10 of those long ass chile peppers. What’re they called? Hatch? Poblano? You’re not sure. Whatever. Just look for the right kind.
Kind of a lot of eggs, all whipped up.
A few unwound rods of Oaxaca cheese.
2 teaspoons baking powder.
2 cups flour. Actually, don’t bother measuring. The audience won’t know how to taste for the right textures and flavors anyway. It only matters to them that it’s an authentic recipe. The only recipe that your abuela—your last known living relative and the only brown person responsible for teaching you culture—gave you.
Once, she kept a cigar box filled with recipes. When she turned sixty, she burned them all in the rusty, charcoal grill behind her house. She refused to pass them down to you. Even though they could have taught you way more culture than you received from the Disney Channel, Lunchables, and California Catholic school.
This recipe demands Girlfriend, who pays rent by hosting dinner parties and has grassy hazel eyes.
You met Girlfriend at Cooper Union, where your medium was mosaic and her medium was feasting as performance art. She still charges $375 per seat. This is how she collects the rich white people to whom you are both beholden. They support your Sunday morning pink-box-of-croissants habit. They pay your rent during the months you don’t sell mosaics.
Girlfriend designs each dinner party around a theme. This one is “Frida” which means that your Mexico-City-derived family history must be folded into the celebration. Because authenticity, as they call it, is rare among these people.
You understand it’s been rare in your own life.
Remember you’re outta flour. Stomp down to the bodega and fetch some. While in line behind teens buying pixie sticks for lunch, stew on how much you hate sharing your authenticity with people who didn’t claw that recipe from their abuela’s brittle hands. People who didn’t spend a childhood begging an old woman to reveal anything about where you came from. You don’t know how your abuela got custody. You don’t know what happened to your dad. You don’t know how your abuela arrived in California, why she raised you there, and why she didn’t force your mom to come with.
Press your palm to your acne-prone forehead. Pay for the sack of flour with a five dollar bill.
Stomp upstairs. Mix the dry ingredients together. Take a break. Watch Girlfriend dangle stuffed monkeys around the dining room. Brush your flour-covered thumb over the plane of her peach-fuzzy neck. She’s wearing cuffed, tweed pants. She looks somewhat like a newsboy. You want nothing more than to brew some coffee, smoke a bowl, and wedge into your floor bed to discuss shared memories of the nineties; learning about sex from Friends reruns, catching sugar highs on Go-GURT, hiding from the Walnut Creek heat with daytime Nickelodeon. All of those greatest hits, that shared space called culture.
Fuck, remember the cheese. Clip it into strips and shove it in the peppers. Oh shit, but you need to de-seed them first. Oh shit, you forgot to blister the pepper skin. Deseed peppers. Place them on lit stove burners. Poke them, gingerly, with tongs. Activate fire alarm. Comfort Girlfriend, eyes pink with stress, when she says, “Maya, this wouldn’t be the first time that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, but rent literally depends on today.”
Remind her that whatever you grew up eating, that taste fuses onto your tongue in babyhood. You can never pry it off. You’ll be able to taste your way to success, even when you forget a few of the chile steps and have to start over.
Burn yourself on an open flame. Fuck.
Dip the chiles in the eggs, then dip them in the dry stuff. Shake off excess flour, cross fingers, and pray to Mary.
Heat a pan of corn oil until the surface begins to sputter shine. Place a couple of chiles in the pan. Watch them puff up into yellow-brown lumps of fat. Scream, “Success! Success!”
Crowd chiles onto a paper-towel-lined plate. Watch the sweat-stain-colored grease soak into the towels. Remember your abuela’s hands. They were a deep ochre, the color of clay. Covered in shimmering scars leftover from generation-old burns. Always busy mixing water into powdered milk, chopping up gummy ribbons of nopales, and mixing fat droplets of dark red Tapatío into blue box mac ’n cheese.
Soon, you will let Girlfriend draw a unibrow onto you. She’ll lay a hot pink flower crown on your head and wrap you in a nearly-neon serape. You will perch at the head of the table, silent as a stuffed monkey. Stiff as a mannequin and half mad that no one knows any Latina painters who aren’t Frida Kahlo. You’ll struggle to think of any female Mexican painters you know of besides Frida Kahlo. You’ll feel pity for yourself.
You’ll slice a soggy chile relleno, wondering how many calories one of these things has. Sip a tequila soda and consider the meal you’d cook if these people were interested in your authentic life. There would be pouches of Kool-Aid, a tub of refried beans ordered from a restaurant, and Lizzie McGuire posters instead of the stuffed monkeys.
One of the white people will moan, “This chile relleno doesn’t taste real. Is it defrosted?”
You’ll slam your tequila soda glass down hard. Like, what the actual fuck? You’ll remember that Frida Kahlo once said something about white women.
You’ll say, “All y’all’s faces look like blobs of raw dough.” And feel a surge of rightness that scratches an odd itch, the same itch that feels sated when you eat real Mexican food. It feels like a hug from your abuela, who hugged hard when she chose to hug at all.
Girlfriend will cover her face with her hands.
But none of that has happened yet. Right now, you’re still hungry.