Sunday, March 17, 2019

Women's History Month: Sandra Hunter's "Kitchen Nerves"

It is early evening, that time when I turn to my stove and wonder
whether one more microwave meal will really kill everyone. And
then decide maybe it will.
 I am not a good cook; I have none of that fine, artistic manner I so
admire in the TV chefs who sprinkle kosher salt and toss in shrimp
and ginger without having to check the recipe. My recipes are in nice,
plastic sheets so they sponge clean. I am a bit of a renegade in my own way:
I always double the required garlic and add an extra sprig or two of basil,
mint, lavender.
 I am trying not to think of anything in particular when I open the oven door
and think of you. You are far away and I don’t suppose your immediate
thoughts are about what you’ll be cooking for dinner. I suppose there must
be someone else responsible for food. Will you have any variation in diet
or will it be the equivalent of a hunk of bread and a bowl of water? Will they
let you drink from a bowl? I can’t imagine you drinking from a bowl.
You never even drank your cereal milk from the bowl, even though I
showed you how. Of course, that was a long time ago, at least fourteen years.
 Now you’re nineteen; that’s a two-syllable word I’m not afraid of. I always
thought it would be a single syllable that would crush me, like someone
dropping a brick on my head. Shot. Bombed. Dead. But now the terror has
exploded my nightmares with two syllables: captured.
  And that means they wanted you alive. Your dad said I was talking crazy
about why couldn’t they have just shot you.

 I set the oven to broil. Now, where did I put the bell peppers? Here they are
in the lower drawer of the fridge. One red, one yellow. Festive colors; the kind
you see in photographs of Indian women in saris, or Mexican women hanging
rugs, or African women in arid villages where red and yellow jeeps drive past
on their way to the tourist resorts.
 You’re in Africa; North Africa, you might say, although they don’t call it that.
You were always so quick with languages: German, Russian, French. None of
those will help you there. I wonder if you can speak any of the language.
I wonder if you are permitted to speak at all.
 Tonight, we’re having Chicken Provençale. It’s an old recipe and I haven’t
sponged the plastic sheet clean because the stains are from the last time
I cooked it. That’s when you helped me cut up the tomatoes. It was in
the summer and we had far too many for the recipe, so we started by
eating a couple and then we had a tomato fight. You lobbed one at
my head and said it was great hair conditioner. I got you on the back
of your neck and it slid right down inside your shirt. We were still
cleaning up when your Dad came home. He just shook his head.
I hope you haven’t spoiled the dinner.
 I’ll cut the chicken up first. It’s what they call chicken breast fillets. This
means the original chicken parts have been shaved into half-inch slabs.
I carve them into what I think the recipe means by ‘morsels.’ Small, pink,
skinned fingers of flesh. They look so bare. I push them into a heap on
one side of the chopping board.
  I open the oven and place the peppers on the rack. After they’ve roasted,
I’ll put them in a paper bag until I can shuck their skins.
  Now for the tomatoes; they are also to lose their skins. I put a pan
of water on to boil. There isn’t anything left to do but I need something
to keep me occupied while I wait. I’ll make a salad; a bag of chopped
romaine, sliced green apple, some broken pecans, lime and honey
dressing. It sounds green and exotic.
 I wonder if they pick limes or pecans from the trees, wherever you
are. Even if you don’t get any, I’m sure you can probably see them.
From wherever you are. I like to imagine you’re in some place with
palm trees above to remind you of home. That’s about all that will
remind you of home.
 Perhaps you can look up and see the stars between the palm fronds.
Perhaps you can roast fresh cashew nuts over the fire, and think of us.
You have to allow me some creative thinking here, since I don’t know
what’s actually going on over there. But I do know the stars are white
and milky and too many to count.
 Like when we used to go to Owens River Gorge. You and your
climbing, Dad and his fishing, me trailing behind one or the other
of you with caution trapped behind my teeth. Not too far, not too deep,
not too high. Don’t trust the rope, the reel, the belayer, the net.
 But at night―remember? Oh at night, it didn’t matter, all of the worrying,
the anticipation of something going wrong―all that was gone as we three sat
back in our chairs and just looked up. I had no idea what the constellations
were. There I was enthusiastically pointing out the Big Bear and Orion,
and you and Dad laughing hysterically because I was pointing in the
wrong direction.
 I didn’t care, though. I dragged out that enormous box of Maltesers
I got from the duty free store on our way back through Heathrow
over Christmas.
 And you said,
 --You’re the best, mom.
 Dad said,
 --Can’t tell a star from a stop sign, but she’s all right.
 And you hugged me and said,
 --Don’t pay attention to him. You’re more than all right.
 I made sure you weren’t too close to the fire, and I hugged you
back. You were so tall, even then. Well, I don’t suppose I’m much of
a judge, being five foot one. But I had to reach up to hug you properly.
You were sixteen.
  I can smell the peppers burning. Cooking. I take a look inside the
oven. The skin is blistering and popping. It’s going black. They’re only
peppers. You’re supposed to cook them like this. They taste great cooked
like this. I try to shut out the thought that it must take a long time to
broil a human, and shut the oven door. The water for the tomatoes
is boiling and I turn off the heat and ease the tomatoes in. The skin
separates. I can’t look at them. I put the lid on the pan.
 I sprinkle salt and pepper over the chicken. I can’t bring myself to
rub it all in. It’s not the slimey feel of the raw chicken, it’s the rubbing
the salt and pepper into the flesh. I put a towel over the chicken.
 I turn the peppers, using the tongs. I should have used a tray. The juice
is dripping onto the floor of the oven. It’ll burn into a charred scar and
I’ll never be able to scrub it out.
 Those oven cleaners are meant to be very efficient, but they just burn
everything away. Burning out the burns.
 I try reading the paper while the peppers finish cooking. I keep reading
the same paragraph over and over. I’m too nervous to let the peppers be,
so I check them before they’re ready to be turned. I see their skins pop
and bubble. I watch the stalks blacken. How long they take to broil,
and they’re so small.
 I read about the weather on the back of the paper. I look at the yellow
dots that mean the air is unhealthy for sensitive people. There’s one orange
dot on Riverside and that means the air is unhealthy for everyone.
 What’s the air like where you are? I hope you’re breathing okay. I hope you
have fresh air. It’s meant to be very healthy around plants and I know you’ve
got some of those. I’ve seen them on TV.
 The peppers are done and I drop their poor, depleted shapes into the paper
bag. They’re not bright and firm anymore. It seems half of their insides are
sizzling at the bottom of the oven.
  I take the tomatoes out and put them on the chopping board. The skins peel
off easily and the flesh underneath is soft and spongy. I cut the tomatoes
up and remove the seeds. There’s hardly anything left.
  Now to cook the chicken. They call it sautéing, but it just means frying. I heat
the skillet and pour in a little oil. It skids about on the bottom of the pan. What
would it be like to place my hand there? How long could I hold it?
  I tip the chopping board and the chicken hisses and spits as it hits the oil. I
stir it quickly and add two pinches of saffron. The chicken turns white then
yellow as the saffron threads melt.
 I open the paper bag and pull out the charred peppers. I run them under
the cold water and peel off the blackened skins. The stalks, seeds and
membranes come away easily. They look nothing like peppers anymore.
I add them and the tomatoes to the chicken.  Now it looks like food.
I can feel myself unclenching.
 I can imagine you coming through the front door,
 --What’s cooking, mom? Smells good.
 And I’d tell you to get a bowl and I’d heap it high and cut you two slabs of
bread so you could soak up the sauce. And we’d sit opposite each other, eating
like crazy until it was all gone.
And I’d say,
 --What am I going to feed your father?
 And you’d say,
 --We’ll just get pizza.
 And we’re laughing and going back into the kitchen, and tearing off bits
of bread to scoop up the last bit of sauce from the pan. And we don’t burn
our fingers.
 And you’re so real, and firm and bright, it just isn’t possible that you’ve
melted away into something I might not recognize.

© 2019 Sandra Hunter

First published in Raving Dove 2006,  and as part of the collection Trip Wires 2018

Bio: Sandra Hunter’s fiction won the 2018 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest, 2016 Gold Line Press 
Chapbook Prize, October 2014 Africa Book Club Award, and three Pushcart 
Prize nominations. Her story, “Finger Popping” won second place in the 
2017 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. She is a 2018 
Hawthornden Castle Fellow and the 2017 Charlotte Sheedy Fellow 
at the MacDowell Colony. Books: Losing Touch, a novel  (2014), f
iction chapbook, Small Change  (2016), fiction collection Trip Wires 
(2018). She is working on a trilogy  of novels set in Johannesburg, 
Los Angeles, and Berlin.


  1. Thank you, Marie. Honored to be part of this project for Women's History Month.