Sofrito | Fred Arroyo
Sleeping In | Micah Bateman
On The Road Again | Tyson Blanquart
Kohlrabi | Rebecca Bodicky
Chili-Mac | Michael Castro
Breakfast with the New Madrid | Ian Dorward
Delicious | Hilary Hitchcock
Transmigrated Duck Heart | Thom Fletcher
Improvising | John Garcia
Lines in the Van, Lines in the Sand | Chris King
Hermetic Rice | K. Curtis Lyle
Don't Forget About Your Veggies | s.c. truckey
Mastication | Brett Underwood
Tables | Justin Visnesky
Sofrito | by Fred Arroyo
Abuela Monsa stands in her open kitchen. Steam rises with the little song she hums. She dances and sways to her song, moving back and forth from table to stove. Sunlight slants into the doorway, banana leaves shaking in the breeze, shadows entering in waves behind the sunlight and the leaves. A hummingbird flutters just above her shoulder, its purple throat turning silver against the color of Abuela's hair. She works between this morning's shadow and sun: she chops garlic, onions, cilantro and tomatoes. She adds them to a pan of simmering rice.
I quietly step forward and watch her pour achoite oil into the pan, the rice turning a deep yellow. She lightly rubs the side of my cheek with the back of her hand, smiles, and then turns a small blue bowl over the pot, a stream of glistening gandules trembling into the pan. She spoons coffee into a boiling pot of water, then adds a small cup of cream and a couple spoonfuls of sugar.
The kitchen: the doors wide open, windows without glass or screens, leaves and hummingbirds freely floating in, the sunlight filling the kitchen and tiger striping the white tiled floor.
The salt, black pepper, olive oil, and the sweet smell of mangoes ripening on the table. Such a wonderful silence: the lush shaking of leaves, fruits hitting the ground in a deep thud, Abuela's sandals scraping the floor, her spoon striking the side of a silver pot.
She brings me a cup of coffee and a plate of yellow rice and gandules surrounded by slices of avocado. This old woman, her flowered dress, her dark skin and silver hair. This first time I remember my father's mother.
Some evenings the distance of memory overcomes me. Half a continent and a sea divide my Abuela and I, and it was 30 years ago that I last stood in Abuelaís kitchen watching her bring to life a reality of colors (or weathers or airs) that seemed all the more important in each othersí presence. Now I take out a knife, a head of garlic, an onion, a small tomato, and a bunch of cilantro. I pour a small circle of olive into the middle of the cutting board. I rub the oil in a circle slowly widening the circle until the board shines wetly. Imagining the circumference of the first circle, I place three generous pinches of sea salt and a handful of black pepper in the center. I crush them with the knife blade. Hit the blade once, twice, crush, crush. I mince as finely as possible, keeping the bits of salt and pepper in a black and white mound inside the circle. On the edge of this circle I chop up four garlic cloves, and then add them to the circle. I crush and mince the garlic, salt, and pepper. Chop half an onion, add it to the circle, and mince again. I break the cilantro in my hands, my fingers wet, that earthy green scent releasing more than my memory: the slow, delicate, mixing of the cilantro into this sofrito thatíll shape the flavor and texture of a pot of rice Iíll cook to honor my Abuela.
I place the small tomato on the edge of the cutting board next to the knife.
Heating olive oil in a pot, I scoop the sofrito in my hands and drop it in. Steam rises, the sofrito singing of water and salt. I add a handful of rice. I stir the rice letting the natural juices and water from the sofrito toast the rice. Steam lifts in wide almost shapeless arcs, my face warm with the spicy fragrance of garlic and olive oil, salt and pepper. I have no achoite. I have no fresh gandules. I open and drain a can of pigeon peas, rinse them, let them tumble into the pot. Adding a handful of inexpensive saffron from Thailand, I pray that this time the rice will turn out with the deep, orange-gold color I always remember, that first bite coloring my mouth, leaving a long stain on its way to the pocket of my stomach. I pour in just enough water to cover the rice by about an eighth of an inch, and stir. I turn to the tomato and slice it in half, into quarters, and then chop each quarter into small, angled wedges and cubes. I drop handfuls of dripping red into the pot, place a pat of butter directly in the center of the simmering rice slowly turning orange.
The lid can go on now; the flame turned to a low flickering blue.
I simply leave the pot alone for thirty minutes.
Thirty years away I wait for these thirty minutes to cook down into this evening, that morning, this waiting. Tonight Iíll sit here with a plate of yellow rice and pigeon peas, and a glass of red wine Ė my St. Louis stuff, a mixture of desire, memory, and ingredients that begin to make sofrito, an island, alive. A dog barks in the alleyway, then a chorus of dogs follow. My hands firm on the marble table, I look down on the alleyway, yellows leaves tumbling across uneven bricks in the twilight. The white Saab up on cinderblocks in the yard across the way floats in a sea of milk crates, soda bottles, and pieces of broken fence, rusty, twisted bicycles. On the horizon, the Basilica gathers the last of the sunlight, and here, in my private shipwreck, I feel the return to a sea canít be that far.
The dogs pause, somehow all at once happy or exhausted with their voices. When I begin to eat the yellow rice and pigeon peas, Iíll hear inside myself the crunch of salt, the tender peas uncovering themselves in each bite, my mouth suddenly more alive with flavors, colors. Iíll briefly feel my loneliness and then the company of memory: An open doorway. A knife. A table. The briny burn of cheap burgundy. The pulsing purple throat of a hummingbird, my Abuela Monsaís silver hair, and the humming of her song in the symphony of cooking, steam, and, in the distance, the caracoling sea.
Fred Arroyo is the author of The Region of Lost Names: A Novel (University of Arizona Press, 2008). Arroyo's stories, poems, interviews, and reviews have appeared in various literary journals, and three of his essays are forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly. Arroyo recently left St. Louis to become an assistant professor of English at Drake University.