Spring 2001, Volume 18.3
J. A. Pollard
Alien in the Kitchen
J. A. Pollard is an author/artist who lives in Winslow, Maine. Her short stories, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary journals, anthologies, magazines, and newspapers. She has also published three books: The New Maine Cooking, Polluted Paradise, and The Ice Ladder. The Simply Grande Gardening Cookbook, which reveals the amazing history of vegetable travels, is due to appear in the spring of 2001.
Whatever it wanted, it wasn't going to get. Because I was too old for foolishness. But it was male. It had that feeling. From the way it stood. From the way it looked at me. And, being the age I was, I knew that maleness—any male, from anywhere—would doubtless want one thing; and I wasn't going to—well—an alien! So I handed it the enchilada. Which it took, staring at me.
"Go on," I said. "Have some lunch." And I placed one of my small, silver forks on a pristine, white, porcelain plate, saying, "Wait a minute," and popped a sprinkling of minced cilantro on the top.
The alien looked at me, at the enchilada, and made a sound.
"Eat," I said. "You'll feel better." And turned back to the stove.
A line of crisp, golden tortillas, puffed and pregnant with a stuffing of pinto beans cooked to perfection amidst finely chopped onions and parsley and garlic, the entire golden row reclining in their red, rectangular pan and topped by my own home-made tomato sauce, splattered by thickly-grated, yellow Cheddar cheese—the whole thing steamed deliciously.
Ah! what aroma! What gastronomic sustenance! How basically, brazenly healthful!
"That," I said, turning to the Alien, "is not just good. It's good for you. Eat it up!" And, seeing that he didn't know what to do, but just stood there looking rather helpless, I took another plate for myself, got out my white, rubber spatula with the wooden handle, and carefully eased an enchilada onto the plate, not forgetting the sprinkling of fresh, green cilantro. Then I tucked in the strings of barely congealing cheese with another silver fork, licked it while going to the table—beckoning him to follow—sat down, and took a mouthful.
Oh! the awful artfulness of corn and beans, tomato sauce, and thick, green peppers. Ah! the sumptuous satisfaction of it all.
"Sit down," I ordered. "This serving of absolutely lovely enchiladas is due at my annual literary luncheon. We've got a meeting of writers. But here you are. Want to come along?" I waved him to a chair.
There was a slight rustling—from his space suit I think it was—and he pushed back a helmet-type of thing, which rippled down his back. I think he had four fingers to our five, but since he didn't take off his gloves—or whatever they were—I can't be certain. But he was hungry. He looked thin. Taller and thinner than human males. At least some of them. Masai-like maybe. And his eyes were huge. But they got bigger as he smelled that redolence, that savory scent of elegant enchilada.
"Isn't it good?" I breathed, closing my eyes and moving the tender beans around in my mouth, allowing the garlic to seep into my taste buds and saturate them all, allowing olive oil to creep over my gums, chewing gently on the thin tortilla skin.
"What dangerous largesse!" I sighed. "Isn't it fine that I've been cooking?"
At which he eased himself onto a chair next to mine, looked at me, and tried to use his fork. But couldn't seem to. So I took it from him, cutting delicately, holding up a sample, leaning over and stuffing it into his mouth. Which was rather odd, come to think about it, but present all the same.
"You'll like it," I said, smiling and thinking about the next taste—and my waiting writers.
grumblenotky? he grunted.
"Yes," I said. "Open wide." And he did, and I stuffed the hole again, and sat back, cutting a second portion for myself, not neglecting, naturally, to arrange another one for him.
I heard him chewing—or something.
"Isn't it good?" I purred.
He gurked in return. And sat there, looking away, far away, mouthing the beans and cheese, moving the garlic juices and catalytic corn taste over and around—as if his mouth were a washing machine, slish slosh.
So while he was busy, turning the fork upside down and rightside up, and squishing the enchanting enchilada, and feeling the cheese ooze into the steaming beans, and seeming to think about things, I said, "Watch this," and returned to the stove.
But he came too. Seeming to float a bit. And I knew he was going to forget the enchiladas if I didn't pay attention, so I pushed him away. Gently. Smiling. Watching until the beans and cheese stopped slish sloshing in his washing machine. He seemed to get the point. I was connecting. Although not possibly in the way he wanted. His eyes bulged. Whatever might pass for pupils turned from slits to discs. I thought he began to whistle.
"Stay put." I held up a hand. "Watch this." Reaching beyond him—in fact, reaching across him—I scooped up two bright avocados from my grandmother's dark-brown wooden bowl that sat beside us. "These have
been created for, have dedicated their existence to, quacamole, chico." I traced their shape, my hand following their curves. They shone. Like emeralds.
"Watch this." I slithered to my cutting board.
He followed. Hovering.
"Is there something wrong with gravity?" It was like having a bat take interest. "But I digress. See, I slice them in half, remove the big-ball pits, scoop out the sublime green flesh—oh! excellent! oh chlorophyll-saturated, sunny succulence!—and place it in my blender. Want to help?"
I held the blender up. The whistling seemed to soften.
"Then I add the following three tablespoons of freshly-squeezed lemon juice—move over please—ever seen one of these?" And waved the yellow, pock-marked citrus under what seemed to be a nose. He trembled.
"This," I hurried, squashing half the lemon on the green glass spiral of my mother's antique squeezer. "N'est ce pas?"
gurkzezpy. He cycled rapidly, and whistled.
"Pay attention! So I position this in the blender along with a level teaspoon of sea salt—which is best, you know—direct from the ocean. We humans are walking bags of sea water, did you know?"
I shoved him over.
"We all love salt. We're salty. Are you salty? I know you're hot," I said. "I can smell it."
He was too close. So I added two tablespoonfuls of chopped fresh coriander, a peeled garlic clove, and one slick, green chile after taking it out of a can and lovingly rinsing and plucking away its seeds.
"Don't get it in your eyes," I warned. Considering.
Then I turned on the blender.
The screech startled him. He leapt, or flew—I'll never know—and was suddenly tight against me, suspicious, one of his four-fingered—hands—or paws—or whatever, pinching my lower back.
Deftly I moved to my refrigerator, the two of us doing a Quick Step, clasped together like award-winning dance partners; and bending over, thinking it the most dangerous thing I'd ever do, I removed a huge, round, ruby tomato from the bottom drawer. Held it up.
"This," I announced, "is a treasure. Watch!"
I put it into one of his hands—or paws—or whatever. And saw his agitation settle. Then I placed a medium-sized, stainless steel saucepan on the stove, poured some water into it, turned the heat up high.
"In a moment, chico, we'll have boiling water. Then I'll dunk—I'll drown—the fruit for half a minute until the skin, that thin, supporting envelope, begins to peel. See?"
He was clutching the tomato, looking at the saucepan, and I saw that I'd hooked him. In spite of himself. "It's really a love apple," I said
coyly, "along with sunflower seeds, blueberries, potatoes, chiles, squash, haricot beans, corn, and hundreds of other items, which America offered Europe. Isn't that fascinating? Can't you tell I'm a writer? Think what Italian cuisine would be without it!"
He tilted to smell the saucepan.
"What strange movements you have. Never mind. Get this: after 1492, tomatoes were shipped east from Mexico—where they'd migrated along with peppers from Peru. But they didn't get a big Italian greeting."
I watched him, lecturing. He raised his eyes, looked at the tomato, studied the saucepan.
"Yes," I said. "Venetian Petrus Matthiolus remarked in 1544 that slices would be good `fried in oil with salt and pepper.' We can try that. Later. But Pietro Antonio Michiel in the later l6th century growled that `If I should eat this fruit, cut in slices in a pan with butter and oil, it would be injurious and harmful to me.' What did he know!?"
I checked the saucepan. "Correct. It wasn't until 1635, in Antwerp, that an epicure named Nieremberg suggested tomatoes could be pickled, although Dominicus Chabraeus listed them as malignant and poisonous! Are you getting all this?"
The water was boiling, and I took the tomato out of his paw—or hand—or whatever, and slid it in. A look that I interpreted as dismay passed over his—features. Slit/disc pupils cycled fiercely.
"Look, the tomato's not alive," I said. "Actually it IS alive. But it's fine. It's all right," I assured. "It doesn't feel a thing. Watch!" And the skin began to lift, ever so gently, so that I took my big, wire spoon and fished the smooth, pink meaty ball towards me, moving quickly to the sink to plunge it into cold water.
He made a noise like groaning.
"Do you know," I continued, "that as late as 1845 the editor of the Boston Courier still compared tomatoes to "rotten potato-balls? Of course you don't."
I picked the tomato up, cuddled it gently, and proceeded to pull off its skin. He panted down my neck. So I placed it on my chopping board and cut it into little pieces.
gurk! he said.
Opening the glass doors, I took a deep, white bowl from the second shelf of my dish cupboard. "Today," I said, "after three centuries of wandering with human carriers, the tomato's popularity is rampant."
I poured the lime-like avocado contents of the blender into my bowl.
gurkobsky! he exclaimed.
"The tomato," I added, dropping carmine bits into green, "has traveled farther and wider, and changed the face of more cuisines, than any other New World food." I garnished the top with a little chopped cilantro mixed with curly leaf parsley. "Consumption in the U.S. of fresh tomatoes alone runs to twelve or thirteen pounds a year, while tomato products total over twenty—more than half in the guise of ketchup and chili sauce. I write cooking columns for magazines. You can take that information home with you. Hand me the chips," I said.
mungrubsky oro bo kano, he replied.
"Good," I said. "Try some." And he did. We did. We stood there in the kitchen, testing.
mungrubsky! he said. izzychapakochek!
"Exactly. Let's make Almond Pudding." I was getting into the mood.
"No, I said. "We could make Chongos Zamorano, a kind of cheese pudding. Native Americans didn't have dairy, you know. Spaniards brought cows. But that takes six hours. How much time you got?"
He didn't answer. "First," I said, "I'm going to serve you Chocolate Caliente. After all, chocolate is American. Europeans didn't know what to do with it for years."
I pulled up a stool close by the stove. "Sit on that. Hold this." Climbing on the counter top, I reached the top shelf of my dish closet to retrieve one of my antique, hand-painted cups with the pansies on it and the gold rim. I handed it to him. "Be careful. I have real Mexican chocolate, and a molinillo." I rummaged in another closet. "This," holding it up, "is a primitive chocolate beater. As you observe, it's a decoratively carved wooden instrument which resembles a bass drum stick with grooves. There are loose wooden rings just above the knobby end. See?"
His eyes bulged. "What are you thinking, chico? You put the end with the knob and rings into your hot chocolate and hold the other, the slender end, between your palms. Like this. Then you rub your palms together to twirl the beater—the way Boy Scouts twirl sticks for starting fires. Are you a scout? It produces froth. It's fun. Watch closely!
"For two servings, I take half a two-ounce cake of this incredible Mexican chocolate—which already contains sugar as well as cinnamon, almonds, and eggs—and shave it nicely. See?"
He was leaning close. I thought I saw him nod. It was hard to tell with the space suit thing and the helmet bobbing down his back.
"All of it goes into the top of my double-boiler—like this." I brought out my favorite Swedish one with the copper bottom. "You can see that water will be boiling under it. When it does, we'll add two cups of milk until the chocolate melts."
I thought he'd fall over when I took the gallon milk jug out of the
refrigerator. But the scent of chocolate—"Incan gold," I said—permeated the room. We watched avidly, both of us sniffing, as the deep brown bounty began to impregnate bright, white liquid. I thought he'd drool. I did. Then I poured it into a thick, ceramic pitcher with blue irises painted on it, and began to beat with the molinillo.
This time he wasn't whistling. He wanted to help. I was afraid he'd wreck the molinillo but I gave him a chance. He did so well, I kept stuffing his mouth—or whatever—with guacamole on tiny, toasted tortilla chips; and he kept beating until soon we had two cups of frothy, lip-smacking Chocolate Caliente waiting to serve us.
I asked, "Can you put your fingers—or whatever—through the handle of the cup?" But he solved the situation by grasping it with both—whatever—so I picked up my own and held it out.
"Peace," I said.
And could have sworn he said, "Almond Pudding?"
"Where are you from?" We'd moved from chocolate to Sangria—which began to seem like a good idea—then onto Coconut Candy—Dulces de Coco—and from there to corn on the cob with gobs of sweet butter; not to mention a salad of greens, and jicama sliced thinly, and mild red onion, with grapefruit and orange slices moistened by a dressing made of three tablespoons apple cider vinegar, two tablespoons fresh lime juice, six tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, one clove garlic, one teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, half a teaspoon each of sea salt and cumin, and one-eighth teaspoon of crushed red pepper—which made him growl (going slish slosh)—doing everything backwards and forwards and round about until we collapsed, replete, replenished, mellow, mollified.
grubink? he asked.
"Tomatoes," I said.
Then it—he—left. Taking along my molinillo, and doubtless a list of foods from the New World to enrich his Old.
Just as Columbus had.