Nonfiction

The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

All that She Could Make with Flour

by Katherine Jamieson

December 2012    

Vorda’s hands swing with impatience as she reaches for the light blue plastic flour container. “Y’all is tek food fuh waste,” she grumbles, unscrewing the wide blue top with one hard twist. Look how many pots of porridge, cheese rolls and cakes she has made from her share of the Gift of the Country of Denmark flour, finished two weeks ago already. Our Danish flour, donated to the vocational school in Georgetown, Guyana, where I teach and she attends, is now “weebily” and I must evict the squirming larvae.

Dutifully, I find the sifter and a large bowl, and soon the powder is snowing into a soft, still pile. Hundreds of weevils are revealed, more hideous without their flour coating. I watch them writhing away blindly, until Vorda grabs the sieve and, with a flick of her wrist, tosses them through the open door under the mango tree in our small backyard. They squirm wildly amidst rotting mangoes on the dark earth. Inside, order is restored: Vorda has added baking powder and water into the bowl and is working the mixture into a new ball of dough, round and perfect.

The gas is high under the tawa, the metal skillet, and blue flames lick out from its sides. Vorda moves quickly under the guttering glare of fluorescent light. Her face shines, a dusting of flour on her high cheeks and broad, flat nose, hair pulled into a tight, uneven ponytail; sometimes she wears a dark maroon hair extension which juts from her head like a little broom. She is a pretty girl but rough and loose-limbed, with a quick, loud laugh. As she leans her full weight against the dough on the orange countertop, her dark skin is tensed around her working arm muscles, shoulder blades high and poised. She kicks away one of our kittens underfoot and curses it. Soon, the smell of fresh bread fills the small kitchen.

When Vorda first learned that I couldn’t cook she had laughed her big laugh and clapped her hands. “You can’t make bakes, Miss? What ting is dis?” From childhood, she has been taught to cook the hybrid Guyanese cuisine, with dishes from all the cultures that had collided here in the past few centuries: curry from the East Indians; chow mein from the Chinese; black pudding from the British; metemgee, a stew cooked in coconut milk broth, from the Africans. Over a portable gas stove, the kind used for camping in the US, Vorda cooks every day for her mother, aunts, sisters, brothers and cousins. Take-out and fast food—not to mention canned and frozen—are what people eat on TV. She knew that my kitchen, with its four-burner stove, running water and full set of pots and pans, was wasted on me. She would make sure it was put to good use.

Vorda slices, kneads, pinches and stirs in one continuous motion. Before I can get the stove lit, little mounds of carrots, onions, and bourra, a long, gangly green bean, appear glimmering like a stash of jewels, and the dough is set out in tight coils. She slices the cherry-red wiri-wiri pepper braced against a knife so its hot oils won’t burn our fingers and eyes; she makes the roti bread bubble and flake. But when I ask her to explain what she is doing, she only laughs and says, “Watch, Miss, just so,” pointing to garlic expertly minced, or tossing an indefinite amount of spice into the pan.

Vorda is a “Food and Nutrition” girl at the vocational school. All the students are “early-school-leavers,” the Guyanese euphemism for high school dropouts, and the school is seen as a last chance for them to pick up a marketable skill. While the others plod away at straw-craft and shorthand, the “Food” girls believe they are different and special. Ms. Robbins, their pretty young teacher is always an hour late to teach their classes, but they are fiercely loyal to her. Vorda plans to open her own restaurant one day, or at least to have a small stand by the side of the road where she can sell pine tarts, cheese rolls and cassava pone to the government workers who flood the streets on their breaks.

Vorda had begun her visits after I made an open invitation on the first day of school for any of my students to come to my house. The girls had laughed when I said where I lived; as usual, I didn’t get the joke and looked around for someone to explain. “You me neighbor, Miss,” Vorda had announced proudly, standing up from the back row. “I gon’ come by you tonight.”

As promised, she had arrived on my doorstep that evening dragging a tiny sister by the arm. “Goodnight, Miss!” she boomed, and it took me a minute to recognize the young woman in her faded denim mini-skirt and tank top as the schoolgirl I had met earlier that day. Freed from her conservative school uniform, Vorda’s body burst from clothes several sizes too small.

“How ya do, Miss?” Vorda asked, surveying the apartment with a sweeping glance. “House nice! Dese chirren driving me mad, Miss,” she told me looking down at the child.

“This is your sister, Vorda?” I asked.

“Not only one! Me mudda get nuff’, nuff’ of we you know!“ she said laughing. “Stop, you gon’ bruck Miss ting!” she yelled at the girl who was tapping her foot on my wicker chair. I offered a tour of the small apartment and in the kitchen she paused and wrinkled her nose. “Y’all been cooking something?” she asked.

“I made some stew with rice,” I told her, and she glanced into the pot at the reddish mush of over-cooked beans, peppers and tomatoes. I had underestimated the strength of the peppers, and my mouth was still burning from dinner. She frowned.

“I gon’ come cook for y’all a time,” she said, more of a pronouncement than an offer. From then on, we would hear her flip-flops slapping down the cement walkway once or twice a week

While the bakes are cooking, we sit on the couch and Vorda shows me her name and address printed in the new Guyana telephone directory. Absently, I rub the round starburst scar on her arm from a shot when she was an infant, admiring how it lifts the skin, mottling the smooth, deep brown into tan and beige. “Miss like my black skin nuff,” Vorda says laughing, though I can tell she is flattered at my affection for her. We smell the bake cooking and I hear the scratch of the hot dough on the tawa as she turns it. When she walks back to the chair, I notice the lump over Vorda’s breast. When I asked her about it she had explained it was a “guard” that her grandfather from Suriname had given her to ward off evil intentions. She showed it to me once, pulling the worn, square packet of herbs wrapped in newspaper from her bra. “Nobody cyan’t do me nuting,” she had said proudly, “nobody cyan’t trouble me.”

The week before, the Headmistress called me in to the office to talk about Vorda. She and the other teachers believed that the girl was pregnant. A month earlier, she had come to a party at my house dressed in iridescent, silver stretch bell-bottoms, which revealed an oval bulge above the waistline. When I asked her about it, Vorda explained that all the women in her family had “high belly.” Like so many other things in Guyana, I had assumed it was something I hadn’t heard of, but real nonetheless.

At this explanation Ms. Corlette raised her eyebrows and chuckled. “Katrin, I seen plenty, plenty people get baby, and they look just like da girl,” she told me. The other teachers had been watching her more closely than I had been, and so were the students. “Dese gyals, ya know how they like talk wickedness…” she told me, sighing. At lunchtime, girls were pulling their blue skirts up, tightening their belts and cocking their buttocks out to imitate her. They called her “preggers” to her face. Vorda had told me none of this.

Neither Vorda nor her parents would admit that she was pregnant. They insisted that she had just gained weight. Without proof, the Headmistress couldn’t do anything. I asked her what would happen if she found out that Vorda was pregnant. “There are some schools where the girls are allowed to get pregnant and continue,” Ms. Corlette said, her intense gaze fixed on me, “but this is not one of them.”

The bakes are almost ready, and Vorda wants me to do the ting, give her a back massage before we eat. She had once seen me massage my boyfriend, and was fascinated by how my hands worked over his shoulders. Now she would ask for this little intimacy from time to time, giggling when I touched her. Her shoulders were tense and lifted as I began to rub my fingers against into her skin. I could see her face, crinkling up when I pressed too hard, laughing when I pounded my fists against her upper arms.

“Vorda, when’s your boyfriend coming back from the islands?” I ask.

“Soon, Miss,” she replies, “he gon’ come and married me next year,” and she giggles again as I squeeze around her neck. This is a story I have heard from many of my students, but I have never heard that one of these men actually returned.

“Vorda,” I say, knowing she probably wouldn’t understand me, “you were careful with him, right?”

“What, Miss?” she asks, her face scrunching together as I rub a knot in shoulder.

“You know, careful, with sexing and so on,” I say, almost under my breath.

She laughs. “Yes, Miss, that was a long time ago, Miss.” How long I wonder, five, six months? She giggles again as I rub my hand under her shoulder blades, feeling her little wings small in my hand. I don’t know if she can’t tell me the truth because she’s worried about being exposed at school, or because I’m a friend and she’s ashamed. I want to tell her the things I’ve been ashamed about, but I know it wouldn’t be right because I’m her teacher.

“Come Miss, leh we eat now,” she says finally. We slather margarine and sprinkle brown sugar onto our bakes, eat them steaming from the plate.

Vorda’s “high belly” disappeared soon after her graduation from the school. Ms. Corlette was angry that she had been tricked, but there was nothing to do about it. Some teachers believed she “trow away babee,” or had an abortion, which had recently become legal in Guyana. Others thought that she had delivered the baby and that an auntie or her mother would help raise it until she was grown. I had no guesses. Afterwards, when Vorda came to visit, she still wanted to cook and I helped her as best I could. We brushed the cats aside and I watched her in the kitchen, still amazed at all that she could make with flour.



  Katherine Jamieson holds an MFA from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Narrative, Brevity, Meridian, The Journal, Terrain and The Best Travel Writing 2011. Read more of her essays, articles and stories at katherinejamieson.com.

Photo used under Creative Commons.