I have always disliked cooking, and having to prepare an evening meal is, for me, a dour prospect. I tried to mend my ways when I adopted my son, Alyosha, from Russia seven years ago, regarding wholesome, tasty meals as something he was absolutely entitled to.
Of course, Alyosha had a demanding palate, and more often than not his expectations were dashed when I put supper on the table.
In fact, more than once I watched him slap his forehead in exasperation before pulling himself together over his macaroni and cheese and conceding, "All right, I'll eat it."
This changed once Pascuala entered our life.
It was like this. Many years ago, I became friends with a young Bolivian student. During one of our conversations he told me a great deal about his home in La Paz, about his parents, his friends, and last but not least, about a woman he had known all his life.
"Ah, Pascuala," sighed Alvaro reflectively as he pulled a photo from his wallet and handed it to me. I beheld a rotund, dark-skinned older woman. She wore a brightly colored serape, her black hair was braided back, and her radiant smile elevated her full cheeks, reducing her dancing eyes to almond slivers.
"She's lovely," I said. "Is she a relative?"
"Pascuala is everything," said Alvaro, spreading his hands wide, as if Pascuala were a measurable quantity. "She is the most wonderful cook in the world. My father weeps when he eats her black beans and rice. Ah, Pascuala!"
Alvaro continued to relate how, when he was living at home, Pascuala would rise at dawn and begin to cook, filling the house with sweet aromas emanating from ingredients she had hand-picked at the market.
"While I was in school," said Alvaro, "I knew that she was home cooking, and singing, and waiting for me. And when I ran through the door at the end of the day, there was always a delicious meal steaming on the table. I would sit and eat, and Pascuala would stand over me, wringing her hands with joy."
It wasn't until Alyosha had been living with me for three years that I recalled this story, which had captivated me and reminded me how much I disliked cooking. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I considered, to have a cook? To know that, while I am at work, someone is home whose heart's delight is the preparation of delicious, nutritious, creative meals for me and my son?
I couldn't afford to hire a cook. However, the lack of cash is often the mother of invention. And so it came to me: Perhaps I couldn't have someone to cook for us, but there existed something that could serve as economical ersatz.
A day later, after an outlay of only $30, she was sitting squat on the countertop, her two little handles jutting out like arms akimbo, ready to take orders and go to work. I spent much of the next hour flipping through the tiny cookbook that accompanied the product.
The next morning, I settled on chicken in mushroom gravy, rising at dawn to stoke the crockpot with the necessary ingredients. Then I stirred once, covered it, and turned it to "low" before leaving for work. The slow-cooking process would take eight to nine hours, ready to eat by 5 p.m. Perfect.
Alyosha came through the door late that afternoon, after school and soccer practice. "What's for supper?" he asked, dropping his gym bag onto the floor.
"I didn't cook," I told him.
His mouth fell open, as if I had told him I had volunteered for the first mission to Mars. He threw his hands out and looked around, begging for a witness to the sorry situation. "Then who's going to cook?" he pleaded.
I made calming gestures with both hands, and then uttered the one word that had so thoroughly lifted a daily burden from my shoulders. "Pascuala."
Alyosha threw me another Mars-mission look. "Who?"
I pointed triumphantly to the crockpot. "Pascuala."
My son went over and removed the lid, releasing a wisp of steam, which he inhaled deeply. "Hey," he said, "this smells good."
The only thing I had to do was prepare a salad. Other than that, we ate heartily of Pascuala's handiwork. And, four years later, we continue to do so, day after day, for Pascuala still serves us, her repertoire of culinary delights having grown to the point that we seldom eat the same thing twice in a two-week period.
Even while each of us is in his school, working apace, we are mindful that at home Pascuala is toiling in her patient, measured way, never complaining, never growing tired. She has become like a member of the family; in a word - indispensable.
Now, if only I could teach her to sing.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society