by Robert Bires
Cecilia is frenetic, worried, and behind schedule. First show. First time in front of an audience, after considerable practice. She is standing behind the kitchen island like a Martha Stewart before make-up gets ahold of her. On the counter are the variety of vegetables and seasonings that she will use. The cameras, lights on, are trained on her, one from the left and one from the right, while Seth, with his hand-held, waits to move in when appropriate or to turn to the audience for their reactions, questions, or clapping. Her producer, Brie, stands to her left in the doorway.
All is ready, except for her. She can’t remember where Dante’s swim trunks are.
“Cecilia, on in three, two, one,” whispers Brie. Brie’s one rule for the show has been hammering in her head like a mantra: Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Never stop talking.
“Hi, welcome to Cecilia’s Kitchen. I’m Cecilia Cassavettes. Today, we are making gazpacho, one of my favorite meals in the summer,” Cecilia begins. “This cold soup originally comes from Spain, but, as you will see, mine has a few Mexican elements in it. Notice that I said ‘summer meals.’ There is almost no reason to make gazpacho at any other time of the year. Try to make this with winter grocery store tomatoes and it’ll be like drinking a Michelob Ultra instead of an actual beer. My husband gave me that line last night. Oops! Anheiser-Busch will be after me! Anyway, this soup shines only when made with the freshest tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers from a local stand, or, if you are lucky, from your own garden. My tomatoes are not ripe yet, but I will be using cucumbers and peppers that I've grown.”
She spreads her arms with open palms to show the vegetable bounty on her cooking island in front as Seth moves in to make them look huge and radioactive on the monitors, the pepper red, tight, and shiny, the cucumber still wet from rinsing, the scallions attractively strewn, and jalapeno oozing moisture from its stem where she cut it with her garden shears.
“Manna from heaven!” she exclaims.
Her chopping board, her bowls, even her sink, all look brand new, despite John having made his “famous” chocolate chip cookies two nights earlier. He always runs the mixer on too high of a speed and tiny pellets of creamed butter and sugar land everywhere like pre-squashed bugs. She flashes back to the two days she spent busting her ass cleaning that kitchen, spraying, wiping, kneeling, scraping corners with a butter knife, as Seth raises the camera to capture her and the cupboards, shelves, and wall oven behind her.
And how is she looking? Can they see her sweating already? Is her auburn hair starting to droop in the humidity under the heat of the cameras? Talk, she yells into the empty cave of her brain. How long has she been silent while his camera worshipped her produce? Talk. Say anything. The camera and her lapel mic don’t care about the past or the future.
“And, since I have a lot of green onions in my garden, I'll be replacing the red onion called for in the recipe with those. As long as your vegetables are fresh, gazpacho is a very forgiving soup, so feel free to try adapting what you have. Though the ripest tomatoes are crucial.”
She lifts her white bowl of the reddest tomatoes and holds it before the audience like an offering of Communion wine. They ooh. They aah. “I found these at our local market, and they are wonderful. Absolutely gorgeous. Squeezable, but not overripe.”
She lifts the largest one to her nose and smells the top. “Umm,” she says, perhaps a bit too orgasmically.
Brie whips her left hand in a circle, signalling her to move on.
“So here's what will go into our soup. About a pound of ripe tomatoes. A decent-sized cucumber, but you don't want one that's too big because the seeds will be too big and the flesh will be watery and flavorless or even bitter, so scoop those out, if that’s all you have. A nice, ripe red pepper. A small onion or half of a red onion or, as I'm using, a bunch, say 6 or 8 green onions, white and light green parts only. And a jalapeño pepper. Buy several, they’re cheap, to make sure you get one with some heat to it.”
She pauses. She picks up her knife. “Jalapenos are like marriages,” she says. “You never know if the heat is going to be in there until….” She looks at her knife. “Hmm, where was I was going with that.” The audience titters.
‘Anyway, in addition to our vegetables, we are going to add a few other things for—"
“Mom, did you find my swimming trunks?” says Dante, skinny, black hair, ten going on eleven, walking into the kitchen like the crazy neighbor in a sitcom. The audience titters.
“Flavor that will…What? Go look in the dryer!”
Does he not notice the audience, the show going on? No, he is focused on that one piece of clothing that he needs absolutely right now. Oh, Dante, my son.
“I did. They're not there.”
She remembers, simultaneously wondering if it was a bad idea to film at home. “Then they are in the pile of folded clothes on the stairs. And do not knock over those clothes pulling out your trunks.”
Instead of leaving, he comes up next to her, squints and squeezes his face together as he looks at her set up on the island. “Eww, what is that going to be?”
“A delicious gazpacho.”
“Is that that cold tomato stuff?”
The audience titters. Dante turns to them, seems mildly surprised, but maybe more pleased that he has them laughing.
“Yes, it's the chilled soup from Spain that we'll have for supper.”
“Can I just have a sandwich tonight?” he asks, dragging it out like he’s seen a TV kid do to see if it has comic effect.
The audience titters. He raises his fists and shakes them. “Yes!” he exclaims.
“We'll see. I want you try it to see how good it is. It's like eating summer.”
“Cecilia,” Brie says from the side, pointing at her watch.
“Summer’s hot. Your soup is cold,” Trey says over her. The audience titters. “Yeah. Jake’s mom is taking us swimming.”
“Get a beach towel from the laundry room. Be sure to say thank you. Do you need money for a snack?”
“We just charge stuff.”
“Say thank you!”
“They're going to pick me up in a little while. I'll be in my room being a trope and playing violent video games.” The audience oohs.
“Celery!” Dante shouts. The audience guffaws.
“You’ve got your own laugh track, D. I’m jealous. So, go and let me work,” Cecilia says, rearranging her thoughts. “We have our vegetables. To get them ready, I'm just going to coarsely chop all of the vegetables. No need to do more than that. One of the great things about gazpacho is that all of the work is in the preparation, then a few seconds in a blender and you're finished. So easy. While it's chilling in the fridge, you can be out enjoying summer at the pool …or doing your family’s laundry.” The audience groans.
Cecilia so desperately wants to unbutton another button on her crisp white blouse to cool off. But she will be leaning over soon. And Seth likes to come in close. “Before I chop my vegetables, I just want show you quickly what else I'm going to add to bring out the flavors in the---"
Her cell phone goes off, playing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot“ by Pat Benatar. The audience, at Brie’s urging, starts to clap along and dance in their seats. She looks around for it, picks up while looking before she finds it and answers.
“Hello? I'm cooking. What? Yes. Fine. How are you? What?” She waits, listens. “Well, thank you for this courtesy call, that’s very courteous, but I paid that a week or so ago. Yes, I’m sure. I paid it online for the full amount. No, I didn’t write down the confirmation number. Do people really do that? Well, I didn’t think I would need it because I paid it. Yes, I would love for you to check.”
Cecilia cradles phone between shoulder and ear and holds up her knife and begins chopping the cucumber, while speaking to her audience, “Usually I like to peel it, at least give it some stripes, but I won’t today because the water company doesn’t know their a--”
“Cece,” Brie says.
Then she loses her focus to the phone. “What? I’m making gazpacho. No, I don’t have my account number. You called me. Don’t you have it?”
Again, she shifts to talking to the audience. “You can do it however you like because it is all going to be blended up anyway but try to make everything the same size.”
The phone takes her attention again, and she says, “Size? The size of the cucumber. I’m talking about a cucumber! I’ve got a knife! What? No, I’m not threatening you. Did it go through? My payment. I know you’re checking. Please!”
Back to her studio voice. “Next, the red pepper. And after you chop that, make sure you set aside about a half cup of the pepper and the cucumber to add to the soup after—"
“No record of payment? Are you sure? No, if you sent me a disconnect notice, I ignored it because I know I paid the bill. What? When? Well, if they do, I’ll go right outside and turn the water back on. I know how to do it. I don’t care if there’s a risk of damaging your equipment. I’m not going without water!” she says, voice raised, chopping ferociously.
“As soon as we hang up, I’m going to get back online and pay it again, and you need to let whoever know that they had better not turn off the water this afternoon, sir. No, I’m not angry. I’m frustrated. No, I don’t want to give you a different credit card number over the phone. I have a phone to my ear, a red pepper in one hand, a knife in the other and I’m trying to make some goddamn gazpacho! Goodbye!” She sets her phone on the island.
“Utility companies!” The audience laughs. Brie wags her finger. Cecilia thinks, if I have to talk, talk, talk, words you don’t want to hear are going to come out of my mouth. ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ starts up again. “I am not answering that.” She picks up the phone and puts it in the dishwasher.
“If they shut the water off, that should be okay.” The audience laughs. “So, we’ve chopped our cuke and our peppers. I’m going to put them in the blender, saving our quarter cup of each to add at the end to the gazpacho after it has been blended. Let’s do the tomato next. Look at these beauties. As red as stoplights. Again, doesn’t have to be small pieces, but if they can be uniform, great. And you don’t want to lose any of the juice, so be very careful. Some people peel tomatoes. My grandmother did. I don’t. I just wash them. The skin will get pulverized in the blender. I core each tomato and cut it into 8 or 9 pieces.”
“Um, Cece,” Brie whispers, again pointing to her watch. “We’re losing time. We should be blending by now.”
Cecilia begins to work more quickly and tilts the chopping board full of tomato chunks into the blender. One stray piece falls onto the counter and she picks it up and eats it. “These tomatoes. Mmm. They are the whole key. When they are this ripe and fresh, you can’t go wrong.”
“I’ve already peeled my green onions, so I’m just going to slice the white and light green parts into about half-inch pieces and toss those in too.” She lines them up and slices them quickly. Last, the jalapeño. I like jalapeno, because it isn’t just hot; it has a nice, fruity flavor. Luckily, the plant I’ve got in my garden has some heat to it, like my marriage, ha ha, so I’m going to cut about a third of the flesh off without any of the seeds or ribs and dice that up. My family likes a little heat, but not too much. Story of my life.”
“Oh and wash your hands with soap when you are done handling the jalapeno. You don’t want to be pouring milk into your eyeballs all afternoon!” She scrapes the pepper into the blender and puts the cutting board in the sink.
“Mom, there’s a man at the door who wants to talk to you!” Dante yells from another room.
“Tell him I'm busy making gazpacho.”
“He wants to talk to you about salvation.”
“Tell him it’s going to have to wait.” Audience laughs.
“He says that is a really bad idea.”
“Tell him we go to church at least twice a month.” She turns to the audience and whispers, “Some weeks I just can't get it together.”
“He says the end of the world is coming.”
“Tell them that until that time, we are still going to have to eat, so it might as well be delicious!”
“This guy wants you to know, in the nicest of ways, he says, that gazpacho will not help you on Judgement Day!”
“Dante, close the door now!”
“Do you want some of their pamphlets?”
“Well, he’s going to leave some anyway. And Jake's mom is here. Bye!”
Cecelia wipes her hands on a dishtowel and speaks to her audience. “Please excuse me for a moment. I'll be right back.”
She walks off the set. Brie gives her a ‘what the heck’ look, flings her palms outward, walks in front of the audience and asks, “What do you call someone who’s green and sings?”
Cecelia says from a distance, “Thank you for stopping by, but we are busy today and...what? Yes, I know that. Thank you, we already have a church...pardon me? No, I don’t have time to get to know Jesus right now. I'm sorry, but you can’t come in and talk more. Yes, it is warm. But I am going to close this door and go back in there and make my gazpacho. Today we are making gazpacho! That’s all we are trying to accomplish during this half hour!”
The audience hears a door slam. Then there is silence, and then, after a pause, Cecilia shouts, “Elvis Parlsey!” and dashes back onto her set. She waves at the audience as she returns to her spot.
“Whew. Thank you for your patience, everyone. Now, where were we? Brie, I guess we're having some special guests today that I, for one, wasn't expecting.”
Brie points to her watch.
“Ok, olive oil, red wine vinegar, lime juice, cilantro, and salt and pepper,” Cecilia says as fast as she can. “That's what else we are going to add to give our gazpacho some real flavor. Nothing that dominates, just some of my favorite additions to enhance. As you can see, I’ve already measured everything out into little bowls, part of my mise en place.”
She picks up one bowl and smells it, then another. “Cilantro? Lime? Probably two of my favorite tastes on the entire planet. And so great together.”
From the side, a voice says, “You know what else goes great together? You and me.”
She turns to her right, toward the laundry room, and her husband John is standing there, wearing a suit and a big grin and loosening his tie.
“Johnny! Oh, no. Is something wrong? What are you doing home?”
He walks toward her, puts his arm around her waist, and kisses her on the mouth to heavy applause from the audience. “Came to see you, baby. And, I’ve got a meeting at one, so I thought I’d get a little lunch at home. What are ya fixin’?”
“Making gazpacho,” she says, with exhaustion, but enjoying his playfulness. “It’s been a battle.”
He leans in and looks it over. “Mmmm. Perfect for a hot day like this. Oh, you’re warm, too,” he says as he smells her hair. He thinks for a moment and resurrects her tagline, “It’s like eating summer!” Then he puts his right fingertips together on his lips and makes a kissing sound when his hand flies upward.
“I love you,” Cecelia says.
“That’s why I came home. I like yours because it’s spicy!” He looks out from the island. “What did you do to the dining room?”
“For my audience, silly.”
“Well, you’ve rearranged it. That’s for sure. It looks way bigger. What do you say we leave ‘your audience’ to watch the gazpacho while we go lie in the dark?”
“Was that your college pick-up line?” she asks, leaning against him.
“Maybe. Do you think it will work now?”
“You're very romantic, darling, but I'm right in the middle of making gazpacho. All I have to do is run the blender and correct the seasonings.”
“Do we have the house to ourselves? Where’s Dante?”
Cecilia looks out at her audience, with a hand over her brow, to see past the camera lights. “He’s gone swimming with Jake.” She looks out at her audience. “Well, we don't exactly have the house to ourselves.” The audience laughs.
He mimics her and puts his hand over his brow. “I have a feeling they aren't going anywhere.”
“Oooh, true. But what about my soup? I can’t just walk away from it. I should finish it.”
John puts his hand on his chin and thinks. “Don’t those flavors need to marry?”
“Yes, they do,” Cecilia says, embracing the idea immediately. “Good idea!” She dumps oil, vinegar, lime juice, salt, pepper, and cilantro, one small bowl at a time, quickly into the blender and says to the audience, “So we will let everything sit and macerate, so those flavors can marry.”
“Macerate?” Johnny asks. “Sounds sexy.”
“It means to ‘soften the vegetables by soaking them in the liquid.’”
“We’d better hurry. We don’t want them to get too soft!”
Cecilia lowers an octave to a “television voice,” and declares, “And when we come back, we’ll mix it all together. Commercial break! Brie, all yours!”
Shedding her apron, she chases her husband toward the bedroom, as Brie starts another food joke, something about a chicken pot pie.
Cecelia returns, looking a bit flushed and disheveled, unsure if her blouse is not quite buttoned or just not rearranged, kind of sticking to her. But she has a spring in her step and a devil-may-care attitude, though the kitchen, especially because of the cameras, seems too bright.
“Whew! What a beautiful, sunny summer day! So bright. I think I’ll put on a little music.” She loops the apron over her head and pushes a button on a small Bose and flamenco guitar begins to play. “Now. Where were we? Sorry, I had to walk my husband to his car. Life isn’t all cooking, folks.” She muses. “Or maybe it is! Oh, I know, we are ready to play chef in the most fun way. With one finger on a button, you absolutely control what becomes of your soup. Now, again, you can't ruin anything, because your ingredients are fantastic and all you are going to do is to mix them together, but you will have to decide whether you like your gazpacho smooth or chunky. Me, I like it chunky, for the flavors to blend, but still have some texture. So I'm going to put the lid on my blender and use the ‘pulse’ function only. This gives me total control over the texture as I blend the vegetables in short bursts.”
She pulses and checks several times, even stopping to take lid off to test consistency and sticks her finger in to taste. “Yes, I've got it the way I want it. I'm going to pour it into a bowl, I'm going add my reserved small-dice cucumber and red pepper, I'm going to add some chopped cilantro, and then I'm going to give it a stir, taste it, and correct my seasonings. Mmm, yes, this is right about the way I want it and....”
“Then let's put it to the test! Let's bring out our panel of celebrity tasters to find out how this gazpacho turned out!” Standing in the door of the laundry is a tall, chubby, elderly man in a dark gray pinstripe suit, with a couple of thin young women standing behind him, their bodies almost as straight as their hair. Cecilia smooths her hands down the front of her cook’s body. She gets some tomato residue on her blouse.
“Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’m…………your host! Virgil Poe!”
“I’m my host! How did you get in here? This is my house. Brie?” She does not see Brie as she looks toward the den. “Johnny?” John has left for his meeting.
“Think of me as a sweepstakes announcer showing up at your door, except that you haven’t won anything. Instead, you have been chosen to participate in our Summer Soup Showdown! People want to know how your soup rates!”
“Well, let’s start with them!” he says, gesturing toward the audience. The audience applauds.
“Gazpacho needs to sit in the fridge so the flavors can blend.”
“I'm afraid we don't have time for that. You nearly went overtime with all of those interruptions. We’ve been waiting patiently, haven’t we, America? Now it's time to put your soup to the test in our Summer Soup Showdown! Let's meet our celebrity judges!”
Cecilia picks up a dish towel nervously, looking everywhere, trying to keep up. Three people walk out with stools, waving at the clapping audience as they approach, and seat themselves in front of Cecelia's cooking island.
“First, say hello, from down the street, to your frenemy, Sheila Johnson. You didn’t hang out with her in high school, she’s always had a crush on your husband, and…she’s been jealous of your cooking for years. Sheila?”
“Hi, Chuck,” Sheila says, glaring at Cecilia and folding her arms. Cecilia nods.
“Next, welcome Chef Mike Brown. He's the chef of the New Orleans restaurant downtown that you criticize every time you drive past it. You haven’t eaten there in six years, even though he donated jambalaya to fundraiser at your son’s school!”
“It's a fish out of water! Too hard to create New Orleans food here without local sources,” Cecilia responds.
Chef glares at her. “I fly in authentic ingredients!”
“But it's too expensive to recreate here!”
“Good luck, Mrs. Cassavettes.”
“And, finally, let’s welcome Steve, a Jehovah's Witness we encountered while we were waiting outside. Not only did he provide us with some interesting materials, but he also said that you didn't invite him in for something cool to drink earlier.”
“I didn't think he was allowed to have caffeine.”
“If you bring out the phone rep from the water company, I’m walking out!”
“Not to worry, Cecilia. He couldn’t get away!” The audience laughs. “Steve, though, is excited, as we all are, to try your gazpacho! Please ladle up four servings and spoons and let's begin the judging!”
The audience begins to clap rhythmically while Cecilia opens and slams cabinet doors as she looks for four bowls of the same kind. Rattled, she gives up, and ladles her soup instead into unmatched mugs—one says “Camden, Maine” with a happy red lobster waving, one reads “Best Dad,” one celebrates Ohio State football, and one pictures Ward and June Cleaver, with June saying, “Ward, you were a little hard on the Beaver last night.” John loves that mug. To each mug, she adds some of the chopped cucumber and red pepper. Checking each spoon to make sure it is clean, she places one in front of each of the judges and hands one to the announcer. Then she gives each of them a mug. She looks at the young women, but they shake their heads.
“Cecelia Cassavettes, tell us about your soup!”
She regains her bearings and says wearily, “Well, it's gazpacho. My husband likes it. My son not as much. As I’ve made it over and over for years, I began adding a few Mexican flourishes, like cilantro and jalapeño and lime. Like all soup, it will taste better after it sits for a--.”
“Splendid! Judges, dig in! I will too!”
There is a wait while the judges taste the soup extravagantly, moving a single spoonful all over the insides of their mouths before having another one. She can hear the tittering in the audience.
“Okay! Cecilia, are you ready? Steve, I know you have neighborhoods to conquer, so let's begin with you!”
“It's got a nice tongue feel, with a bit of crunch. To me, it tastes like summer. But is it worth forgoing one’s salvation to—"
“Thank you, Steve! Sheila, your assessment, please.”
“Well, I thought her workspace would be cleaner. Everyone brags on her cooking. I guess I expected a cleaner countertop than this.”
“The gazpacho, please!”
“Maybe a little heavy-handed with the pepper. I’d like it blended a bit more, maybe one more pulse. I guess I’m surprised that as often as she says that she’s made it, I’ve never tasted it before.” She pauses. “Vegetables do taste fresh, I admit.”
“Thank you, Sheila! Chef?”
“Too subtle for New Orleans eaters, but I like the way the jalapeños sneak up and the cilantro is a beautiful addition. She knows that great ingredients are the most important part of any recipe. Kudos from a chef to a cook. I'd like a larger portion.”
“As for me, I like that, in addition to the tomatoes, I can taste the cucumbers and the pepper and the onions! It seems like you've got the mix of vegetables right! My thanks to our judges, too!”
“Thank you all, judges,” Cecilia say, bowing slightly as she has seen cooking show contestants do.
“Cecelia, any other thoughts?”
“I like to serve a gazpacho bar, where guests can add what they want to the soup. I might have chopped tomatoes, peppers, cures, onions, jalapeños, avocados, chilled shrimp, croutons, and other things in little cups for guests to choose from.”
“Wonderful! Your gazpacho is a winner! Of course, it is not the winner, but it is a minor success! Frankly, a very simple recipe that doesn’t require much skill to make! Anyone could make this!”
“That’s the point!” Cecilia exclaims, competitiveness taking an adrenaline-like toehold within her. “Just let me put the rest in the refrigerator for the flavors to blend and relax until supper, and then taste it the way it is supposed to be. I’ll make the bar of on-ems to go with it!”
“That won't be possible, I'm afraid! You have both our crew and your audience to feed! We have a photo shoot to do, and a series of interviews and postscripts to work on! And we like the sound of that gazpacho bar now!”
Cecilia is confused.
“Don’t step away from that blender, Cecilia Cassavettes! And pick that knife back up! The studio will be bringing in a resupply of all of your ingredients, locally-sourced, of course, and we may ask you to redo some of the steps of your recipe, even though we may not use it! There are some papers you will need to sign, too! We’ll be right back!” It sounds like a commercial break, but instead they all leave.
It is quiet. No Seth. No Brie. No Dante. No Johnny. She looks out at the lights between her and her audience, but sees nothing beyond. “Tomorrow,” she says, “I’ll be making ‘Eggs in Purgatory.’”
Robert Bires writes in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A bitter freeze in December killed his fig tree and the rock band he played in has been defunct for two months (his doing), but he has had four stories accepted so far this year and just replaced a cracked windshield.