The Five-Star Plate

The Five-Star Plate


Today, I cried at the nearby mercado here in Oaxaca, Mexico, when I tasted the blue-corn tortillas with huevos con rajas verdes. I’m no foodie and have only missed corn tortillas in Portugal.

But the food here is sublime — the mamey, the atole, the nopales con salsa de tomate, the gelatinas, los dulces and nieves. I eat like a rich person — whole grain, organic, packed with herbs and spices. Epazote. Oja de aguacate. I hallucinate. Dozens of salsas and chiles.

And today, I broke down sobbing as I poured the huevos onto my homemade tortillas. Abuelita raised me on corn tortillas, cafe con leche, guisaditos with very little meat. Pan dulce.

For a moment, I am six years old, back home in the Panhandle of Texas, middle of nowhere, and it’s 4:00 pm, and my abuelita has gorditas for me — not fried — comal only, filled with black beans and queso fresco she’s smuggled into Texas. It is 1960. I smell corn, freshly ironed linens. Hear Mami’s rancheras, the click of her scissors. . . . She’s making me new panties with lace, quinceañera dolls to sell too, this time in lavender. The newest baby babbles in his crib.

My white classmates have harrassed and called me names all day. Circled me. Another long day. And I am home now.

Everything will be OK, I tell that little girl. You have all this.

You have inherited this five-star meal.

COVID-19 Therapy Cuisine

COVID-19 Therapy Cuisine

These days, when tired of reading, writing, calling, and binge watching, I turn to the kitchen. But when I do cook, I do not bake. I’m one of those who could screw up Duncan Hines; I stick with what I know I can do: cook. It is my most serious, absolute, and unequivocal commitment to domesticity. Dust bunnies don’t bother me nearly much as a deficiency of butter, Herbes de Provence, or Old Bay.

I can cook on a generous budget, a low one, or an almost-no budget. I once threw a party for a group of reporters from 11 countries. I set a buffet table representative of each visitor’s culinary tradition, almost all by myself. Took three days. Loved every minute of it.

I cook when I’m happy, sad, or, worst of all, angry. There’s something frighteningly satisfying about holding a well-sharpened 8-inch chef’s knife and pretending you’re severing vital body parts from a miscreant, or, on one memorable occasion, a malevolent manager.

September 1981.

There I was, fresh from food stamps and five months of being unemployed, but now comfortably ensconced in a fabulous job in a Fortune 100 company — but with an incompetent bully for a supervisor. She immediately endeared herself by advising that I was so lucky to have been hired; that I had a very demanding, responsible job; and she would be watching me carefully to see if I measured up.

All the while I’m nodding, smiling, and thinking Who the fuck does this bitch think she’s talking to, her 6- year-old niece? It’s difficult to not react under such patronizing circumstances, especially when you’ve moved with from the Midwest to the fast-paced East coast — and you’ve been unemployed for five months . . . !


Then, as if to confirm my worst suspicions, the shrew relocated an office mate I was just getting to know to make room for another new hire: a Chinese woman whom I came to admire and respect. Our supervisor thought we would be “happier” together.

(Did I mention we were the only two minorities in the department’s writing group?)

That’s when I started keeping daily notes of what was said and done. The snide comments. The nitpicky edits that occasionally were made for no reason other than personal preference. Not to mention edits that changed meaning from right to wrong. I hadn’t experienced bullying since seventh grade, and this woman had elevated it to an art form.

After a day of unadulterated nonsense, I went home and fired up all burners. Boiled eggs for a tuna salad. Made a spaghetti sauce with tons of sliced mushrooms. Chili. Macaroni and cheese went into the oven. Chopped salad to go with whatever got done first.

Imagination went into overdrive. Slice carrots, her neck. Dice celery, amputate arms. Chop green onions, off with her legs. Cut a tomato, off with her head.

At one point my daughter peeked into kitchen with the gentle query, “Rough day at the office, huh?” She turned and quietly returned to her room. “I’ll just get something later,” she said as she closed the door to her room.

Meanwhile, back at the office, the browbeating and penny-ante criticisms continued unabated. OyKue — who held two masters degrees, one in biochemistry and the other in technical writing —eventually resigned. I took my notes to EEOC after reporting my “concerns” to HR.

It took a while, but in the best corporate tradition, instead of being fired or encouraged to retire, the bully was transferred to a corporate conference center in Princeton. She went from supervising a staff of 40 to an office with one assistant: a retired U.S. Marine drill sergeant who just happened to be a black woman.

In time I invited the drill sergeant to dinner to thank her for her service.

I pulled out all the stops: salmon on toast points with shallots and caviar; Boston lettuce salad with a lemon vinaigrette; braised short ribs in a wine sauce; baby new potatoes; buttered asparagus; key lime tarts for dessert.

One of my best dinners ever.

Stay safe, y’all.