(Now, hold on. I know you may be thinking “What?” at that heading—or, alternately, “Who cares?”—but it’s accurate. Though he denies it, I am convinced that The Traveler was trying to kill us that night in Oxford. It is the only explanation for why he chose to do what he did—a malevolent soul enacting revenge for some unperceived slight.)
We returned to the girls’ flat and, after another comment about me being ‘loverman,’ The Traveler dumped the Tesco bags onto the girls’ counter and gathered a few mixing bowls, a couple knives, a pot, and a cutting board. The items on the counter were, roughly, as follows:
- A pound of chicken breast fillets
- A pound of jumbo shrimp
- Four links of chorizo sausage
- A regular onion
- Garlic granules
- Cajun spices
- Hot chili powder
- Three bell peppers of various colors
- Five chili peppers
- A few supremely wrinkled peppers known as a Scotch bonnet peppers
- Some olive oil
- An even more wrinkled mass of a pepper (looking like it was about to collapse in on itself) known as El Pepper del Diablo
- And, finally, a pound of rice.
The most complicated meal I’d made involved eggs, toast, and a tomato—and I managed to make the tomato explode in a frying pan. Seeing such an array of foods sitting on the counter boggled my mind. That a person—a regular person, not a chef—could think they could successfully juggle such a collection of foods was laughable.
“Traveler,” I said, “what are you doing? There’s no way you’ll be able to handle all of this.”
“Oh?” he said.
“That’s really not that much,” said The Student. Well, it’s a lot of food, don’t get me wrong, but I think I know what he’s planning.”
“My friend,” I said, “I know when something’s doomed to failure, and this is definitely doomed to failure.”
“What are you making?” asked Dee.
The Traveler opened the chicken and diced the fillets. “I’ll tell you when its done.”
“I know what it is,” said The Student, in a childish sing-song voice.
“And I’d ask you not to tell anyone. I think you may be—”
“Oh, shit,” said The Drunkard, coming out of the bathroom, “you’re maki—”
The Traveler threw one of the red chili peppers at The Drunkard. “Shut it.”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Whatever.”
“What,” I said, “you know cooking?”
“Of course I know cooking. Used to cook all the time in undergrad. If The Traveler’s making what I think he’s making, then this was my specialty.”
“And do you cook now?” asked Dee.
“Nope. Can’t. I live with five French nihilists who go to class, come back, and sit and smoke in the kitchen all day and night. Tobacco smoke ruins food, in my opinion. Now I mostly eat ramen.”
The front door opened and Lena, tossing her backpack into her room with a dancer’s fluid motions, walked in. She put up her hair and I went, “Guh.”
“What’s cooking?” she asked.
“It’s a secret, apparently,” said The Narrator.
“Mmhmm,” said The Traveler. He’d finished dicing the chicken, sausage, and peppers, and put the chicken in one bowl and the sausage and bell peppers in another. “Also, if you wouldn’t mind buggering off somewhere while I prep and cook, that’d be great. I picked up the habit of talking to my food while cooking, and it kind of unnerves people.”
“You talk to your food?” I asked.
“Yeah. Strange habit, I know. Got it from a friend of mine who claims that it brings herself and the food into a closer relationship—almost a Zen sense of oneness.”
The rest of us got a pack of cards and played poker, hearts, and, finally, Go Fish. I lost every game we played except Go Fish. I was never a card player. In high school, while other people were getting together on Saturday nights and playing Texas Hold ‘Em, I was over at a friend’s house, where a group of us would gather and shout at each other over Mario Kart.
An hour or so after starting, The Traveler announced that the food was done, tapped a big ladle on the side of the big black pot, and set out five plates.
“Already?” asked The Drunkard. “For this, I thought it was supposed to be longer.”
“Yeah,” said The Traveler, leaning up against a wall in the kitchen and letting us serve ourselves first. “Normally, I’d agree with you. But I figured we didn’t have two hours to let the stuff stew in its own juices and bought quick cook rice.”
“This smells delicious,” said Dee.
“Take a bite.”
She got a fork from a drawer, stabbed some of the yellow rice-meat-pepper mound on her plate, and ate. In a second, her face turned red and tears streamed out of her eyes. “Good God,” she coughed.
Lena had the same reaction.
The Drunkard took a big bite, nodded, and smiled. “Good job, man.”
The Student took a plate, heaped some on, took a bite, and shouted, “Milk! Give me milk!”
“Narrator,” said The Traveler.
After seeing the reactions of everyone else, I was hesitant. Suddenly, I just wanted my usual dinner of microwaved lasagna or spaghetti. Still, I was determined to be the alpha male. I took the ladle, dug it into the mass inside the pot—and, man, it did smell amazing—scooped out a giant hunk and slapped it on a plate. I took a fork, dug it in, and took a bite.
While I didn’t black out, I wished I had. This was beyond spicy. There was no mirror, so I couldn’t see myself, but judging from the grin on The Traveler’s face, I reacted a lot like The Student. I kept in the pain, bottled it up, and tried my best to pretend that I wasn’t turning redder than a tomato and sweating like I’d just run a marathon. “Good,” I coughed. “Not trying to insult you, but my grandmother made spicier.” (In the interests of being an honest human being, I will attempt to transcribe what actually came out of my mouth: “Gub” cough. “Nah hayin” cough cough “inhul” cough “ranmot” cough “her made spicier” long stream of coughs.)
“Here,” said The Student. He pulled a chair out from the table and I sat down with the plate in front of me.
The Traveler took a mouthful on a fork and ate it like it was salad. “This is jambalaya.”
The Student, Lena, Dee, and I let loose a barrage of coughs. The Drunkard shoveled the rest of his plate down his apparently iron gullet, let the fork clatter to the plate, and said, “Traveler, I have a lot of respect for you. Don’t misunderstand me, that wasn’t the best I’ve had, but considering you cooked that up in an hour… well, let’s just say it’s worthy of seconds.”
The Traveler pointed to the pot, and said, “Help yourselves.”
The rest of the group sat down at the table. The Drunkard took the ladle and heaped some more on his plate. The Traveler opened the fridge, said, “Lena, you mind if we use your milk? I think The Narrator’s about to explode.”
“Am not,” I said. This was, of course, a blatant lie. (A while ago, I’d come up with something called The Narrator’s Ratio. Essentially, it says: 80% of what I say is a lie; 10% is half-truths; 10% is truth. The Narrator’s Ratio, of course, may or may not be a misrepresentation.)
“Please,” Lena said. “I might need it more than he does.”
Forsooth! Such grace! Such humor contained in such a fine vessel! (Sweat continued cascading down my forehead and dripping onto the table as I let loose a near unbroken chain of coughs.) That someone such as she could, maybe, perhaps, find a glint of the sublime in such a flawed example of the human form as I. But soft, there might—
“Hey,” The Drunkard said, poking me in the side after he sat down. “You can wait between bites, you know? You don’t have to continue eating if it’s causing you physical pain.”
“What physical pain?” I asked, mopping my forehead with my arm. “Physical pain schmysical pain. I—dear sweet God, Traveler, never use the Diablo pepper again.”
The Traveler, now sitting next to Lena, gave me a Cheshire cat grin. “Can’t handle the heat, get out the kitchen, boy.”
“I’m out of the kitchen. Where’s your remedy now?”
“You know,” said The Student. “You bring up the Diablo pepper, and I can’t help but think that, if they were to serve food in Dante’s Hell, then this would be the punishment for gluttony.”
The Drunkard, Traveler, and Dee chuckled. Lena and I laughed. The Student, reeling in a finally successful joke, grinned, took a bite from the jambalaya, and said, “Shit!” before diving for the milk.