A Lesson in Soup

by Jessica Richardson

This fun, short story is inspired by the post I’ve Arrived, but Who am I?, dealing with the issue of identity in a cross-cultural context.

***

I think my behind has fused to the wooden chair. I’ve been sitting for hours since we opened the doors to Meg’s Kitchen, named after my grandma. And not one person has come in.

Sure, anyone passing by on the busy sidewalk can see the big ‘Grand Opening’ sign. There was even a guy who came in asking if we wanted to sell his empanadas.

“Empananas? What’s that?”

I cringe at my Grandpa George’s use of the Spanish language. I know what empanadas are and my mouth waters just thinking about them. I mentally devour the stringy beef and cheese pastry and am halfway through my second imaginary empanada when I stop myself.

I’m a traitor. Instead of thinking about the plate of the day, “Roast Beef and Mashed Potatoes with Side Salad”,  written on the chalkboard at the front door, I’m sitting here dreaming about street food I’ve had many times since we moved to our mostly Hispanic neighborhood just over two months ago.

You may be asking why Grandpa and I, who don’t speak Spanish, moved to Hilaleah, Florida. Well, I could say something like, “We thought it would be fun to bring a bit of ‘traditional’ American cooking to a city with one of the highest rates of Hispanics in the nation.” But, as you’ve probably guessed, I’d be lying. The truth is we didn’t do the research.

I wondered when we signed the contract for the restaurant why the owner kept giving us sidelong glances. Now I know.

People seem friendly enough, but the restaurant’s large glass window separates me from the world beyond.

The bell jingles and I look up. It’s the empanada guy again, only this time he’s carrying a large paper bag instead of his plastic display case. My grandpa hesitates, unsure what to do with our first customer. I get up to show Empanada guy to a table. 

“I’m Victor.”  He says as he sets down his bag and grabs me in a big hug. “Welcome to the neighborhood!”

“Uh, thanks.” I say. His burst of enthusiasm is a little unsettling.

He grabs Grandpa into a big hug and squeezes him. “Abuelo, I am Victor.”

Grandpa is red faced. He’s definitely not comfortable with outright displays of affection. Even when Grandma was alive, he would only ever pat her on the back in public. “I’m George.” Grandpa stands straight and offers his hand.

“Jorge? I like that name.” Empanada guy says and turns to wink at me.

“No. It’s only George.” Grandpa stutters.

Empanada guy, I mean Victor, nods his head slowly and looks at Grandpa. Then, as if he’s just decided something, he picks up his bag and heads towards the kitchen.

“Wait. What are you doing?” Grandpa chases after Victor. “You can’t go back there.”

Victor turns to Grandpa. “Oh, no problem. I did this all the time when Xavier was owner. No problem at all. I know my way around a kitchen.”

I don’t think that was Grandpa’s main concern. I imagine Grandpa thinking something like, “Help! How do I get this madman out of my restaurant?!” or something along those lines.

“I’m a cook, a good one if you ask me.” He pats his soft belly as evidence. “I used to come and help Xavier out when he needed a hand. Before coming here, I worked as a Chef at the Hilton in Bogota.”

At this, Grandpa pauses and seems to decide against calling 911.

Victor grabs an apron from the counter and ties it on. “Jorge, I’m here to explain something and help you ‘get your feet on the ground’ as the saying goes.”

“It’s George…” Grandpa says slowly as he considers this new information.

Victor looks around the kitchen and grabs a large pot. He places it on the stove. He glances around, finally settling on the roast beef and gravy. He grabs a knife, cutting board and half the large roast. “This isn’t ideal, but it will work.”

Grandpa, a man of few words, stands there with his mouth hanging open, not especially attractive if you ask me.  He watches as Victor deftly chops the beef and onions he found in a basket. He dumps them into the pot and then adds the gravy with a bit more water. He brings it to a boil then rummages around in his bag and sets each item on the countertop.

“It’s like this Jorge,” Grandpa begins to object but shuts his mouth when Victor continues. “Out there, you are George with your roast beef and mashed potatoes. In here you are Jorge. You and your grandson seem like nice people. Your neighbors like you. They tell me you say ‘hello’ each morning. “

He lifts the lid off the pot and breathes in deeply. “It would be better with slow cooked beef ribs, but we do what we can, right Jorge.” Slapping Grandpa on the back he says, “Look at it this way; you come here from, wait, where do you come from?”

“Englewood. Florida that is.” I jump in helpfully, and grandpa glares at me. No ‘thank you’ or ‘great job’. Just a sullen, somewhat grumpy look. Though Grandpa has never run a restaurant, he’s always dreamed of doing it. He imagined it being a local hangout, a place where regulars come in and spend time drinking coffee, swapping gossip and ordering the plate of the day.

“Jorge, you come from Englewood. While I’m sure your roast and potatoes are delicious, those things represent who you used to be. Now you’re here and every day your world is expanding.”

“The meat and broth base are the foundation for the soup, just like who you are in Jesus is the foundation for your life. Yes, I’ve seen you guys in church.” The beef and onions happily bubble in the broth and my mouth waters. What can I say, I’m a growing teenage boy.

Victor measures cumin into his hand. Then tosses it in, along with salt and pepper, stirring gently. I’m put in charge of peeling and chopping potatoes, since he said mashed potatoes don’t belong in soup. After a few minutes he adds my potatoes and chops cilantro. Its sharp, unique aroma fills the kitchen.  “The potatoes are what fill out the soup and add body, just like your relationships with those around you. You depend on them for sustenance. They fill and comfort you.”

Victor, aka Empanada man, grabs some eggs. “This soup is called ‘Caldo de Costilla’, except of course today it isn’t ribs, but we make do with roast beef. Also, this is normally a breakfast meal.” He holds up an egg. “This egg represents the ways you are changing and growing to accept and appreciate your new neighborhood. You are used to eating soup only for lunch or dinner. Now you can learn to eat it for breakfast, and even like it.” He gently breaks eggs into the barely simmering pot of soup and puts the lid on.

The bell rings over the door, and rings again and again. I pop my head out to see what’s going on. Our little restaurant fills up. People are seating themselves and chatting. Some of the faces I recognize from the apartment building. As Grandpa pulls off his apron, Victor says, “I hope you don’t mind. I invited some people for lunch.”

Victor pulls out a bag of instant corn flour and begins to mix it together with a bit of butter and salt. He yells out, “Soups on and arepas are coming up. There’s also roast beef, mashed potatoes and side salad on the menu!” He winks at Grandpa.

Before I can take everyone’s order, the arepas begin coming off the grill and Victor fills soup bowls, making sure each one has its share of beef, potatoes, a poached egg and a healthy pinch of cilantro on top. He says, “The spices and cilantro are your new experiences and things you are learning. They bring out the different flavors of who you are and who you will be in our world.” Grandpa slowly nods, as if beginning to understand.

I bring out a few bowls of soup and arepas. Grandpa’s face lights up when he hears someone ordering roast beef and potatoes. As I carry the roast beef to the table, people stare, and conversation increases. A few more brave souls order the plate of the day and seem happy with it.

As Grandpa recovers from the shock of it all, he enthusiastically shakes hands, going from table to table, thanking everyone for coming.  Our ordinary food becomes something extraordinary as we begin to connect with those around us.  Grandpa promises tomorrow we will have coffee, apple pie and ‘empananas’, as well as the plate of the day, whatever that turns out to be.

Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash, Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash and pickupimage.com

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