The phone rang. “Can you get that?” Mom cried out. She had a line of people at the register.
Mom picked up the phone, “Julio’s, can you hold…?” She placed the phone on the counter before they had a chance to respond to the question-statement. “I have someone on the line, can you get that?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t,” I shouted back. I wasn’t trying to be a brat with Mom. Plates without legs got cold. Tables were dirty, they had to be bussed before the grackles arrived. Food was pushed out of the kitchen and dishes crashed back to the sink area in a synchronized manner. Empty hands meant faster feet, or it meant falling behind.
While dropping off a bin of dirty dishes back to the sink area, I noticed a reused tub of sour cream with salsa verde inside. It was creamy, unlike the verde we used for the enchiladas. The health department didn’t like for us to wash and repurpose food containers, but sometimes we did it anyway. The dishwasher managed to pull off a salsa verde before the shift began to roar, before the blenders became sloshy with tequila and ice and orange liquor. What she didn’t use in the salsa was left in the colander by the clean dishes.
“Did you see the tomatillos I used in la salsa?” She asked. I was unloading dishes from the bus bin, soon on my way to take out food before it became tepid. “They’re very beautiful tomatillos.” She went on and told me the type of tomatillos she used. I didn’t catch the name. After years of working together, I stopped keeping track of her concoctions.
Though not totally either. In a fleeting gap between tasks, I grabbed a tortilla chip from one of the baskets and timidly dipped it into the reused container. The salsa was thick and stuck to the chip. Only after you know for certain that the salsa was good do those dips turn to hearty dunks, and eventually, greedy scoops. The dishwasher ‘s salsa was agreeable. “Está muy buena la salsa,” I told her. “What did you put in it?”
“Serranos, cilantro…take a look in the colander. What I didn’t use is still in there,” she replied with tired patience. She was beyond busy. I looked in the colander and noticed the tomatillos she was talking about. They were a bit smaller, but with distinct purple hues, as if bruised from hard handling.
“These are the tomatillos you were talking about. What are they called again?”
“Son milperos, tomatillos milperos.”
I couldn’t believe what I heard, but considering the informalities of Mexican Spanish, maybe I really could. Mexican Spanish, at least the bit that I have learned, can be informal and inventive. For example, a tractor’s backhoe is called mano de chango — monkey’s hand. This inventiveness was utilized in our kitchen too. The small saucepan we used for nearly everything was called el mil usos — the thousand-uses. “Dónde está el mil usos.” – “Where is the thousand-uses?” – “Where is the small saucepan?” Considering the inherent nature of our banter, when the dishwasher told me that the tomatillos she used in the salsa were milperos, what I heard was mil pedos — a thousand farts.
I get it. Kitchen humor is notorious for drifting south. Which was fine with me. How can anyone expect cooks and dishwashers to show up to work on time, bust their tails every day, without allowing some room for play. Better yet, what if she wasn’t joshing with me, and in fact those really were tomatillos mil pedos — the thousand-farts tomatillos? Mexican gastronomy already had a reputation. Something about those beautiful purple hues, something about the smaller size. Maybe I should stick to shallow dips after all, no dunking or scooping for me.
I’ve known the dishwasher to have a sense of humor, but not too often did she stray in that direction. It was loud and busy, we had our masks on, certainly our communication was off. I called her name and got her attention.
“They’re tomatillos mil pedos?” I asked.
“Yes, milperos.” I finally heard her correctly.
“Milperos, from la milpa?”
“Yes, from la milpa. What did you think I said?”
“I thought you said mil pedos.” The dishwasher erupted in laughter.
“No. From la milpa.” She emphasized again. The cooks laughed once they caught a whiff of the joke, though not with the same gusto. There were too many tickets in the queue for anything in the kitchen to be humorous. Soft Rs and Ds have a way of sounding similar, especially at the end of a word.
The dishwasher and I were the only ones to sit and eat that evening. The others were either too tired or just wanted to clean up and leave. She brought a dozen eggs from her personal homestead. Dinner was simple: fried eggs, corn tortillas, and the salsa she made with those distinct tomatillos.
Not long ago, I remembered a cook and the other dishwasher, both from Guatemala, giggling and making references to la milpa. I wasn’t curious at first. But they went on and on, and eventually I had to ask what la milpa was. The dishwasher replied, “la milpa is where they harvest corn.” So much giggling over a boring corn field? I assumed another meaning for the word. Milpero could also be vernacular for homegrown, given the context of the dishwasher’s homestead eggs and of her do-it-yourself attitude. Tomatillos milperos – tomatillos grown in one’s own field or vegetable garden.
A brief visit with the browser: turns out that there was a tomatillo called the tomatillo milpero. Unlike its traditional cousin, milperos were known for their diminutive size, taste and beautiful purple markings. A worm hole of hyperlinks later, a milpero was the actual person who worked on la milpa. And la milpa actually refers to an ancient cultivation technique used by the Mesoamerican people to sustainably grow multiple crops on the same land, at the same time. This famous trio of corn, beans and squash was similarly known by the North America peoples as the three sisters.
I don’t imagine sisters to always work in such cooperation, but these sisters were particularly synergetic. The first sister, corn, provided the scaffolding for the second sister to grow on. Sister number two, beans, remineralized the soil with nitrogen, an essential component for the other two sisters. And the third sister, squash, overtook the base of the crop, preventing weeds from competing with the first two sisters. And if that wasn’t enough, it also turns out that the first two sisters, when eaten together, formed a complete protein. I’m not sure how, if, or when, but I assume somewhere in there the tomatillo sister fits in too, hence the tomatillo milpero.
Eventually I pulled myself away from the browser. Sometimes I struggled to see the point of these words and knowledge. Culture was nice to learn about, though what really tickled me was language. Often, learning a new language meant keeping a list of unfamiliar words, and actively looking up those words. In conversation, sometimes asking someone about a word felt natural, though other times, I just let them talk without questioning or understanding. However, stumbling upon new words serendipitously, by being available and playful and present, this type of learning was a joy. It was slower and just happened, not like homework, but instead a lesson learned by chance and exposure.
Fluency would be nice. Who knows if by chance, if I’ll ever get to where I want to be. Given enough time, through exposure I’ll get there, I reassured myself. Even if it meant learning Spanish one fart joke at a time.
Julio Lucero is a second generation Latino born and raise in Texas. His writing is bouncy and light hearted, yet authentic too. Most of his pieces are vignette style stories pulled from nearly two decades of working with his family in a Mexican / Tex-Mex eatery. Buen provecho.