of family meals and history,

like old sherry wine in soleras

mixing with the new —

molecules of the pork chop

my great grandfather had eaten

in the nineteenth century

mingled with the crust

of her latest hit,

the fried plantain tostones

that sang on our palates

the music made

by her cast iron lyre.

And once every month, pasteles,

as the grandchildren

in assembly line stations

around the kitchen table,

competed at the various tasks:

Momón, Juanito and I

at our separate graters

scraping the plantain

at furious speeds

to win the race

for maximum production of masa,

the mash which Lulú and Isabel,

my younger cousins,

spread on banana leaves or waxed paper

while Mama Carmen

poured precise portions

of achiote and legendary meat filling

right in the center

and Angelina and Lydia, older cousins,

folded each pastel rectangle in half,

nudging the filling toward the fold,

folding it in half again,

then folding the ends,

while Carmen, the eldest,

bundled two pasteles,

seams facing each other,

into communion by tying

an arm’s length of string around them,

along the right and left width

and once along the length,

and then dropping them

into the caldero of boiling water

where they could cook for an hour,

be lifted by their strings,

placed on a plate and wait

to be snipped and unfolded

into consummation

and final epiphany

with white rice and red beans.