We were sitting at the big kitchen table. All the doors to the balcony were open. It was the height of summer, hot and dry in my favourite month: July. Tomatoes, paprikas and onions were waiting patiently in the basket to be part of a symbolic dish. Making lecso (letch-oh) is almost compulsory in the summer at home. The vegetables are truly sun kissed; booming with colour and flavour. Lecso is similar to ratatouille minus aubergines and courgettes. The neighbours were chatting and arguing about the day’s dinner. Some were making stuffed paprika with tomato sauce, some lecso; others didn’t keep the rule of summer and they were making anything they could think of.
Tanned and proud and wearing shorts, Dad was standing at the stove, testing small spoonfuls of the thick mixture from time to time. "The paprika must become completely mushy," he was stirring and tasting with the expression of an artist who had just finished a painting close to his heart. Although he performed life saving operations every day, lecso was something he would not joke about. It had to be perfect. Before Mum got ill, she would make it. When she became too weak to cook, Dad took over commanding the kitchen and he produced delicious meals. He always teased her, saying he was a better cook than she was, and they had a pleasant row about it.
"The secret is time; you have to give it enough time." She would sneer and turn away. It tortured her to give up her territory. She liked to complain about being a kitchen slave. In reality, she was a perfectionist, and she created masterpieces.
"I would have preferred something cold," Mum was fanning herself with a letter. He was hurt but he went on stirring. The bread, a large white loaf was already sliced, glasses and napkins placed on the table. He had bought the wine from a local winemaker. I didn’t like the wine and I didn’t like lecso; it was too heavy for me. Still, I ate too much every time he made it. He wanted us to feel stuffed – then he felt reassured it was good. Everyone had different recipes and they all swore by them: lecso with eggs or sausages and no rice, or there must be rice and you add garlic … or not. His version had rice and sausages. Both my parents agreed only renegades put eggs in lecso – Dad wouldn’t hear of such sacrilege.
The evening slowly settled, and the flavours of others’ dinners drifted by on the wind. Our neighbours sat at their kitchen tables enjoying the breeze just like we did. Dad would shout over to one of them asking what they were making and they would exchange ideas about market prices, recipes and vendors. When we sat down to eat, he was exhausted. A large, red-bellied watermelon was cooling in the fridge. Later he would cut it in half and tell us to listen to the special harsh sound the knife was making, which meant the melon was ripe and it would be honey sweet. He poured wine for all of us, and I knew he was hurting badly. Not because of the lecso. He could not accept that the woman he had shared his life with for 50 years was slowly losing her strength. The joie de vivre was gone. It was replaced by frailty and a narrowing world. He pretended not to notice anything. His solution for coping was denial.
I would have liked to talk to him about what was coming no one knew when. He refused all my attempts. Instead, he would make facetious jokes. I was frustrated and angry. After some time, I just gave up. I couldn’t imagine how he would be able to cope with the loss once she would be gone. The lingering scent of the vegetables filled the kitchen.
That evening I ate too much again, nervously and hopelessly. I knew how I would feel afterward, but at least I would forget, even if temporarily, that we were all rushing toward something we would have given anything to avoid.
I have just cooked lecso. In another kitchen, in another country, Mum and Dad are no more. I would have liked to ask them about the right proportion of paprika to tomato. How long should it simmer? At which point should I add the rice? I have to rely on memory and intuition. I didn’t put in as much oil as they both did – we are more health conscious now. Maybe that’s why - maybe because I am looking for a taste that never even existed - my lecso will never be the same as the one I am remembering. While I was trying to create the same mushy substance I remembered, jokes, scents and the memory of heat surprised me with its sudden intensity: evenings of joy, worry and frustration; evenings of dinners never to return.
K.K.Bodis has published "The Floral Blouse and Other Stories" on Amazon Kindle and "A Frosty Tree by the River" (Fiction 365); she is currently working on a novel (working title: "Braid") which deals with the effects of childhood on adult life.