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Food + Cooking

Salt, Lime, and Chile

Salt, lime, and chile can turn anything into a Mexican snack and a reminder of people I’ve known.

Lately I’ve been reading Molly “Orangette” Wizenberg’s book and thinking about how certain recipes can remind you of people. I don’t have many of those, actually, because for all the time we spent around food in my family, we never shared much cooking.

So I’ve been a little jealous. But when I wondered how to deal with a cucumber yesterday and reached instinctively for lime and chile pepper, I thought of my old friends Maria and Mateo.

We worked together, back when I was still in college—a cater-waiter job for students to make money between classes. Maria worked a heavier schedule than most, and so we spent many hours folding napkins together in our polyester cummerbunds, getting blue lint on our stiff pleated shirts and waiting to serve turkey sandwiches to student group meetings. She was only a few years older than the rest of us but was possessed of a nurturing maturity, taking her time to finish her degree, raising a son in the process. She was the kind of person who shared and who made you feel at ease, and so our napkin folding was interspersed with talk of my post-college anxiety and her young son, whom she clearly loved but more importantly respected.

One day she brought in Mateo, a man she’d been seeing, who was looking to trade in his job at a Mexican restaurant that I loved.

“Oh, their food is so good,” I said.

“But the people are not,” he replied. “They think that because I’m Mexican too, they can treat me like garbage.” I nodded, wondering if this meant that I had to stop eating there. He could see my worry, I think. “I’m going to miss their beans, but you should enjoy them,” he said and smiled. I liked him.

We all did. One day Jill was cooking her way through another workmanlike shift when Mateo came in to tell her that her tortilla soup tasted so much like home he almost cried. I worked a double, watching her smile for the rest of the day.

Another time he and I were waiting for a party to wind down. He walked into the kitchen, returning with a bowl of potato chips, chile pepper, and a lime. He squeezed, shook, tossed, and offered me some. “Una botana,” he said. I was only beginning my culinary Mexiphilia, so I didn’t know that word yet. “In Mexico,” he said, “You can do this to anything and it becomes a snack. Delicious.” To demonstrate, he left again and returned with a cucumber and a pineapple. We sliced them into bowls and tossed them, too, with salt, lime, and chile, sharpening and sparking their flavors. Somehow the cucumber tasted fresher, the pineapple sweeter. We shared botanas until the time came to wheel out the slop buckets and glass racks and get back to work.

One night Maria and Mateo invited us to go salsa dancing. A bunch of us showed up at her house in time to see her son kiss her on her cheek, telling her to have a good time, telling her that she deserved an evening out. We went to a club in a part of town off the student grid, spending the night clumsily, excitedly shaking our hips with a Mexican community we didn’t even know existed. We got tired and sat. Sheri looked at Maria and Mateo, still on the dance floor. “They’re so sexy,” she said, “and happy.”

I moved away not long after that. We tried to keep in touch for a while, but slipped. Over time, I heard from friends that Maria and Mateo broke up. I heard that he wasn’t good to her. I heard he wasn’t good to her son, who I’m sure by now is in college himself. I don’t really know what happened, but I am glad for the chance to have known them when I did. And I’m glad for the chance to recall them the way I do.