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Lost in the Yucatan, right at home
The finale to the Oatmeal, Custard trio
(Continued from Cottage Cheese Roots, Custard Dreams)
I would make a flan for my Latina mom friends.
That’s what I decided.
I would make a dish their own abuelas had assuredly made for them at some point. Not a dish my own abuela, Helen, had often purchased locally – no, not a potato salad – I would make a flan!
Because that makes sense, setting yourself up for a head-to-head flan-off with actual abuelas in a battle of abuelary. Smart!
(It was not smart.)
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It was basically the culinary equivalent of challenging Whitney Houston to a National Anthem-Off. And I thought it was a great idea.
Now, I cannot emphasize this next part enough:
What the actual fuck was I thinking?
I truly do not know the answer. To this day, I can muster no recollection whatsoever of why I decided to make flan or even what set of mental dominos led me to that.
All I can tell you is that the last domino was probably “Well, I already have the ramekins...”
I did. 24 of them. Those damn things had been the vessels for my lunacy since the “Oatmeal of Madness” episode. Apparently, we had another voyage in us.
[Now, between the last entry and the start of this one, I feel like we’ve built up some nice momentum from a storytelling perspective. I’ve established myself as a lunatic very bad at thinking. We’ve introduced some nice tension. There’s some modest foreboding but not dread. Right now, there’s still room to think “Who knows, maybe he’ll pull it off. Wouldn’t that be something?”]
Hahaha, so there’s just one last thing… This is funny. You’ll laugh.
Having decided to make a single flan, I then thought “Well, ya know… if you’re already making a flan, you could just go ahead and make a couple… or even a bunch of flans. You have plenty of ramekins, you know.”
That idea was, of course, even more terrible than the idea of making one flan. So, naturally, I loved it.
I decided to make an array of flans.
A carefully curated collection of flans. A tasting flight of flans spanning from a traditional flan with its classic custard and rich caramel to an inspired Neo-Latin chocolate flan.
Neo-Latin chocolate flan. Wut? I. Don’t. Even. Fucking. Cook.
It’s the ramekins. They make me crazy.
I just got lost in this thing. One minute I was like “I could just stop and get some nice cookies.” And the next I was so far down the rabbit hole, I was talking to myself as if I was an actual chef at the precipice of the dish that would ignite the culinary scene.
“With my final flan, I will… create…… but I will also… honor. I will fashion of my own conception… but with a reverence for my mentor, Chef Douglas Rodriguez. It will be a flan both nuevo y viejo… nouvelle yet un homage.”
I actually think things like that. Ludicrous, ludicrous things. Things which make no sense in English and aren’t helped by the addition of butchered Spanish or French. Down the rabbit hole though, such is my language.
I should note that there actually is a Chef Douglas Rodriguez and his cuisine does indeed have a certain Neo-Latin panache. It’s just that my only connection to him was having eaten at his place in the city once maybe ten years prior. I literally ate at the dude’s restaurant once but the ramekins had me so fevered with confidence, I thought I could channel the guy based on my vague recollection of the meal.
No joke, I decided to make a sequence of flans culminating in a tribute flan.
Oh, and I would have only one day to pull that off. There would be no pre-flans, no test flans. I’d just shop on Friday and then cook all day Saturday. I’d go zero-to-flanty in an afternoon and be good to go.
Our holiday dinner was that night.
One day. Five flans by dusk. That was the plan.
How’d that go?
Well, about as anyone of sound mind would expect it to go.
There was a lot of cursing. So, so much cursing.
Flun-fact! Sugar goes quick when you are repeatedly burning the shit out of it by the pound.
I used so much sugar, I had to run out for more. At one point about halfway through the day, I was in the grocery store holding a 10-pound bag thinking “Is this enough… I better get two.” Twenty more pounds of sugar.
By the end of the day, my kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it… followed by several others. The sink was a fucking jenga tower of dirty pans. Several were scorched on the bottom with an acrid tar of burnt sugar. There was trace flan residue on the cabinets and in the grout between some of the floor tiles.
The kitchen wasn’t a mess, it was a disaster area.
My kitchen has never been that trashed before or since.
In the fridge though… were four flans.
I had managed to make all five… but then one of them had leapt to its death while I was carrying it from the cooling bath to the fridge. The oven mitts were slippery and as it turns out, so are ramekins wet from a cooling bath. Oh, Sweet, Fancy Moses, the string of obscenities I uncorked. Distant nuns wept. Sailors covered their ears, pleading “No… no… stop… it is too much for even men of the sea.”
Even thinking about that dropped flan makes me cursey. That *#$@#*$# flan! I dropped it at the very last *#$@#*$# step.
The other four though… they made it all the way to the fridge and they would go on to make it all the way to my friend’s house.
I had brought dessert.
Brought. Not bought. Flans. Four of them:
1) A traditional flan
2) One with a Grand Marnier reduction in lieu of traditional caramel
3) One I’m totally blanking on
4) A Neo-Latin chocolate which paired my own vivacity of spirit in perfect matrimony with the imaginative cuisine of Chef Douglas Rodriguez or some shit
We would have them after dinner.
First though, one of the moms had made ‘pernil’.
Pernil, if you aren’t familiar, is a time-consuming, labor-intensive, slow-roasted pork.
I had never had it until I met this friend. I only have it when she makes it. She only makes it on special occasions, and the reason for that is because it is a day’s meal but an entire week’s work. It requires a trip to a butcher shop in a different town and then a schlep to a Latina grocery in yet another town followed by a lengthy preparation of the rub and then a wait of days before cooking – which is then itself a long, slow affair.
It literally takes a week from start to finish to make pernil. It is a dish of great personal care. Its preparation is the kind of soft ritual a person learns and then carries on without fully appreciating they are doing so. Making pernil is an act of remembrance, tradition. It is a walk with one’s elders and heritage. It is imbued with a love of family departed. It is undertaken with a love for family present.
It is an alchemy. All cooking from the heart is.
It is a transformation of ingredients into something beyond them, beyond their combination. Something that can be copied but not reproduced.
There is ‘making food’ and there is ‘cooking for people you care about’. When my friend makes pernil, she is cooking for people she cares about. That is what makes it special. I treasure the invite long before the meal. I treasure the meal long after it has past. This particular meal was seven years ago and I’m telling you about it, remembering it fondly.
The pernil that night was amazing. It always is. We all filled our plates and ate hearty and drank wine and laughed in the way only people among friends free to be themselves around each other really can. It was a good night.
The flans? How’d they turn out?
Well, the Neo-Latin chocolate one was… drab. I wouldn’t say it sucked… but it was definitely sucked-adjacent.
I had been aiming for a complex marriage of a flan’s sweetness with the smoky earthiness of a Yucatan mole. As one naturally would. Whatever I was going for, I didn’t get there.
In retrospect, I think it was the Yucatan mole bit that led me astray insofar as I have no idea whether that is actually even a thing. I literally just heard the words “Yucatan mole” in my head when I was deep in my flan fever dream. They had a vaguely Mayan, quetzally kind of ring to them - which felt right at the time. The Mayans used to throw a human sacrifice into a volcano to please the gods. I thought maybe the gods had been watching and had been like “LOL. Did you see that? That dude just threw himself in the volcano. Ya know what, ya gotta respect it. Let’s throw the guy a flan.”
I thought maybe I had received a celestial dispatch. As it turns out, I had not. I had just hallucinated some vague mythical flan concept pleasing to no one, Mayan or not. It is truly hard to produce a tepid, dull, blandness from rich chocolate. I somehow managed to pull it off.
The flan with a Grand Marnier reduction in lieu of traditional caramel was not terrible. It was actually pleasant. It was just flan for people who have no respect for flan. It was cruise ship flan for people who don’t get off the ship in port.
The third one, to be honest, was so forgettable I’ve literally forgotten what was different about it. Let’s just forget it altogether, shall we?
The last one was the traditional one: The Showdown in Abuellatown.
It looked good and plated well. It slid perfectly from the ramekin to reveal a perfrect-looking caramel. It had promise… and it was my last hope. I just hadn’t tasted it beforehand.
Dished it out with hope in my heart and terror in my veins… and then tried it at the same time as everyone else.
Y’all, I’m not going to lie, fuck…
I nailed it.
It was sublime.
The custard was just the right density to hold together on the plate while still having a soft, light mouthfeel. The caramel on top was rich in taste but not thick; its color faded from a deep brown on top to a golden honey in the places where its legs crept lazily down the sides.
That flan was truly Un Milagro de Navidad.
I had struck out four times but I would take no ‘L’ that Christmas, my friends. Feliz Navidad, Bedford Falls!
It was some good-ass flan. And my friend who had made the pernil thought so too.
And hers was the opinion I had cared about most.
I’ll tell you why… and then I’ll tell you where I’ve been going with all of this. Sometimes, as it turns out, there actually is a method to my madness.
My friend’s opinion mattered because while we are opposites in how we inhabit the kitchen, we are cooks of a kind. There is no comparison in our skills. She is a great cook. But there is something we share. My friend’s cooking with all of its care and mine with all of its theatrical failure… they are both rooted in loving the people we’re with, caring about them, and wanting to pour in time and effort because it is a chance to live within that love, feel it, make it physical, walk it, and then walk it in on a literal platter.
When she cooks, it is an act of love. The things she makes, the meals she chooses, they are dishes she first learned at apron strings. Her mother’s. Her grandmothers’. She cooks from memory and practice and from the heart. I, on the other hand, don’t cook much, and when I do it is often an adventure teetering on a debacle. That isn’t because I’m a terrible cook. It’s because if I’m cooking, there’s going to be someone else at the table. Someone I care about. As a result, I just never want to make a basic this or a common that. I want to make something reflective of how much I care about the company.
And all of this brings me around to why I’m telling you all of this… why I’ve written these three entries… where I’ve been going all this time…
Last week marked an anniversary for me. I had just reached it when I first started writing these three entries.
A year ago Wednesday, I started this Subtack.
A year ago last Thursday, I announced it.
I have been a writer for a year.
That might not sound like an epic milestone to anyone else but it is an anniversary with gravity for me.
When I first abruptly jumped into this thing, I felt like I had opened a restaurant before learning to cook. I felt like I had thrown open the doors to the public while knowing nothing about how to make meals and get them to tables. I used that exact metaphor and then repeated it often. I only stopped doing so recently.
There was a reason I stopped…
A couple of months ago, I received a comment which read to me as unduly cutting and harsh. It showed up in my notifications here on Substack. It was an unexpected criticism somewhat out of the blue. It was ostensibly in response to one post but was phrased as if categorical about me and my writing in general. It got under my skin and then stayed there for a long time. Days. Weeks. I’m not sure it’s fully out from subdermal even now and it has been over two months.
The comment itself wasn’t even all that harsh. Not by social media standards anyway. Nonetheless, it rankled the fuck out of me.
The gist of it was that I am a messy cook with a messy kitchen who makes messy meals and then serves them up to patrons who I then burden with having to fix my hapless cooking for me. ‘Burden’. I not only suck at serving patrons; I leave them worse for the visit. I impose on them to help little ol’ me – a boy lost in the kitchen.
Ooooooh, boy. Where to even start. There was so much I didn’t like about the comment, I literally wrote seven different drafts totaling over 20,000 words in reply. Each took a different tack. There was the one about the agonizing privilege it takes people to self-appoint as unsolicited critics. There was the one about how people blaming me for their unhappiness prompts a hearty “fuck you” from someone who grew up with a lot of that. Several of them were publishable. None satisfied me. So, I buried them all.
I freaking worked and worked at a response to the criticism that would satisfy me and the real reason wasn’t because I gave a shit about posting a rebuttal but because I was trying to figure out why the comment had bothered me so fucking much.
When something ‘gets to us,’ we tend to think “oh, that must have struck a chord…” as if there must always have been some truth to it, some preexisting wound, some vulnerability at the place where the arrow pierced. I was working through an attempt to find the chord.
As it turns out, there wasn’t one. The notes made me bristle mightily because they were so wholly discordant with something true of me which I had yet to really accept.
The criticism itself read like a restaurant review from a diner who considered themselves a gourmand. It came across as “You are supposed to be bringing perfect plates to the table. That is your job. Your kitchen messes are your problem. Tsk-tsk… your customers deserve so much better than… this… you… this place.”
Who the fuck said I was running a restaurant? Who the fuck said I was a chef cooking for customers?
Well, I did. That was me. I said that.
I positioned this entire little adventure from the outset as me having “opened a restaurant and now trying to learn how to cook.”
It felt apt at the time… and maybe it was back then.
It isn’t now.
I’m not “hoping to become a cook.” I’m a cook.
I’m not “learning to cook.” I’m cooking.
I’m also not “trying to run a restaurant.” I don’t want a restaurant.
I want one table. One big enough to accommodate guests. An unfancy surface with chairs pulled from all over the house set with simple napkins and glasses that don’t match.
I cook for people I care about. I make flans – or try, at least - for people I feel lucky to have at the table.
I don’t aspire to fine dining with its emphasis on mechanical repetition. I don’t aspire to run a professional kitchen – or to give you the impression that there is one. I don’t aspire to be a different person. I aspire to share this one. The one who overreaches on Christmas oatmeals and doomed tribute flans. The one who makes few perfect meals but drops lots of dishes. And finally, the one who burns many an attempt at caramel and feels not an ounce of insecurity about that be seen or known.
I am a messy cook. I run a messy kitchen. I am often a messy person.
I will likely always be.
The criticism implied that those things are wrong. I am supposed to serve diners to their delight. I am a failure if I fail to do so or show flaw, weakness, or struggle to do so. Yeah, fuck that.
I could not possibly be more averse to writing as if people were sitting in some distant dining room waiting for a flawless meal. I want them to be milling about the place and sometimes underfoot while I tend to the stove. I want them sitting with me when it is time to eat. I want people at my table not at a table of mine.
This Substack, it is that table.
It sits just outside my kitchen separated by only a low wall. Sometimes, we meet when dinner is already made. Other times, I invite you into the kitchen while I’m cooking. I show you the messes without shame or embarrassment because real relationships, truthful ones, the kind that make a single pork dish worth a week’s work and memorable for years after, they are treasures specifically because they are past the need for perfection. They are communities of love.
This Substack is my table… but this thing of ours, these dinners we have together… those are ours.
I am not a restauranteur. I’m someone who has friends over to the house.
This past year, I served up some things I was proud of and some I wasn’t. I pulled out a couple miracle flans and dropped many, many others. The meals have been hit or miss. The gatherings though, I’ve loved them all.
I’ve loved having all of you at my table.
I’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have you join me this past year.
I’m so incredibly thankful for your support along the way. It is what has made this possible.
I am not bashing the person who was critically of me or rejecting their criticism. There is nothing wrong with someone wanting a nice restaurant dinner. I’m just not the guy for that. If that is what someone is hoping for, I will only disappoint them.
On the other hand, if someone likes eating over at a friend’s place where all they have to bring is an interest in the company, I know just the place. It just celebrated its one-year anniversary…
I’m really looking forward to Year 2, my friends. I’m so glad you’re here. It’ll be fun.
Maybe I’ll make flan.
Hoarse Whisperings is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.