Jul 26

Transcendental Chiles

The crescent shaped window framed the treetops in full bloom above Clinton Street. She lay on the floor in shavasana and was acutely aware of their fleeting beauty. She picked herself off the mat and made her way into the midsummer dusk. The trees gave off an intensely heady smell, and their distinct aroma mixed with the familiar sounds of her neighborhood. Dominoes slamming on a wooden table, the buzzing of a tattoo gun piercing flesh, the whirring of a bike wheel as it cruised by. She passed the synagogue and heard Shabbat prayers echoing from its chambers. A cheer roared up from a corner tapas bar, and the chimes of the reveler’s clinking glasses fell away to the flip-flopping of her footsteps. She distinguished every sight and sound and smell that evening like an arpeggio pulling apart the individual notes of a chord. She made her way up the six flights of stairs to her corner apartment, and with each step mapped out the evening’s meal. Tonight she would make chile rellenos. A somewhat laborious dish with lots of steps and lots of cleanup, that she’d been looking forward to preparing for a few friends all week. Step one: roast ripe tomatoes with a clove of garlic and some onion in the oven. Step two: char poblanos on the stovetop then remove from flame and cover. Step three: make picadillo. Chop pine nuts and olives, onions and peppers. Sauté them with ground beef and spices. Step four: peel the poblanos, carefully removing their veins and seeds and refill them with the picadillo. Roll the stuffed peppers in flour. Step five: blend roasted tomatoes and garlic with a chipotle pepper for soup. Step six: separate the eggs and beat the whites until fluffy as clouds; then stir the yolks back in. Dredge the stuffed peppers in the eggs and fry them in olive oil. With her plan in mind, she ascended the last step and opened the door to her never-locked apartment. She was greeted by the gentle gruff and wet nose of her pup, and stunned by the fierce golden light of the setting sun. Her windows faced west across Houston Street, and at this time of year, the sun seemed to set right in her kitchen window with all the glory and arc of a three –point, buzzer-beating basket. She’d admired the affect so much when she first viewed the unit, that she’d painted the walls opposite the windows a dusky pink.

She washed up and went to turn on her kitchen radio, but withdrew her hand. The little park across the street with the gurgling fountain erupted in shrieks and laughter from city kids relishing a long summer night. The sounds of their play rolled through like waves, so that with the setting sun, she had a profound sensation of being at the ocean. She suddenly thought of her grandmother, could almost feel her sitting on the kitchen stool across from her. She smiled to herself and clocked the hour: 6:30pm. The meal would take about 2 hours, so she’d finish just as night fell and her guests arrived.

Her dog barked furiously at the buzzer screaming from the hallway. A car horn blared from the street below, and a mother in the park was screaming for Juan. It was dark. The Felix the Cat wall-clock with the swaying tail taunted her with the time: 9pm. She leapt up from where she’d been sitting on the windowsill bumping her head on the hanging fruit basket and spilling dried chilis and oranges all over the kitchen floor. On all fours, cleaning up the fruit, her mind raced: Had she fallen asleep? Did she burn the poblanos? Now her guests had arrived and there was no dinner! As she stood to face the kitchen, her heart skipped a beat and she let out an audible gasp so that even the dog stopped barking and stared at her quizzically. A shiver ran up her spine. What lay before her was an immaculate kitchen, and seven perfectly golden poblanos resting on a paper towel. The tomato soup was simmering on a low flame waiting to cradle its plump chiles. The stand mixer was washed and put away. The emulsion blender was back in the cabinet. All the cutting boards and knives and everything else required for this dish were dried and tucked away in their corresponding cupboards and drawers. The floor had been mopped. She ran to the living room. The hair on her arms and back of her neck stood on end. The table was set with candles and wine. The intercom buzzed again, and she heard her friends yelling at her from the street below.

“Drop down the keys!”

“Coming!”

She fumbled for her keys, and tossed them out the window down the six flights so her friends could let themselves in. Suddenly it was quiet again. The buzzer stopped, her dog was poised at the door eagerly awaiting her guests, but her heart beat out of her chest. She had completely lost track of two and a half hours of her life. How could she explain this? The last thing she remembered was the time, and the setting sun, and her grandmother. She hung up her apron, brushed off her hair, and opened the door to greet her company. It was Friday night, and they had some chile rellenos to dive into.

Years later she would describe the experience to an old, wise friend of the family’s. She had rationalized it to him with a yogi’s perspective, that the practice is an obstacle course for the mind. Lots of difficult, physical steps releases the mind from thinking about the past or future and allows us to be totally present. Perhaps having come from practice that night, she had found a way to truly release and cook on autopilot, so to speak. He smiled and nodded, but proffered her another theory.

“Our guardians are always present in a spiritual plane just above ours. From time to time they find opportunities to visit the physical world. Perhaps you were so present and open, as you say, that your grandmother used your body as a vessel to perform a task as quotidian and gratifying as cooking a Friday night meal.”

She smiled at him incredulously, but she liked the theory. Whatever it was, it was. But to this day, making chile rellenos, affords her an overwhelming sense of calm. She sees the rosy hues of her old corner apartment, smells the blooming trees of Clinton Street, and feels the steady pulse of her ancestors.