Third Place in the 2022 Food-Writing Flash Contest
A chill whistled through the crack in the window, stirring up musk from open cupboards where Mama had unearthed jars, boxes, tubs, and tins. The air was seasoned with dried herbs, pink peppercorns, pickled garlic, and chutneys. Scents that could quietly steam open Papa’s mind like an envelope.
She lay strips of bacon like sleeping children in an oven dish, sliced open the tenderloin, and beat it flat with a bottle of Pinot Noir. The penny jar was empty, but she wasn’t just cooking a meal. She was delivering an argument.
She borrowed from cuisines across the world, unafraid to dismantle trusted family hand-me-downs (to Grandma’s dismay) and reassemble with whatever she found in her cupboards. She invented new dishes. Whispering her fusions to wedding guests and passing divorcees her chocolate chilli soufflé recipe with a knowing smile.
Relationships bloomed within three months of trying her chicken pumpkin laksa, and when Auntie Clara wanted a child, Mama’s gift was pear and saffron tarte tatin. Nine months later—twins.
Now she spread pesto on the meat and layered it with cheese and spinach, wrapped it in bacon. I stuck the toothpicks in each end, and we placed it in the smoking skillet.
“I have a secret,” she said.
I saw the mischief Grandma saw when Mama had worn pearls on their wedding day (they represented tears) and sewed her own dress (each stitch a tear in the marriage).
Mama whispered in my ear.
I gasped, then zipped my mouth.
The room ached with the smell of browning pork. My mother was a genius.We returned the meat to the baking pan, closed the oven door before gathering ammunition for dessert. I peeled the pears.
Mama and Papa were sugar and salt. She wanted a house full of children and noise, little minds to shape. Papa said one was enough on his wage. Grandma said there’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially with Mama. “Keep one eye open,” she’d warned.
When Papa walked in, every surface sparkled and smelled of lemons.
“What’s going on?” he said, but Mama only told me to fetch the Pinot Noir.
It was so long past my bedtime when we ate, the clinking of plates and laughter felt almost part of a dream.
“Good luck,” I whispered, kissing Mama goodnight.
“Luck?” she said. “I have tarte tatin.”
I barely noticed the scratched-off banister paint as I sloped upstairs. I stuck my nose through the slats, watching their two shadows closing into one.
“I can’t remember the last time we ate tarte tatin,” Papa’s shadow said. “Must’ve been….” He dropped his spoon. “Betty. We can’t.”
I thought about Auntie Clara, stifled my giggles with both hands.
“We’ve made it work before,” said Mama.
“We haven’t the space. The money.”
“Shhh,” she said, spooning her dessert to his lips.
The candlelight flickered exciting new shapes on the wall. Grandma was right. Mama had made up her mind and poor Papa was already six spoonfuls in.