Fried Plantains

Story no. 9.


day9

In 1982, a man named Jaime Gonzalez moved from San Juan to the Bronx. Jaime was sick of living in his old neighborhood on the island for a lot of reasons – the heat, the poor sanitation, the bad prospects – but chief among them was that he had the rare talent to taste love, and it was driving him insane.

What made this affliction such agony for Jaime was that not only had he had not always had it, but that in fact the shape of the first sixteen years of his life had been demarcated entirely by the smells and tastes of his grandmother’s exquisite cooking. The smells of roasting chicken, of lime and peppercorns, of papaya and sweet potato, of garlic and cilantro, of all kinds of pork of varying degrees of saltiness and smokiness: these were the letters that Abuelita had written in the book of young Jaime’s personality. He remembered first her clunky fingers deftly replicating themselves in cornmeal dough; each of these edible knobs was dropped into oil so hot it crinkled the ends of his hair just to lean his head near the pot.

Jaime Gonzalez wanted nothing more in life than to subside forever in the shade of his grandfather’s arbor, eating fried plantains with sugarcane juice, helping Abuelita hoe her garden and hang out her washing. His palate was of such delicacy and sensitivity that if he had not grown up in the poorest of mountain villages he surely would have become a chef or a food critic.

But in 1974 Abuelita had keeled over dead of a heart attack, and the sixteen-year-old had had to bid his long-dead grandfather and recently interred grandmother farewell and take a bus to San Juan looking for work.

It was here, in his new barrio, that he discovered his unfortunate talent.

The room he found to rent was near the water, and at night he lay under the tin roof and listening to to the rain drum and the mice skitter. For all Abuelita’s love-infused food, she had never taught him to cook, and in his new narrow living arrangements he didn’t have space anyway. Instead he went to the house of a woman nearby, who turned her brutally swept front yard into a restaurant every evening, with boards set up between concrete blocks and overturned milk crates as chairs. A handful of change bought one a bowl of chicken stew; for an even more modest amount, one could have beans and rice. Jaime, painfully aware of the meager few dollars tucked inside his shirt, took the beans and rice.

The first bite tasted so strange that he swallowed it immediately and wished for some juice to clean the taste out of his mouth. Cautiously he took another and chewed slowly: was that the taste of . . . cinnamon candies? In beans and rice? Who on earth put sugary, crunchy little candies into this dish?

He couldn’t finish the bizarre dish and slid it under the table for a curious dog to gulp down.

But hunger is a greater motivator than snobbery, and after a week of crackers and scoping out more expensive eateries than Ana’s yard, Jaime returned. He figured that maybe the problem was that Ana wanted to force people to pay for the pollo asapao by making the rice and beans almost inedible. He resented the extra cents, but he was desperate to eat something, anything, approaching the deliciousness Abuelita had crafted for him every night. Without good food he felt like a ghost of himself.

The chicken stew smelled good, and he optimistically pushed a huge spoonful into his mouth.

. . . and promptly spat it out. It tasted, if possible, more strongly of crunchy cinnamon candies that the rice and beans had.

“Señora,” he called to Ana, who had bent her ample bosom close to a gentleman wearing a crumpled trilby. “Señora, what is in this chicken?”

Ana minced and smiled and warbled that she couldn’t possibly give away her grandmother’s recipe, but that it included cumin, a bit of lemon, a bit of. . .

“No,” Jaime interrupted, unable to listen to a full litany of ingredients without his lip curling up past his teeth. “I mean — did you put cinnamon candies in this?”

Everyone in the yard stared at him.

“Maybe they fell in by accident,” he said quickly.

That was the first restaurant he was thrown out of, but it was not the last. There was the place serving roast pork sandwiches at the other end of Old San Juan, which he thought tasted like laundry soap; the hovel dishing out sopapillas just inside the old city walls that filled his nose with an overwhelming odor of anise and bubblegum; the coffee served after lunch at the factory where he worked, which burned his tongue with the snap of chilis. What he tasted and what other people tasted never aligned, so he stopped asking what on earth people were adding to their soup or bread or tea.

It took him nearly a year to figure out what the problem was. He had returned to the first neighborhood he had moved into to ask around for jobs. (He was currently camping in a churchyard, having lost his job after unintentionally insulting the manager’s wife’s coffeecake.) Jaime had lost weight, his cheeks thinned by his inability to stomach the bizarre flavors that met his tongue in every dish.

Trudging over familiar cobbles, he found himself standing outside Ana’s yard restaurant. She and her sister were in the kitchen, having not opened for the evening meal yet, talking and working. Their voices carried through the open window over the sound of their knives whacking the cutting board.

“. . . and do you remember those cinnamon candies that Tío Carlos gave to us every Christmas?”

“How could I forget? They were my favorite thing in the whole year.”

“Papa never bought us candies.”

“Papa never loved us like Tío Carlos . . . ”

Jaime stopped in the middle of the street, understanding slowly clicking into place in his brain.

He spent the rest of that week making inquiries about who prepared the food at every place he had ever eaten an odd-flavored dish. The coffee at his old factory was made by a Mexican man whose wife still cooked with great handfuls of chilis. The roast pork sandwiches came from a woman whose beloved late mother smelled always of laundry soap from her job as a washerwoman. The sopapillas were hardest to figure out, but finally he tracked down the daughter of the man who owned the shack, who had since stopped guarding the vat of oil and moved to a new neighborhood to be with her boyfriend. It seemed she had just kissed the man she would fall in love with the week Jaime had bought the pastries. She had had some bubblegum in her cheek, and he had been sucking on an anise candy.

Jaime had never realized how saturated in love his city was until he tried to find some food made by someone who had been untouched by it. He ate shoe-leather flavored mangos from a man on the street, fried calf brains infused with the tinny flavor of old toy cars from a kitchen of a friend, and bread smelling heavily of wet dog from more than one bakery.

The worst, he found, were the young, the just-in-love, those still lightheaded with new love. The flavors they left in the food they touched were the strongest and most bizarre. Hair pomade! He had eaten so many sandwiches that tasted of hair pomade and cologne! Most disturbing of all was when he tasted the unexpected tang of salty skin, of kissed lips and caressed shoulders, in a plate of rice or a dish of vegetables.

So in 1982 Jaime Gonzalez, after saving for ten months, purchased a plane ticket from San Juan to John F. Kennedy International Airport. He did not know much about New York — in fact he did not even speak English — but from his understanding New Yorkers were cold, miserable people. His food should be safe from the incursions of love there.

The first week he found work unloading boxes and spent the rest of his time closeted in a rancid-smelling boarding house in the Bronx. He ate saltines and canned tuna from a nearby bodega and dared to hope he had outrun his accursed taste buds.

It seemed to work, until the smells emanating from the Puerto Rican cafe next door became too intense for him to resist anymore. He went down and ordered empanadillas – a small dish! a simple dish! – but the first one tasted like turpentine, the next one like oil paints, the next one like the bristles from a hair brush. The cafe was filled with chunky paintings of scenes from San Juan Bay and the interior mountains. The waitress, a chatty woman, told him in Spanish that the restaurant proprietor’s husband was not Puerto Rican but Irish, and he had painted her the scenes from photographs to remind her of home. Jaime thanked the waitress and took the rest of the plate to go; the Styrofoam box landed ringingly in the bottom of the first trash can he passed.

As the time passed in New York, Jaime’s affliction grew, if possible, even worse. It no longer mattered who had made the food; he tasted the love of passers-by in his saltines. If a woman walking behind him when he bought a Coke had been punched by her husband, his soda tasted like blood. If the child of the man who owned the box-unloading business showed up to see her father after school, he could taste whether she had played with her best friend in his break coffee – Oreos, the plastic taste of Barbie hair – or had been left alone on the playground – the salt of tears, the tang of the chain-link fence by which she sat by herself.

Perhaps because of the assiduous attentions of Abuelita during childhood, Jaime was a somewhat picky, stiff, reserved man, but in spite of this, he had developed something of a friendship with one of the men he unloaded boxes with, a Cuban by the name of Ramón Paez. Jaime could tolerate Ramón because the great love of his life was his mother, and the strongest memory he had of her was the way she prepared roast pork for Sunday dinner, so if Jaime could arrange to buy a pork sandwich for lunch and eat it next him it almost tasted normal.

What aggravated him about Ramón, though, was that the man could not understand why his gift was such a burden.

“Sell it!” he advised Jaime.

“How? Who wants to know what their love tastes like?” Jaime snapped.

“People pay to know what stars are in what part of the sky when they were born, and that’s a hell of a lot farther away than what their mama was cooking when they were a child,” Ramón said comfortably. “You can tell people how good their love is by how good it tastes. Lots of women are afraid their boyfriend or their husband or their son doesn’t really love them. Lots of men, too, come to think of it.”

Unloading boxes didn’t pay particularly well, and Jaime had unvoiced hopes of being able to move to a cabin in the middle of the woods where he would be able to grow all of his own food, completely untainted by other people. So he grudgingly took out a newspaper ad describing his services and listing the number of the boarding house as his contact.

To his surprise calls started coming in almost immediately. The boarding house owner took messages grudgingly, and Jaime saw clients in his room between seven and nine PM. But what he had not reckoned on was that he could not judge the quality of someone’s love by how pleasant it tasted. The first young woman who came in – a lovely Black girl with luminous eyes – made his canned tuna taste like gummed clay. But her beloved was her ceramics teacher, and she described with shining eyes how he had shown her to throw pots. Jaime thought maybe the trick was in how strong the flavor was, but the next woman, a weeping matron of fifty with died red hair, overwhelmed his saltines with the flavors of cucumber sandwiches, of quiche with spinach, of sorbet made with peaches. But these were the intense memories she had of eating in front of her mother, whose approval she had never been able to win because she could not lose weight.

Jaime didn’t know what to tell his clients; while his palate was perfectly honed, his understanding of love was rudimentary. Most of them still paid him with five and ten and twenty-dollar bills for reminding of something they had forgotten or giving them new hope for their love.

His business came to an abrupt and painful end when a handsome couple, the woman blonde and wearing a cashmere sweater, the man a giant in an old letterman’s jacket, entered his room and sat down on his bed, across from the chair where he ate saltines and tuna and described what they tasted like. Jaime, exhausted from a particularly heavy day of work, did not even look at the man when he shoved a cracker in his mouth and started explaining the flavors he found there.

“Rice,” he said. “Noodles, maybe? Ginger. Garlic. This tastes like Chinese food. Nice. Very nice. Chicken, pork with the skin on, broth with onions.” He didn’t notice the man’s face growing redder and redder as he went on. When he had eaten his fifth cracker the man punched him, and the woman started to scream.

Later Jaime pieced together that the man hated Chinese food and for that reason they never ate it together. However he had long suspected his girlfriend of sneaking out to buy food from the shop on the corner, where the cook was a warm young man from Hong Kong.

At that moment, though, he was mainly concerned with his jaw and his ribs, as the man vented his rage on the hapless object in front of him. The couple left without paying.

This was the end of Jaime’s business, but it was also the end of his box-unloading career, as he was injured too badly to make it to work the next day. Two days later, when he felt well enough to get up, he went to the hospital, and received a bill of several hundred dollars for wiring his jaw shut. The next day, he received a call from his boss. “Don’t bother coming in. You’re fired.”

Jaime’s savings from his side business went to pay his medical bill, and what little was left over he gave to his landlord, who kicked him out for not paying rent two months later anyway.

The employment opportunities for a man who spoke poor English and who had no place of residence, he soon discovered, were extremely few. Ramón, who lived with his wife’s parents, let him sleep on the couch for a week, but his father-in-law kicked Jaime out after determining that he was no longer employed.

It was in this way that Jaime found himself standing in line at a homeless shelter in Queens, blowing on his hands and wishing desperately his jaw had not healed crooked. Luckily the shelter was not yet full up that night, and he was admitted and allowed to put his garbage bag of possessions underneath a bed covered in an army surplus blanket. He then walked to the dining room to get in another line to receive his dinner.

The smell hit him in the stomach like a punch. He had not smelled plantains frying in so long that in his conscious mind he had imagined he had forgotten them, but his whole body remembered the comfort of receiving a plate of the sweet chips from Abuelita. He shuffled forward, filled both with painfully sharp longing and miserable dread: what cruel thing would his talent make this wondrous dish taste like? Would he even get a hint of the true flavor before it was overwhelmed by peanut-butter-and-jelly or chocolate or mint gum or chalk or some other awful inedible thing?

The woman serving the plantains was a broad-shouldered Nigerian, her braids wrapped up tightly in a patterned blue headcloth. She ladled out oup to each tired-looking man before scooping onto a plate a handful of plantain slices with her plastic glove-clad hand. She smiled at Jaime as she handed him the bowl and the plate.

He could barely wait until he sat down, and he could not bear to eat his soup before knowing what curse his talent had bestowed upon him this time. Jaime put a single plantain slice in his mouth and chewed.

Tears began to roll down his face. The plantain did not taste like anything but itself – sugary, caramelized, a bit crunchy, a bit soft.

“Been a long time, huh?” the guy across the table asked him with a knowing smile.

Jaime nodded, unable to speak.

He took each slice with the tips of his fingers and laid it reverently on his tongue, tempted to even close his eyes. The soup – a tomato chili – was not nearly so delicious, but it tasted like soup. Chili. Nothing else.

Jaime ate so slowly that by the time he had finished, most of the other men had wandered away to the dormitory rooms to sleep and play cards. He raised his eyes to the woman behind the counter, now up to her elbows in soapsuds washing dishes. He rose to his feet and walked to the window.

“There’s no more food, my dear,” she said gently, noticing him. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m fine,” he said through the knot in his throat. “Señora – madam – please pardon me. Who do you love?”

She stared at him for a full minute before her whole body started to shape with laughter. “My dear! What kind of question is that?”

He swallowed. “Your food is the best I’ve eaten in ten years – and I – I wondered who you loved, so I could find more food that tasted like this.”

“My dear, I don’t love anyone but you,” the tall woman said lightly, and turned back to her dishes.

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