Home cooking is where the heart is in this month’s short story excerpt by Matt Suwak.
For forty-seven years Janine was privy to the reasons Albert had for why movies weren’t funny, and she rolled her eyes when he grumbled about why nobody made brown cars anymore, or when he voiced his staunch opinion on the dire state of modern fashion.
It could have been disastrous to the wrong pairing of people, but it fit Albert and Janine like a velvet glove.
Albert liked to listen to Neil Young on vinyl recorded between ’71 and ’77, to drink wine from the La Rioja region of Spain, and to read books by John Steinbeck and then poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
He only wore flannel over-shirts because Tennessee-bred men like himself brandished them with enviable style, and Albert refused to drive foreign-made cars for reasons of ethics and stubbornness, except for Honda because Soichiro Honda had a god-damn vision of excellence and that bastard made it happen.
Janine loved Albert’s sensibilities and his inner bullshit-detector (those are her words, not mine). Janine made up her own mind about what was good and worthwhile, but she took Albert’s words seriously. He was the person that could grade sunsets and didn’t cry at the end of The Fox and the Hound.
And even though they never really saw it, their entire relationship was founded on Albert’s impeccable tastes for food.
Forty-seven-and-one-half years ago, Albert walked into the diner Janine worked at.
It was a Thursday night, a few days after Valentine’s Day.
He sat at the counter and spent fifteen minutes reading the menu. Albert drank three cups of coffee while perusing the options. Typical options for any diner flooded the list, but then Albert saw something unusual. A meal option he’d never considered before.
Albert nodded his head and folded the menu, pushed it forward on the counter. Janine walked over and smiled her best waitress-smile. Albert looked up and smirked, struck by the filtered sunlight shining through her auburn hair, and Janine’s fake smile melted into a genuine one. Albert measured the words in his mouth and weighed the diction, and Janine tilted her head expectantly towards him.
“Jambalaya”, he said.
“Jambalaya,” she said.
They held each other’s gaze, and she walked to the kitchen, and Albert waited.
Janine returned with the food. Albert ate it, and he shook his head slowly. Left to right, chewing slowly. He savored the cumin balanced with the diced jalapeno, appreciated the shrimp and the savory chicken mid-chew.
Albert finished the last bite, and he waited for Janine to come ’round again, and when she did he said to her, “It’s just right.”
Janine nodded and said, “You’re right, it is just right.” It was her favorite meal at the restaurant too.
Albert paid his bill and Janine put it in the register and wondered when she’d see Albert again.
They didn’t wait long. It was the following Thursday when Janine saw Albert again.
Albert visited every Thursday for six months and as time went by, Janine learned how to make the jambalaya. It took months to learn how to make it, and what specific ingredients were used in the recipe, but when she figured it out, she was proud to tell Albert that she was the one who made the jambalaya he loved so much.
And they got married not long after.
Don’t get me wrong. Jambalaya is the glue for their relationship, but Albert and Janine fell in love for many reasons.
But you can bet your ass that every Thursday for forty-seven years, Janine made jambalaya at their home, and Albert ate it, and he shook his head from side to side and said, “Delicious.”
Albert loved the jambalaya and Janine loved that Albert loved it.
Even though Janine felt absolute affection for Albert, she didn’t understand why he cared so much about eating jambalaya every Thursday night for forty-seven years. Albert loved what he loved. He only ate McIntosh apples for as long as they’d known each other. Never red delicious or Fuji or pink lady, only McIntosh.
Janine happened to make the one meal that he loved more than anything else. There were times when she tried to change up the recipe.
Added habanero pepper instead of jalapeno. Water chestnut instead of celery. Brown instead of white rice.
But Albert always tasted it and he always knew something was off, and after a few bites he could pick it out.
“You changed the pepper.”
“You took out the celery.”
“You changed the rice.”
Janine did her best to figure out a substitute that Albert would enjoy, but eventually settled on making the same meal every Thursday night for forty-seven years. It became ritual.
It was May, on a Thursday night. They were eating their dinner together in their tiny kitchen, and the late-afternoon sun was still shining. Janine was looking through the windows wistfully towards the bird feeders. She tilted her head and smiled softly, asked Albert why he loved the jambalaya.
With jalapeno and not habanero. Celery and not water chestnut. White not brown.
He lifted a spoonful to his mouth and tasted it.
He shook his head left to right, savored the cumin balanced with the diced jalapeno, appreciated the shrimp and the savory chicken mid-chew.
And with every bite, every single taste from first to last chew, he was transported back to a diner forty-seven years ago, when he was a young man who decided to try the jambalaya.
Fifty-two times a year for forty-seven years, Albert fell in love with Janine all over again, from savory start to fantastic finish.
“Because it’s just right,” he said.
“You’re right, is it just right.”