Nobody knows how to make lentil soup like my sister. Maybe it’s the brand of beans she buys, maybe it’s the Serrano ham bone she boils in the broth, or maybe it’s the pieces of plantain she barters for with her favorite marchanta at the market. Whatever it is, all who have tasted her thick, fragrant soup unequivocally agree: of all the lentil soups, hers reigns supreme.
The truth is, my sister doesn’t prepare the soup for just anyone. For me she does, because I am her favorite, and because of the history that we share—a history that somehow has left us eternally indebted to each other. And so, every time she learns that I am going to Veracruz to visit my beloved hometown, she rolls up her sleeves and gets busy in her kitchen. There, in a secret ritual that no one else is privy to, she exhorts the powers of the Culinary Goddess and creates her masterpiece. Year after year, she welcomes me thus: with the steaming pot that seals our tacit pact, lentils in exchange for perpetual love. And not just any love, mind you, but real love. Amor de los buenos.
There was a time, now long ago, when my sister prepared a different kind of soup. It was a soup made of tree leaves and dirt from the garden. She served it in small, clay bowls—our reward when we were good little girls at the market; when we carried the morral without complaint; when we didn’t wrinkle our noses at the Don Chemo’s smelly fish; or when we graciously accepted the chunk of beef that Doña Petra lowered from a hook and handed over, wrapped in bloody newspapers. Only then, when we didn’t make a fuss, we earned a prize, which well could have been a paper doll, or those tiny clay bowls with which my sister served her soup of petals and dirt.
There, under the cool shade of the flamboyant tree, beside the swings, the Chef would set up her kitchen. Her stove was the tree’s trunk, curved horizontally by too many hurricanes. An empty crate of mangos was her icebox. A big, flat rock her table. No one was allowed to cook. No one else knew the recipes of her concoctions. If I dared touch the pot, she would quickly swat my hand with the spoon, a dry stick, and send me off to set the table. I wasn’t even allowed to decorate the dessert with petals from the Copa de Oro. Presentation was key, and it could take all afternoon, but we, her guests—our stuffed animals, my Bambán (a black baby doll) and the cat—waited patiently. We didn’t dare leave. It was such a privilege to be invited to savor her culinary talents.
On the stairs of the patio of our grandparent’s house, she taught me how to make tortillas. We played with sour, leftover masa that the Chef would shape into small little balls, kneading and rolling them until they looked like marbles. Patting them between pieces of cut plastic, she would flatten them, careful not to break them apart as she laid them to “cook” on the comal—the metal lid of a trash can. I never managed to perfect the technique. All that my awkward hands would yield were grimy little churros that looked like African worms from Bambán’s homeland. The only thing that urged me to improve was the warning from the Chef that women who don’t know how to make tortillas were destined to be nuns, live their lives without husbands or children, locked in the Carmelite convent.
In the cookie factory of our uncle Manuel, El Cubano, my sister used to make her soup with crumbs. Our uncle would bake delicious biscuits, filled with peanut cream, in enormous ovens. When the trays fell, as they often did, he would give us the remnant pieces to play with. My sister made all sorts of soups, and we ate them until we were stuffed. The pigeons would fly down from the factory’s old beams and join the feast. Even today I can still hear their soft cooing when I eat too much.
The Chef improved the quality of her dishes during the summers we spent at uncle Jorge’s ranch, El Coyol. Her first course was either mangos with worms, or sour grapefruit dropped from a tree. Dessert was always the same: a piece of juicy sugar cane, freshly peeled, which we sucked like a sponge until dry.
More than once the Chef spoiled a dish, like the time of the infamous octopus.
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