Dear Street Vendor
I am not one to overindulge in deep-fried foods, but I found your unique brand of Colombian empanadas difficult to resist. I have no doubt that the placement of your empanada cart was strategic: A shady spot outside a popular grocery store, tempting shoppers on their way home to prepare a lunch from ingredients recently purchased. Who can resist the smell of dough cooking in oil? A curious human instinct, perhaps. A throwback to a time when oil and fat, while being dangerously scarce, were essential for human survival.
Your pastry, striking exactly the right balance between soft and crispy, envelopes a generous quantity of perfectly seasoned meat. What’s more, the little golden pocket, at the very reasonable price of one luka, makes for a perfect snack on a long walk home.
You clearly are a master of your craft: Oil boiling in the wok, empanadas cooling on the rack, aged hands nimbly rolling an empanada into wax paper, a square of paper towel snatched up and offered as a napkin. With a motherly “Gracias, cariño,” my 1000-peso bill is somehow switched with the empanada without a break in movement.
I suspect you won’t remember me. You have no reason to. I grant that mine is not the most memorable of faces, and when our paths crossed my clothes were drab and un-noteworthy: Plain shirt, black pants, an extended hand, unremarkable save for the single monetary bill within its clutch. I was just one extra soul in a long line of eager customers, all salivating and ready to order (a promising sign of a worthwhile purchase). For my part, I only thought of you again many hours later, with my knees on the floor of my bathroom and my stomach squeezed into an excruciating spasm, as if struck dead-on with an electrified cattle prod.
Certainly, there is no nobility in bowing to a porcelain throne. It was an inconvenient place in which I found myself after sampling your winsome wares. The embarrassment was exacerbated all the more by the party that my roommate was throwing just outside the door.
“I can cancel, if you need to rest?” she had said before the guests arrived.
“No, no,” I pressed, between intestinal paroxysms. “Don’t let me interrupt your night.”
I really didn’t want to spoil her evening, but certain interruptions could not be avoided: The guttural gurgling coming from the bathroom, my gaunt, pathetic figure slouching across the hallway in full site of the guests, my skin slick with perspiration. It progressed this way all night – back and forth between bathroom and bedroom. There was always a brief lull in conversation as party-goers paused to watch the spectacle, and always an abashed nod from me, as if to say Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.
At intervals that night, your empanada flashed across my vision. It had been a pleasure to eat. But as I lay on my bed, believing myself to be barely moments away from death, trying to trick myself into sleeping away the delirious torment, I wanted nothing to do with that repulsive morsel. I tried to cast it from my mind, but it clung to my awareness. The sight, the taste, the sensation in my mouth – these things would not leave me. From the living room, sounds of Spanish music and rowdy conversation dragged me from slumber and pushed me to the edge of madness.
I lost count of the times I roused that night. It was always the same process: Slamming awake, pulling myself to my door, stomach squeezing, crossing the hallway, the sudden hush and then upswing of noise as party-goers witnessed my shame, the kneeling down, the lurch of the stomach, and then agony.
Even in my more lucid hours I did not think ill of you. Despite the exhaustion in my empty gut and the intense pain in my knees from spending long minutes kneeling on my bathroom tiles, I rationalised that you had simply made one bad batch. It was not your fault. The popularity of your cart suggested that complete gastrointestinal shutdown was not a common side effect of your business. So please do not take offense at this letter. I merely want you to understand my position. You see, Dear Vendor, the smell of oil still beckons, and the thought of your deep-fried delicacy still causes me to salivate. Since that terrible night I have walked past your cart many times, but I have been unable to bring myself to purchase another one of your deeply memorable Colombian empanadas. Unfortunately, although the nightmare is long over, the fear of death remains.
Empa Nada Mas