This is Doña Hilaria, the woman responsible for acclimating me to habaneros.
When she first started making our lunch, she gave us salsa in a red squeezey container. It had a bit of kick.
She watched us, hands on her hips, amused at my coworkers’ various approaches to spice. The Kenyan teacher poured it on, the Australian and the other American were daring but not completely committed. I used the weeniest drop.
But over time I started to add more, and one day we either graduated or she decided we needed to be pushed off the deep end. A dark, heavy bowl of green, mashed habaneros appeared in place of the squeezey container.
I avoided these convinced I would light my face on fire. But I missed the kick. So I started again, dribbling just the tiniest bit of juice.
Now there is nothing I won’t put habaneros on. And I look forward to lunch from the moment I wake up.
Doña Hilaria owns the convenience store down the street from my school. To get to Doña Hilaria’s lunch table, we go through her shop, and out the back to her kitchen (which in addition to a stove and a sink has a bed, two hammocks, a television that’s always on, and pictures of Jesus, Mary and the Pope) and finally to a space that’s like an open air garage, concrete-and-screen walls covered with a thatched palapa roof.
There, a large a wood table is set with a giant water jug, a cardboard container of media crema (light cream for drizzling) and the small dark bowl of habaneros.
We take our seats and then Doña Hilaria emerges with plastic plates covered with other plastic plates that she removes to reveal the meal of the day. It can be sopes, crispy corn tarts filled with meat, beans, onion, avocado, cilantro and tomato; pork cutlets served with stewed squash flowers ; mushroom empanadas which somehow managed to be light though they’re fried; or flautas—tortillas rolled in thin tubes and filled with meat, crisped and covered with queso blanco.
My absolute favorite is Doña Hilaria’s mole—fall-off-the-bone chicken in a thick brown sauce flavored with chocolate and cinnamon. It makes me salivate just to think about it and may prevent me from ever becoming a vegetarian.
Here are pictures of the sopes and the mole.
Doña Hilaria herself is about five feet tall, solid, and completely unruffle-able. She moves efficiently but never quickly, simultaneously keeping her store immaculate, preparing lunch, and managing her 5- and 6-year-old grandchildren, Brian and Lupita.
Here is a picture of Lupita.
While we eat Brian and Lupita run around the table hugging each of us in turn. Sometimes Brian will tire of us and go in the yard to shoot suction cup arrows or hack at a tree with a machete. Recently he and Lupita strung a hammock rope through a ladder, attached the end to a toy car (the kind you sit in), and took turns hoisting the car into the air. This went on until Doña Hilara came out and calmly relocated the operation to a low-hanging roof beam.
In addition to Brian and Lupita, we also have a television for entertainment. We practice our Spanish comprehension by watching the telenovela Corazon Valiente.
Corazon Valiente is about two female bodyguards who never seem to be guarding anyone. For us it is a gallery of plastic surgery options—chiseled cheek bones, smooth foreheads and blown-up lips. We refer to our favorite character as Lady Steve, since she has been transformed through modern medicine to look almost exactly like Steven Tyler.
Here is a picture of my coworkers, Lindsay and Alex, being mesmerized by Lady Steve while consuming sopes. If you look closely you can see the habanero bowl on the table, in front of Alex’s plate.
Sometimes, Doña Hilaria will join us for a few minutes while we watch television. If we ask, she’ll tell us how she made the food. She gets a little dreamy when she does it, ticking off the ingredients on her fingers, explaining how she’s treated the masa dough to make each dish. It is clear that her cooking is her pride.
When we’re done with lunch, we thank Doña Hilaria, hug Brian and Lupita, then browse the shop to see if there’s anything else we need. Often I will consider one of the seven sizes of Coke (including three can sizes), the many flavors of peanuts or the sweet-and-sour candy made of tamarind and chamoy.
On really hot days I motivate myself to go back to work with a saborina, a homemade popsicle made with fruit and milk in a plastic bag. Then I return to my desk, bite off a corner of the bag, and suck out the ice, cleansing the last of the habanero until the next day.