Fiction by Hege Lepri
The setting is perfect. Red splash patterns run into each other on the white subway tiles. The sink is brimming with instruments: knives, ladles, cutting boards, two different garlic presses. Rebecca closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. The kitchen at this hour floods her with bliss. There are all the ingredients to craft something great, and it’s too early for anything to have gone wrong.
In a few minutes, someone will walk into the kitchen with a frown saying they can’t have breakfast with all this dinner smell around; it makes their milk taste off. Or worse, they’ll say nothing at all, and just walk through without eating. If there’s one thing Rebecca has learnt, it is this: you can’t please everybody all the time. Today the needs of the tomatoes come first.
The tang of celery, the sharpness of red onion, the earthy exuberance of the tomatoes saturate the room. She’s been up since before six, trying to finish the last third of the bushel of tomatoes. An hour later, she’s spattered with oil and tomato seeds both on her apron and beyond. She holds her face as close to the pot as possible without getting burnt, feeling her pores open as the heat and bouquet of the pomarola start their upward journey. It’s like the exhilaration of a midwife helping a new being into the world. Possibly better, so much less can go wrong when you work with vegetables.
Her pomarola recipe calls for San Marzano tomatoes. She had ordered San Marzanos, the king of the canning tomato, the week her farmer at the market said they would peak. But mid-week Ontario had been hit by one of those stormy rainfalls, the kind that makes people connect the dots with global warming, and somehow the San Marzanos were harder hit than the more resilient Romas. The farmer reassured her that he actually preferred Romas as cooking tomatoes. She decided to trust him, quieting her inner suspicion that everybody’s taste-buds have been flattened by processed food and artificial flavours.
But the fragrance is flawless, almost inebriating. The real test is after breakfast when everybody’s left the house and she’ll ladle some of the sauce into a schnapps glass and taste it with white unsalted bread.
While she is standing there, still bent over the pot, the Spanish exchange student walks in. Pilar is wearing leggings with some kind of ethnic pattern, possibly Inca-inspired, and a sheer white shirt.
“Careful,” she says. “You shouldn’t get too close to the stove with that shirt.”
Pilar looks at her blankly, performing the usual flutter of eyelashes that Jenny already hates. After only two weeks in the house, they can’t expect the girl to understand everything. Sometimes even Rebecca forgets to break up language into easily digestible units this early in the morning.
“Your shirt,” she says. “Very white.” She points as if Pilar were a one-year-old. “And the tomato sauce… very red.”
Pilar starts laughing. “Sure,” she says. “I’ll be carrfool.”
Rebecca prepares the coffee pot, her old-style Bialetti, and puts it on the burner. Then she turns on the electric coffee maker. Her husband still swears by drip coffee even after all her coaxing and explaining about the nature of coffee beans and how to best maintain their aroma. She has learnt to pick her battles. And Pilar sometimes enjoys a cup of real moka with her, if she’s not drinking it to be polite. It’s hard to know at this stage. She drinks her coffee standing, watching Pilar eat her yoghurt at the kitchen table.
“If you want something else to eat, just check the pantry,” she says. “I’ll go wake up Jenny and have a shower myself.”
Pilar never eats anything else, even if she’s been given the grand tour of the pantry. She’s a steadfast sixteen-year-old, doesn’t fall prey to temptation easily. Or maybe she doesn’t find the food in the house that tempting.
Rebecca turns down the burner under the pot of tomato sauce and climbs the stairs to the second floor. Jenny’s door is almost jammed by a pile of clothes on the inside. It only opens about an inch. Jenny does this to test her reaction, so she’s resolved not to react. This is not a battle to pick.
She senses how Jenny pretends not to have heard her, unaware that the sudden stillness behind her door gives her away. She’s always been a noisy sleeper and doesn’t seem to grow out of vampire-riddled dreams and adenoidal snoring. “Please, Jenny, just get out of bed on the first call for once,” she says without raising her voice. There is a kneading sound of duvet and pillows squeezed by the weight of uncoordinated body parts.
David is standing in front of the mirror in the walk-in closet, holding up two different ties, a striped navy and red one and an orange one with a brown geometric pattern. “The orange one,” she says before he asks. Their morning ritual is a codified liturgy: The tie be with you—and with your spirit. She goes into the bathroom and sheds her sweatpants and t-shirt, underwear and apron in a big pile on the floor. She should probably just keep wearing the same until she’s done with the tomatoes, to save on laundry. But then again that sends the wrong message, as if she doesn’t care about her appearance now that she works from home.
She squeezes out two drops of natural unscented soap. There is plenty left, but why be wasteful? She sees the lid of David’s anti hair loss shampoo on the shower floor a second before stepping on it, picks it up then sniffs the bottle before putting the lid back on. She lets the water rinse off every nook of her body, lifting her breasts slightly, gliding her hands over her stomach before she turns around to make the water do the rest alone. Her shower ritual takes only four minutes, unless she washes her hair, which takes another five. She timed herself when she worked forty-hour weeks and had to commute across town. She’s hung on to that bit of her old routine.
“Jenny, are you up?” she yells to the wall separating her from the other bathroom as soon as she’s turned off the shower. There is no sign of life on the other side, but rhetorical questions are part of her parenting style. Eventually Jenny will come around. Rebecca puts on a light, summery dress, even if it is September. The one that makes her look easy-going but not unprofessional, the dress of a woman who’s found her balance between hard and soft. Then she walks toward Jenny’s door, this time banging her heels against the floor as a warning of what’s to come. Jenny starts yelling “I’m up, I’m up” before she reaches the door.
The smell of onion has been trapped in this corner of the corridor. She has always been fascinated by how a blended bouquet of kitchen odours becomes separated on its way up through the floors of the house. On this floor, the onion will be prevalent; further up the ethereal breath of basil dominates.
The choice of onion is always important. Too many dishes are ruined by using industrially grown Spanish onions. Her mom swore by the Texas variety, so resistant to pests and perfect for making onion rings, but with hardly any flavour. No wonder Rebecca embraced the red onions so fully when she finally came across them. She still dreams of the Tropea onions that a friend smuggled in after a honeymoon in Italy. That perfect equilibrium of sweet and pungent and the hint of something clandestine still inspires her.
Down in the kitchen she walks in on Pilar and David having drip coffee. She can spot the scent of cellulose from the paper filter before she enters; it reminds her of the paper mill in the town where she lived until she was eleven. She has no nostalgia about that place. She walks over to the counter flashing the two of them a smile. Pilar looks up, but David concentrates on his coffee. There is an air of complicity between them, half-grins suggesting they were agreeing on something secret right before she walked in.
“There are carrot muffins left over from yesterday’s batch,” she says to David. He is already holding a half-eaten digestive cookie, but she needs to say something to break up whatever was going on before she entered.
“Don’t really feel like eating much under this cloud of tomatoes,” David says. He looks to Pilar for support, but she’s going through something or other in her backpack. He tries a chuckle to mitigate what he said. She turns her back to him while putting the apron back on.
“Don’t worry, it’ll all be gone before you’re back tonight,” she says a little bit too sharply. Suddenly she can’t wait to see them all out of the house.
“Where is Jenny?” David asks. “We need to leave in five.” Rebecca turns around to holler out a final wake-up call, but there she is, Jenny, dressed in a skirt that’s too short and too tight. The desired effect of flattening her stomach backfires though. The pink shirt she’s wearing with it is wrinkly. You’d think one sideways glance at Pilar would make her run upstairs to change, but Jenny is oblivious at this time of the day. And they really don’t have time.
David gets up and in an instant the kitchen is a flurry of lifted backpacks, lunch boxes stuffed into outside pockets, half-muffins being grabbed and glasses of milk emptied. David puts on his jacket while kissing her on the cheek. She waves goodbye to their backs while they get into the car behind the house. Then she realizes David is wearing a different tie from the one she suggested.
But there is too much to do to dwell on a tie. She clears the breakfast dishes and starts the dishwasher. Then she lifts the large pot of tomato sauce from the stove to the kitchen table. The light is better there, and she needs light to bring out the colour in what she makes. She gets the tripod and the camera and starts taking pictures, first the tomatoes, then every step until the finished sauce. The Roma tomatoes are less photogenic than the San Marzanos and for a moment she is tempted to use one of last year’s pictures. But that would be cheating, and she wants her hallmark to be honesty and real food. A sustainable food blog without glossing over the difficulties. Her most popular entry was one about her failed backyard tomato crop. When she wrote about her struggle with raccoons, squirrels and other urban pests, people could relate.
She tries one more time, moving the tomatoes into a wicker basket and adding a twig of basil, and suddenly the red marries the green and live happily together until she’s done taking pictures.
Then she prepares her Italian vegetable strainer. She knows most readers don’t have one and prefer the Kitchen Aid attachments to speed thing up. But she wants to be low-tech. As she says in the description of her blog: since the path we’re on is so unsustainable, we don’t know when the whole system will collapse and we’ll only be able to count on our knowledge and hand-force. She is eager to share her knowledge, the teacher she could have been comes out in her blog. She takes two pictures of the strainer, trying to capture how tomato sauce is pushed out of every pore at the bottom, but knows she’ll end up using the one taken from above. Red liquid dripping from a hidden opening will trigger the wrong associations.
By the time she’s done with straining the sauce and has fed all the skin and seeds caught in the strainer into the compost, she’s sweaty. She can smell it without sticking her nose in her armpit. Body odour never used to be a problem, except when she was pregnant, but lately she feels like something is changing in her. She may have forgotten to put on deodorant though.
She puts the empty Bernardin jars into the canning pot and goes upstairs to wash and make the beds. It shouldn’t be her job, but she’s the only one who cares about made beds, so delegating makes no sense. On her way up she picks up a single sock, a face towel and two hair elastics, all Jenny’s droppings. Sometimes she believes it’s the hundreds of times she read her Hansel and Gretel when she was little that makes her mark every two steps with some object.
She rinses her face again and splashes water into her armpits. She’s added baking soda to the deodorant to take away any foul smell. She puts on light makeup. The white collar part of her work is about to begin. Some of the water has been soaked up by the dress, and shows as dark halos under her arms. But her face is improved by the makeup, so all in all she’s still presentable.
David’s blue tie with red stripes is on the floor. She picks it up and puts it on the tie-hanger. She can’t see the orange one, even if she knows he wasn’t wearing it when he left. What tie did he put on? He has several dozen, but uses only six or seven of them. She vaguely remembers something dark, without distinguishing features, a kind of tie he doesn’t normally wear.
It is past ten when she sits down to write. The glass jars are sterilized, still in the pot, but the burner is turned low. The hard thing about tomato sauce is that everybody writes about it this time of the year. Even if she uses the Tuscan name pomarola everybody knows it’s just tomato sauce. She is confident about her expertise and knows more about the traditions than most of her competition, but people don’t read food blogs for the knowledge they impart. They want a few words and then nice pictures and step-by-step recipes that show them how to get the same results, if they ever were to try it at home. Most won’t.
But she isn’t satisfied with just providing food porn to people to take their mind off what they’re really eating. Yes, I can she writes, and suddenly knows this needs to be about canning and sustainable living. Canning season is upon us, and the beginning of the Canadian fall doesn’t give you much rest these days. My special headache is the great quantity of tomatoes I’m dealing with as a result of the particularly warm weather. She adds the photo of the Roman tomatoes in the wicker basket.
She should say something about the basil, how it is important that it’s of the Genovese kind, but maybe that’s for another post. She could dedicate next week to pestos, made from different kinds of basils, maybe even give the recipe for rucola and walnut pesto.
There’s a host of good reasons to can veggies and fruit, she writes. She thinks of the week ahead and how she still has hours of work to finish the bushel of tomatoes. She’ll move on to zucchini and eggplants after that. They make decorative jars, and save time and energy in the winter.
She writes, It’s a way to live the seasons more naturally and it’s a more sustainable alternative to freezing food, and to top it off, it consumes no energy after it’s been produced. She thinks of the seasons of her childhood: winter, spring, summer, fall they ate peas, carrots and potatoes. The only season they observed was corn-on-the cob season, and only because a friend had an uncle with a farm. She writes, And most importantly, it gives you control of what goes into the tomato sauce, relish, jam you consume. She should stop here. She’s written more than 500 words, and the ideal blog post is shorter than that.
She adds, And taking back control of what we eat is an important part of empowering ourselves, as women (let’s admit it, canning makes the gender gap seem wider), as citizens, as agents of change. The last part is lost on most of her readers, most stop at the last photo. Yet, she has a small but eager group of like-minded people who knows what she’s talking about. The pep talk is for them.
She finishes her edits, adds pictures where needed, then goes to the kitchen to get the tomato sauce ladled into the warm jars before she processes them one last time in the canning pot.
By lunch time she’s processed twenty-four jars, taken the necessary pictures to document the procedure, and put the camera and tripod away. She sits down with a slice of homemade bread and some hummus the rest of the family claimed was too garlicky. She agrees, but she never throws anything out as long as it’s edible. She’ll reek for the rest of the day. Good thing she doesn’t have a lover.
When she sits down at her computer again, someone has already commented on today’s blog. The importance of being punctual, persistent, even on the Internet, can’t be overestimated. If she just keeps up what she’s doing, the readers that have strayed, following other blogs, will return. Eventually she’ll make a decent income doing this. She moves down to the bottom of the page to see who has commented. Emily from Oklahoma is there, as usual. Emily has a cat as her avatar picture, and she imagines her as a cat lady with few friends. Emily alternates between great pictures, gotta try that recipe and so yummy. Today it’s great pictures. Rebecca thanks her. Below there is an anonymous user asking if she can use beefsteak tomatoes instead. She has a link ready for questions like that. Choosing the right tomato is an art, and she sometimes gets snobby about it. Better refer them to other sources than to risk antagonizing your readers.
The last comment is also anonymous. Is all this canning giving you any satisfaction? Do you feel useful? I can’t wrap my head around intelligent women who spend their days cooking and then telling people about it.
There have been trolls here before, but they usually post links to porn sites. Trolls don’t speak in full sentences. She’s curious, but cautious. You never know how a fraud or phishing attempt may start. She is quite open in her blog presentation, she’d be easy to track down if somebody wanted to harm or swindle her. Not that she’s paranoid.
She refreshes the page and there’s another comment. I’m sorry I’m coming on a bit strong. I’m trying to wrap my head around what has happened to women my age. I feel like I’ve been asleep for years and didn’t see what was happening. From how you write, you seem too smart to be wasting your life away in a kitchen. Nice pictures, though.
If this is a phishing attempt, it is clever.
She writes, I think everybody should have the right to follow their own passion; and mine is Culinary Bliss. I’m lucky that I’m able to pursue it full time. If you’re not into sustainable living or cooking, the Internet is full of other options.
She goes back to the kitchen, unloads the dishwasher, puts in her lunch dishes, and fills the sink with hot water to soak the disassembled strainer. It needs to be sterilized before she starts her next round, but she’ll do that just before she starts the next batch. Some seeds are still stuck in the openings of the bottom plate. She’ll probably have to use a mending needle on those afterwards.
She goes back to her computer, touches the mouse and sees that Anonymous has continued without her.
And would you say you can support yourself economically doing that?
She feels flushed. If she continues this conversation, she’ll get angry. She writes Don’t you worry about that, thinking about the 537 dollars she made last month, down from 723 the month before. She adds a smiley.
She really needs to get back to the rest of the tomatoes. But she’s distracted by Anonymous and wonders what triggers someone to write comments like that. A personal crisis? Loneliness? Boredom? Low blood-sugar?
She feels the pain in her right shoulder coming on. The vegetable strainer sometimes does that to her. She decides to go upstairs, do a few yoga stretches on the bedroom floor before returning to her chores. The mat smells of old sweat. She lies down, thinking of what poses would help against the pain. But nothing comes to mind so she just stays there, completely still.
The scent reminds her of high school, and soon one thought links to the next and she is back at last year’s reunion, and Annette. Instantly she knows that’s who Anonymous reminds her of. Annette, whom she saw again for the first time in twenty-one years at that party, her best friend in high school, roommate in university. Not even three years of fighting over whose turn it was to do the dishes, or whose hair was clogging the shower drain, had broken their bond. But then Rebecca moved to Toronto to be with David, and Annette took a job in Paris to get away from Phil and what had kept them together evaporated.
Annette’s voice had changed – either the Paris air or the smoking, probably both. Everybody else had quit when they got pregnant. Annette couldn’t believe she was into cooking now. “When did that happen, and isn’t that a bit reactionary for a former feminist?” she had said in her new deeper voice. Rebecca laughed and swallowed her answer with her drink. The rest of the evening was a blur of faces and chatter.
They met again the next day for coffee and hangover talk. Annette had given her a gift.
“There’s this book I want you to read, in French, but you still know how to read French, don’t you?” Annette had said, somehow managing to be generous and condescending at the same time.
Rebecca used to be the one who was fluent in French. Hell, she still read Le Monde occasionally without a dictionary. Instead of saying that, she had tried to produce a smile that was both confident and blasé, but her muscles pulled in strange places and turned her face into some kind of sinkhole while Annette looked straight at her.
She unwrapped the book while Annette watched. “Le Conflit, la Femme et la Mère,” she read in her best French, nasal vowels vibrating though her mucosa.
“Badinter, right?” she said, hiding how well she knew what kind of gift this was. It had already been widely discussed among bloggers.
“Have you read it already?” Annette asked.
Rebecca shook her head, thinking she probably never would.
Later she showed David the dedication. “Can you believe this arrogant crap?” she said. “Your blog made me think of this book so I just had to buy it.”
He didn’t get it. “It’s just a book, he said, “How can you be upset because someone gives you a book you don’t like. You should get out more.”
In the days that followed, she thought about Annette’s nicely kept bob, a pantsuit so fitted it just had to be European, shoes with names the right people recognize. She wondered if David would have preferred her like that, sharp, direct, with the necessary hardness to make it in the big world.
Still lying on the mat, she wraps her arms around her knees, rolling herself first sideways—then back and forth—until she’s dizzy. Soon Pilar and Jenny will be back, there’ll be snacks and homework. She needs to finish the last batch of tomato sauce. Tomorrow she is on to her next project, tomato chutney. She should also read some, do some networking with other bloggers. Networking is important. You feel less alone and drive traffic to your site. At least in theory. But her head is spinning from too much thinking, too much rocking. Some days Culinary Bliss just sucks all life out of her.
Back in the kitchen, she remembers how Badinter talks about the holy reactionary alliance that is turning Frenchwomen into slaves to green fads. Breastfeeding, re-usable diapers and organic food, Badinter frowns upon all of that. Your career over the environment, she commands in her smoky, French voice.
Rebecca feels warm. She takes off her slippers to get closer to the coolness of the floor tiles. She opens her toes like a fan. There are small spots of tomato on the part of her foot that wasn’t covered by the slipper. Her feet cool down but her face is still burning. Badinter is someone she could hate.
Then she walks barefoot into the backyard. It’s warm and pleasant but she feels off. She sits down under the large maple tree. The first leaves, still green, have started to fall. Only a few dozen every day, for now. She looks up and sees David’s orange tie hanging from one of the branches.
What an odd thing to do, she thinks. It looks like he suddenly decided to liberate it, set a domesticated bird free of its cage. But now it’s up there, going nowhere. The slight breeze is making it sway from side to side, like a slow salutation.
She closes her eyes and imagines the tie around her own neck, first loose, then tighter and tighter. She holds her breath for as long as she can manage.
When she opens her eyes and starts inhaling again, the scent of basil and parsley hits her like a much-needed slap. She gets up and plucks two leaves off the basil plants in the herb planter, a Magical Michael and an African Blue. She rubs them between her thumbs and index fingers and smells one, then the other, her right and left hands performing a strange Tai Chi until her heart calms down.
© Hege Lepri
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Hege’s interview]
Hege Anita Jakobsen Lepri is a Toronto-based translator and writer. In a previous life, she was a manager of EU projects in Tuscany. Before that, she was a sociologist in Norway. Back then she wrote poetry and erotica in Norwegian. She returned to writing in 2011, after a very, very long break. Her fiction and non-fiction has since been published (or is forthcoming) in J Journal, Saint Katherine Review, Monarch Review, Citron Review, Sycamore Review, subTerrain Magazine, Broken Pencil, Agnes and True, Fjords Review, Grain Magazine and elsewhere.