cartoon of a girl presenting a bowl of food to a woman at her door

Family Stew

For the women in my life, food-filled storage containers are like Tarot cards.

“Good. She’s cooking again,” my mother says, looking at the container sent by my grandmother. It is robust, filled with stewed chicken and a moro of rice and black beans.

My grandmother is 82. She used to cook quite a bit, until she began to sit down more. This has us all worried.

In Washington Heights, our neighborhood in New York, my grandmother is the nexus of a Dominican clan whose members live within walking distance of one another. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and neighbors all stop by her apartment to gather at her kitchen table. The stove is always on, coffee always percolating. There is always extra food, which she packs in storage containers to distribute to the sick neighbor, the recent widow, or the man making do with instant ramen after being dumped by his wife. We can’t imagine the day my grandmother and her kitchen will no longer be around to hold us together.

That she is cooking again is a relief. The container she sends is an affirmation that she is feeling better, that she is taking her medications. In other words, her arthritis is under control. Her feeling better also means that soon she will call my mother to book her a ticket to the Dominican Republic, which means she no longer feels the need to be near her primary doctor.

In my family, a food-filled storage container rivals a tarot-card reading. Through food exchange, the women in my family can divine which sister-in-law is letting things go around the house, which brother is not eating well, which cousin is stingy or generous. Our clan keeps its deck of storage containers organized by brand, by lid color, by wear and tear. This inventory helps us keep tabs on who is giving more than taking, or who is preoccupied about something and off their cooking game—the fish too salty or the plantains too oily.

The storage containers reveal more than just appetite. We use them as a key into each other’s lives. She mustn’t be feeling well, said my aunt after receiving a container with unsalted rice. She’s about to ask for a big favor, my grandmother predicted when a daughter-in-law brought by an elaborate dish composed of grated root vegetables and expensive ingredients.

Recipients are expected to wash the container and return to sender, filled. It is a sin to return it empty, a crime if unwashed. The penalty is judgment or worry:

“If that woman won’t wash a dish, just imagine what else she neglects.”

“She’s letting herself go.”

“She must be overworked.”

As a teenager, it was my duty to deliver meals made by my mother, aunt, and grandmother. Of all my cousins, I was the favored delivery person because I never refused watered-down Sunny Delight when it was offered. I translated letters from schools, from credit card companies, from the government.

I helped my younger cousins with homework. I knew all the gossip regarding the comings and goings of one storage container or another, proof that So-and-So visited Fulanita but had the audacity not to stop by and see us.

When in a hurry, I would hand over the container at the door like a bike messenger, hoping not to be sucked into anyone’s apartment. Entering often meant losing an entire day. After returning from a delivery or pickup, I was rewarded with lollipops, nail polish, chocolates, dollar bills. I also suffered follow-up questions:

“Were they alone?”

“Did she dye her hair?”

“Was your uncle already drinking?”

More and more, my grandmother prefers to be in the Dominican Republic and not in New York City, where she has to do everything herself—the mopping, the washing, the cooking, the ironing. On the island, she can afford to hire help. She can nap in the middle of the day. She’s not stuck inside a tiny apartment, cut off from the world. Before Washington Heights became gentrified, there was a time when sitting outside on the stoop was common; opening the fire hydrants and setting up a grill on the sidewalk incentivized people to gather outdoors; and boom boxes blasted merengue and bachata. These days, the neighborhood feels like a ghost town. In the D.R., my grandmother is still free to sit outside and play her radio at whatever volume she wants.

She doesn’t travel alone, and when asked to travel with her, I always say yes. We used to fly back and forth two or three times a year. This happens less often now that I’m a mother and teach full time, but I still go when I can.

Before our most recent trip, my mother asked me to look for her storage containers at my grandmother’s house in the D.R. (It’s common practice to enter each other’s kitchens and retrieve lost wares.) My mother had been fixated on her lost containers: They’re the good kind, BPA-free, with thick plastic and lids that don’t warp in the microwave. (She had paid top dollar for them after reading an article about BPA causing cancer.)

And of course, once we arrived, I did find the missing containers. Having made their way to my grandmother’s apartment in Washington Heights, they were inadvertently boxed and shipped to the D.R.—an entire cabinet full of plastic, stacked and piled, in all sizes and shapes. She needed them there, too. No one stopped by her house without leaving with food from her kitchen, but neither did anyone visit empty-handed, bringing sacks of oranges, piles of cherries, a decent avocado, bars of dulce de leche.

Her house in the D.R. is a living museum. Installed in the living room are objects from various decades, including old-school television sets and record players, many found on the streets of New York, cast away but still useful in her mind.

“The salt water, the humidity, destroys everything. You can never have enough stuff,” she says.

The house is tucked between an evangelical church and a building under never-ending construction. Bougainvillea and mango trees crowd her garden. Her property is like a birdcage, padlocked and surrounded by iron fences. She carries around a heavy set of keys whose jangling announces when she is nearby.

“These are Mami’s,” I tell my grandmother when I hold up the set of Rubbermaid containers.

She studies their mint condition—no dents or marks—admiring the way the lids snap perfectly open and closed. I can tell by her expression that she deems my mother to be of equally good quality. A hell of a woman, her daughter. The best. The very best.

“I’m taking them with me to New York,” I say, waiting for a fight.

“Not until we find something delicious to fill them with,” says my grandmother. “What kind of woman returns an empty container?”

Angie Cruz is the author of Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee. She teaches creative writing at University of Pittsburgh and is the editor of Aster(ix) Journal.

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham

Originally Published August 2016