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Vigilante & Other Memories of Food

The Lure of Memories

Three times a week, from 1980 to 1983, I took the Number 52 Bus from the George Washington Bridge in New York City to my parents' house in the New Jersey suburbs. Living at home was the only way I could afford to pay for law school, and I scheduled my classes so that they would fit on a three-day schedule. Being a lodger with my parents was not idyllic. My older siblings had already moved out of the house and were raising families and pursuing careers. My younger siblings were still in high school or lower grades and were too busy with friends and school activities to be concerned with Mom and Dad. I was in my twenties, and I was at odds with my parents. I was too old to be living with them, witnessing the tense moments that crept into their lives. They were approaching their sixties and were thinking of retirement, traveling, and moving to the country. Both of them had been fiercely independent in their respective careers. She was a teacher, and he was a bank lawyer. They were accustomed to marching off to work every day and dealing with colleagues and work problems. As you approach the time to retire, you realize that even though you love your spouse, you will henceforth be with that person most of the day, most of the week, and most of the time. They silently fought about the future, and I was the only adult left in the house to serve as a witness to the conflicting bitterness.

"What are you doing there?" said one of them one morning when they were arguing in the kitchen and I walked in for a cup of coffee. "You're always hanging around, always listening in."

"Don't worry," I told them. "As soon as I graduate law school and get a job, I will move out of your lives and you'll never have to deal with me again." I was always a bit melodramatic. What can I say? I'm Argentinian.

Decades later, I still remember the rough moments, but I also remember the pleasant memories that linger, like the aromas and flavors of food. I have memories that make me salivate in happiness. I remember, for example, the frequent times that I took the 52 Bus with my father. On Thursdays, my law school classes would end late and I would catch the 6 p.m. bus to come home. This was the same bus my father took home from work every day. He was a creature of habit and would drive with my mother into the city in the mornings and take the bus back in the evening.

In those days, Father typically wore a light tan suit and always carried a leather briefcase with a copy of the New York Times tucked inside. If I caught the same bus he did, we would sit side by the side, but we wouldn't talk much. He would have his nose buried in the newspaper, and I would have my eyeballs stuck to a novel. I love the law, and I was a good student, but caselaw textbooks are not the best form of entertainment when commuting. Instead, I read Joyce's Women in Love, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and Nabokov's Lolita. These were my bus ride companions. Meanwhile, Dad would be working on the NYT crossword puzzle, or clipping articles from the newspaper. Dad was writing a Spanish-English dictionary as a hobby, and he was always on the hunt for interesting usage of words. He looked for sentences in the newspaper that could be used in his dictionary to help define a term. For example, the word "arrest" appearing in an article describing an overnight capture of the Son of Sam, could be used in a dictionary entry as follows:

"Arrest" -- seize (someone) by legal authority and take into custody: "the police arrested 24-year-old postal employee David Berkowitz and charged him with being the Son of Sam, the serial killer who terrorized New York City for more than a year, killing six young people and wounding seven others" (NYT August 24 1977)

Dad carried a small pair of scissors in his briefcase, and whenever he found a sentence that could be used in his dictionary, he would cut it out and put it on an index card. He practiced this hobby for thirty years and amassed an amazing catalog of words and illustrative sentences. The dictionary was never published.

On the 27th day of a solemn month, in the year 1982, on my 24th birthday, I happened to take the 52 Bus with Father. I was more than halfway through law school and eager to finish up and move out of the house. That day on the bus, as he was clipping his articles, Father asked me what I would like for dessert to celebrate the occasion. The choices of dessert for an Argentine family are limited. You can choose a cake with dulce de leche, crepes with dulce de leche, or flan with dulce de leche. Some fanatics will even eat empanadas with dulce de leche, but in my family, we were purists and didn't go to this extreme. If you have never had dulce de leche, I can describe it to you in one word: Sweet. It is extremely sweet. It is sickeningly sweet. It curls your tongue and your mouth tastes as if it has been dipped in honey and washed in sugar with roasted caramel on top. Every American that has married a member of my family, including my ex-spouse and my current spouse, think it is toxically sweet, but they are required to endure it at family celebrations. If any of these in-laws dares to say they don't like dulce de leche, my brothers and sisters will respond in unison: "Good, don't have any. More for us."

The closest dessert in American cuisine that tastes like dulce de leche is a black and white cookie. You don't eat a black and white because it is fluffy and delicate, you eat it because it satisfies your sweet urge and gives you a sugar high.

Once during my first year as an attorney for a DC law firm, I was put in charge of entertaining clients from Japan on a Saturday evening. The partner was supposed to take them to dinner, but he got sick that night and instructed me to do the honors. I was to take them to a restaurant of my choice and then bring them to a hockey game. These were lower-level "salarymen" from a Japanese corporate client, not the vice presidents or executives of the company. I took them to an Italian restaurant, which they hated, and afterwards I insisted we have dessert. There were no dulce de leche entrées on the menu, but the restaurant offered black and white cookies. The Japanese salarymen had never heard of such delicacies, and they asked me if they were any good. I said, "absolutely yes, they taste like dulce de leche," and I ordered half a dozen. Each of the men took a small bite of their cookies and left it on the side. I devoured my share. Afterwards, when I asked them if they liked the dessert they said, "We like our girls sweet, but we don't like sweet desserts." Fortunately, the salarymen did not complain to my boss, so I was spared humiliation for my sweet-tooth faux pas.

An Argentine never gets sick of sweet desserts. Back on Bus 52 with my father on my 24th birthday, when he asked me what I wanted as a celebratory dessert, I told him I wanted membrillo with manchego cheese. This is another Argentine specialty. Membrillo is a sugary, sticky, and very thick jelly made from the fruit of the quince tree. It is not quite as sweet as dulce de leche, but it has a tart bite to it. The combination of the sweet and tart membrillo with a sharp manchego is heavenly.

"That dessert is called a vigilante," explained Father. I had not known that before.

A "vigilante" in Argentina is a street cop. As if reading from an encyclopedia, Father explained to me that in the 1920s, a restaurant in Buenos Aires near a police station came up with the membrillo and manchego dessert and named it "un vigilante" because it was very popular with the cops. The mixture of membrillo and cheese was a quick and practical dessert that could be eaten by the cops on the go. It was tasty, and it was the cheapest item on the menu that a policeman could afford. Most of the vigilantes in Buenos Aires in the 1920s were single men who immigrated to Argentina from small towns in Italy or Spain and had nothing to their name other than the uniform they wore on their backs and their dreams of a better life. They lived in the ghetto of La Boca, and prayed to meet a wife and eventually improve their lot. For many of them, a vigilante was not just a dessert, it was their main meal for the night.

"I wrote about it in my Spanish-English dictionary," said Father. “You should read it one day.”

Of course, a "vigilante" has a very different connotation in English than it does in Spanish. For Americans, a vigilante is neither a local cop nor a sweet, cheap dessert. It is a member of a self-appointed group of people who take the law into their own hands, often to disastrous ends. Many Spanish words have completely different meanings when used in the United States than when used in Latin America. For example, the word "salsa" for Americans means either a hot seductive dance or a spicy cold tomato sauce with onions and hot peppers that is eaten with corn chips. For me, salsa (which in Spanish means sauce) is the simmering pasta sauce that my mother made using sliced roasted tomatoes, heavily sweetened onions, and chicken broth. It is normally cooked for hours. My mother would add celery and other vegetables which made the sauce richer and sweeter the longer it cooked. As it simmered and the liquid slowly cooked off, Mother would add wine so that the sauce would continue to thicken and the flavors would further meld. During the summer, Mother would turn a bumper crop of ripe tomatoes into a long-simmered tomato salsa. She would cook it all morning or half the day, depending on how thick and caramelized she wanted to make the salsa. The aroma of her sweet salsa would permeate the house, fill our lungs, sink into our clothes, and linger in our memories.

When I think of salsa, I think of this type of slow simmer sauce and not the spicy chip sauce sold at the local supermarket. I also think of Mother, making her weeks-worth of salsa on Sunday afternoons. Before they all moved out, there were eight of us (five sisters and three brothers) plus my parents living in our New Jersey home. To feed this army, Mother would complete all her shopping on Saturday afternoons and cook platters of meals on Sundays. She would make cannelloni with spinach, curly pasta with white sauce, lasagna, and other dishes that she could put in our basement freezer to later defrost and serve during the week. These are the memories I have of her from my teenage years in New Jersey when she cooked assembly-line style. They are not the same memories I have of Mom in my early youth in Argentina, where she did not cook at all. She had grown up in the heart of Buenos Aires and was accustomed to maids, cooks, and nannies. When Mom and Dad were married and moved into their first house, Father gave her a set of cooking pots as a housewarming gift. Mother was furious. She hid the entire set of pots and pans under the bed and informed Father that they would be hiring Hilda to do all the cooking. The pots remained under the bed for many years, until she gave them away to one of the maids.

"I'm Not Cooking"

In New Jersey, without maids or cooks, and not accustomed to an American style of life, Mother had to reinvent herself. Her teaching degree from Argentina was not recognized in this country, so she went back to school to get a master's degree in teaching. Eventually, she taught English as a second language to immigrant children in New York for nearly twenty years. In those twenty years, she also learned and mastered how to cook. She remembered the recipes of her youth, and the meals of her Argentine past and little by little she reimagined and reconstructed how those foods were prepared. Hence the salsa tomato sauce, as well as polenta, crepes with spinach and white sauce, a well-cooked beefsteak, and handmade gnocchi.

My siblings and I helped Mother many a time to make gnocchi on the kitchen table. The way she prepared this meal was a labor of love. She would put potatoes, peeled and quartered, in a large pot and boil them for twenty minutes. She would then mash the potatoes and mix them with eggs and salt to form a firm and elastic dough. She would then place the dough on the kitchen table covered with an abundance of flour. Enough flour to dirty the floor, wisp into the air and get into your eyes. We children relished this part of the process, playing with the flower to cover our hair, our smile, and our clothes. We would laugh endlessly, and Mother would laugh with us. She would then help us cut the dough into little pieces and roll each piece on a gnocchi roller (a wooden handmade object), to give them the shape and ridges of the typical gnocchi. Each gnocchi we made was a work of art. "This one looks like an ear!" said Alex. "This one looks like an egg," said Walter. "This one looks like my heart," said I. After the rolling and cutting of shapes were done, Mother would boil the gnocchi one more time until they would float, and we would enjoy them for dinner with mounds of butter and cheese or Mom's famous salsa. Doubtless, the dinner would be followed by dulce de leche, perhaps dulce de leche on bananas. It was not the most sophisticated dinner in the world, but for us immigrant children living in an American town, it was a happy reminder of our Argentine ways.

Not every day in our New Jersey home was a day of festive domesticity. Mom had a stubborn and assertive streak in her character, and it was doomed to clash with Father's intellectual love for words and newspapers. The big clash happened on a Sunday in 1973 when Dad read an article in the NYT that professed that laundry chores could be completed in less than twenty minutes thanks to technological advancements in washing machines and dryers.

"Look darling," said Father to Mother. "Here's an interesting article about how fast laundry can be done." He then proceeded to cut the article with his special scissors, to create an index card for the word "laundry" for his dictionary.

This was at a time when all eight siblings were still living at home with our parents. My mother, who had been accustomed to having domestic help in Buenos Aires, was livid about doing laundry in New Jersey, cooking for an army and cleaning house while also going to school at night to get recertified as a teacher. Mother exploded, silently. She said nothing. She put on her dark black sunglasses, took the keys to the car, and headed out. We had no idea where she was going. She came back three hours later, with her red hair tightly curled into a fresh perm, and a car full of shopping bags in the trunk. "Get the stuff from the automobile, children. There is something for each of you." In the trunk, we found nine laundry baskets and nine boxes of laundry detergent. "From now on," she told us, "each of you will be doing your own laundry."

"But there are nine baskets," I said. "There are only eight of us."

"The ninth basket is for your father," said Mom. "He will do his laundry, plus mine."

From that day forward, all of us learned to wash our own clothes. Even our youngest sister, who was four years old, had to learn to do laundry. Fortunately, two of my older sisters helped her out. No one properly taught me how to launder, and I ruined many shirts with colors that bled, shrank many items that should not have gone into the dryer, and unintentionally tie-died many blue jeans by washing them with bleach.

Never again would Father read to Mother any funny stories he found in the New York Times.

On the day of my 24th birthday, as we rode the 52 Bus, Father told me I should apologize to Mother. That morning, while I was getting dressed, I witnessed an argument between them. I was brushing my teeth when I heard the back-and-forth whispering and muffled angry voices that couples use when they are arguing but don't want the neighbors to hear. Father was approaching age 62, and Mother wanted him to start planning for retirement. "Let's at least look at a house in the country, and see how much it costs," she pleaded.

As they were arguing I imagined Father's index card entry for "country house":

"Country House" -- a place in the country, where folks go to live when their careers have ended and all they have left to do is hide away somewhere and die: "after years at his desk, the salaryman retired to his country house where he woke up one day and found out he was dead." (NYT Obituary of a Salaryman)

After I finished dressing, not having enough sense to stay out of a fight, I foolishly entered the kitchen where my parents were arguing and poured myself a cup of coffee. It was then that I had harsh words with Mother and told her I intended to move out of their lives forever. As I said, I have always been melodramatic.

"She's right about looking for a country house," said Father on the bus. "You are turning 24 today, and you think you know a lot. But you don't know everything and neither do I. Mother is right about wanting to look at a house in the country. I don't want to think about it now because we have already had so many moves and so many changes. We left everything in Argentina to escape a dictatorship and start all over abroad. I don't want any more changes but, in my heart, I know she's right. We must continue to reinvent ourselves."

When Dad and I stepped out of Bus 52 and walked into our house, I could tell that Mother had been cooking. I could smell the salsa and gnocchi, and I saw the cake with dulce de leche that she decorated for me. "Happy Birthday," she said, with a wide crooked smile. She even surprised me with an extra dessert of vigilante. As directed by Father, I apologized to her, using the crooked smile I inherited from her.

Eventually, Mom and Dad bought that house in the country, and they retired. Then they moved again, this time to the hills, and then again, this time to a retirement community. They continuously readapted their lives. During their golden years, they traveled, enjoyed their grandchildren, and gave us all a lot of good advice.

During those golden years, I practiced law in DC where I may have unintentionally poisoned some clients with my poor food choices, but I also learned to be a good lawyer. After a few years, I moved back to New York, then to North Carolina and eventually back to DC. I got married. I had children. I got divorced.

Many years later, after both my parents had passed away, I married once more. Mom and Dad never met my husband, but I think they would have loved him.

Today, the 27th day of a solemn month of a certain year, it is my birthday again. I'm at the office and I'm packing my briefcase to go home. I will take the train and I will read my novels. I will think of my father and his newspapers and the clippings for the dictionary that was never published. Then I will call my husband and I will ask him to make me gnocchi with salsa, cake with dulce de leche, and a side order of vigilante.

Kitchen Duties

Ernesto Beckford

27th Day of a Certain Month of a Certain year

© Ernesto Beckford 2022

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