The Ink Well Weekly Fiction Prompt #3: Beauty With a Twist

in The Ink Welllast year (edited)

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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Le Ragoût Des Couleurs (The Stew of the Colors)

To la familie Dubois, Covid-19 posed no exception to every other serious illness their family had faced since their African ancestors were enslaved in French Louisiana.

“People live longer if they eat better,” Jean-Luc Dubois said to his wife, Ébène-Cerise. “God is the healer, and He denies no one His best medicines.”

The patriarch and matriarch of the Dubois family did not know in scientific detail about how lack of essential nutrients and vitamins led to worse outcomes for people facing any kind of disease, but they had grown up in the bayous of Louisiana and had learned how to use food to defend themselves and their community from any and all health crises.

The Dubois family now lived in Quebec, Virginia, Texas, and Louisiana, and all of them got the order from Père Dubois.

Allons!

Let's go – they all knew what to do.

The process usually took two days, but on this occasion in 2020, it took a week: the Dubois family bought big freezers and quart-sized freezer bags in abundance first.

On the first day of the preparation in Virginia, Maman Dubois went to the farmer's market with her granddaughter Louisa for the morning's run of shopping.

Les gens sont colorés et ils ont besoin d'une nourriture colorée pour se sentir bien,” she said to her granddaughter.

Louisa sighed gently, for the moment seeming much older than her nine years of life.

“Remember, Grandma, I'm your English-speaking assistant,” she said. “Please try!”

Maman Dubois stopped walking in her attempt to form the sentences properly: “People are colorful, and they need to eat colorful food to be well.”

That opened new vistas to Louisa's mind … now, the golden sunshine of a deep blue spring day and the pink of plum and cherry blossoms mingled with the many, many colors of health in the markets … of green and white, in the long, slender roundness of each green onion, with the little root-feet, and their big sisters in a bunch of leeks, with their long, shining green leaves like locks of hair, their thick white trunks, and longer root-feet.

Then there was the rainbow of swiss chard … the deep green and curly leaves combined with stems pink like the cherry blossoms, red like the sunset, orange like oranges, yellow like lemons, and purple like the juice of blueberries that would be in the markets later in the spring.

Spinach … flat and round and common, and yet when fully grown, the pattern of veins reminded Louisa of the structure of trees in the winter when they had no leaves, of that simple but sturdy geometry in glowing green, as if the sunshine and the sky had blended their colors.

Then there were beets, the red of the beets flowing up the stalks into the leaves with an even more vivid geometry … as if a maple leaf had gotten longer and thinner and more fringed, and then sunset had run in ribs through the brightness of blended-green sunshine and sky.

Turnips were a more demure version of the same idea … the purple and white of the turnips flowed up more delicately into the oval-shaped and numerous leaves of the greens, only marked on the backside with a paler green on the front … they seemed to add coolness to all the warm, deep colors already in the basket, like the first cool morning in September that said that fall and its relief from the summer's heat were coming.

Celery too – tall and slender but between the green onions and leeks in stoutness, and more ribbed than both – struck Louisa the same way, but with a bit more spirit … the many fresh and frilly leaves at the top were like little fans, and they at that moment still sparkled with the water sprayed upon them.

Mama Dubois handled all these with great care as she put them into her basket, and then into the trunk of the car … all of them in their place made Louisa marvel at all the shades of green, and all the other colors that went with green every day that people rarely noticed. Of course, she had also selected many small but plump red strawberries and vivid orange tangerines, and they were in the back of the car, giving their sweet smell – but it was something to see different types of greens of like that.

Once at home, Maman Dubois and Louisa went about the task of cleaning all those fresh greens while Père Dubois took the car and went to the general store and the farmer's market. He came back with heavier things, bursting with color: green, red, and purple heads of cabbage, shining vividly in the morning light streaming gold through the kitchen, sacks of onions in white, yellow, purple, and red, and also smaller red shallots and white pearl onions. Also he brought garlic in white and red, carrots in their vivid orange, and jars of green, yellow, orange, and red peppers preserved in olive oil. He would have preferred fresh peppers, but it was spring, not summer.

“This jar is bell and sweet peppers, not hot,” he said to his granddaughter. “I have bought many of those. These three jars are slightly hotter peppers – not too hot, but you will know they are there with the spices tomorrow!”

For the day, the greens and cabbage were all cooked down with the celery, some of the yellow onions, and butter – one quarter of those would be moved into the skillet with okra, andouille, and some of the mild peppers, to be eaten by the Dubois family that day. The rest was left in the rich vegetable stock they had created as a base for the next day's work.

Early the next morning, Louisa smelled something she smelled her mother and grandparents making all the time: a roux. She remembered what that was made of and imagined her mother, her strong brown fingers shining with the shining, creamy yellow butter she used to brown the white flour until it was her own color … that was the base of many a dish served in French Louisiana. This was the fourth of the ingredients – after the sliced beets and turnips and carrots – to be added on the second day to the “Stew of the Colors” that the Dubois grandparents had taught their family to make – sort of a big vegetarian gumbo.

Louisa had one job, since she was still too young to handle the knives; her grandparents sat her between them and let her peel all the onions and garlic so they could get them ready for the stew.

To Louisa, this was like Christmas … the bright wrapping of the red, yellow, purple, and white onions peeled away every time to a brighter, shining onion underneath, its round shape feeling cool and good to Louisa's fingers. Her grandparents made short work of cutting them into piles of colorful onion rings … like half a rainbow piled up on a table cloth. The crying was kept at minimum because all of the onions had been refrigerated overnight, and Louisa took out one bag at a time to work on. Last of all, Louisa peeled the pearl onions – all the little globes of shining white – and put them in a big bowl.

After this, Louisa peeled all of the garlic. Each little head produced several cloves, like butter grown more interesting in color and feel and smell. Maman Dubois did not cut these, but just pressed them down against her cutting board with the flat of her knife like slightly cold and thus hard butter could be pressed. She did this while Père Dubois added the onions to all four stew pots on the stove … tall, thick, sturdy, and yet graceful cast iron pots out of which much good would be ladeled and served in the coming years.

Maman Dubois got up and put the garlic in the pots, and then invited Louisa to join her at the sink, where she had placed a colander over a huge, deep bowl.

“We are draining all the peppers in here,” she said, “but we will not waste a drop of the oil, which has much of the color and taste of the peppers left behind. We will put most of that back in the jar, but also add some at the finish of the stew.”

Meanwhile, Père Dubois ladeled out a cup of hot stock into a cup, and left it before him as he took down his mortar and pestle and spices … green file gumbo, bright red cayenne, smoke red paprika, rich brown chili pepper, and black peppercorns. These he put into his mortar and pestle and ground together, crushing the fresh peppercorns with the other spices until the smell was what he wanted. He put his spice blend in the still-warm stock to bloom it out, and then added the spice and stock back to the pots and covered all four.

Six hours of simmering passed. Louisa went to do her schoolwork after having oranges and strawberries for breakfast with her grandmother, and had all her work done by the time her grandparents added the already cooked greens, fully drained peppers, and chopped parsley to the pots, and by the time their neighbors in Tinyville, VA began to gather outside in little groups.

Who were these new neighbors, anyway? They had brightened up the red and white on the red barn they had converted into a home, and planted the front yard with irises … the sun smiled in golden splendor with extra warmth because it could shine down upon a field of flowers as blue as the sky, with the green of spring all wrapped in it.

But now, there was this odor … sweet, savory, spicy, like nothing anyone in those parts had ever smelled before … coming from the bright red house beyond the field as blue as the sky and green as spring … in which lived the new family in the rich, deep shades of brown that were Black.

Louisa, of course, got the answer – le ragoût des couleurs, presented in a blue bowl to complete the rainbow, and more … the stock was a deep brown, and was as smooth as velvet to the tongue and to the eye as a background upon which to present the greens, oranges, yellows, reds, and whites of all the good things that were in that stew. Maman Dubois mixed the orange-colored pepper oil with lemon juice to add brightness to eye and taste as a drizzle on top, and Père Dubois's spice blend, though unseen, added depth and lingering, comforting warmth to the finish.

“I don't see how anyone could get or stay sick after seeing and eating that,” Louisa said.

“Well, we do not claim all that,” Père Dubois said, “but, we do all we can.”

Late that night, after Louisa's uncle Jean-Paul Philippe Dubois had come home from work, changed, and had dinner, the Dubois family in Virginia took all of the remaining stew, ladeled it into all of the of the quart-sized freezer bags they had brought, and put the bags in the freezers they had purchased.

“We cannot stop la maladie,” Père Dubois said, “but we are now ready to help ourselves and our neighbors, and now you know how too, Louisa.”

"Yaaaaaaay!" said Louisa.

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Beautiful tour of the multicolored market, brought to my memory the farmers markets in the Andes, or in Carúpano in the east of my country, if there is the subtle and everyday beauty. Thank you @deeannmathews for sharing.

Thank you for engaging with the author, @pipokur67!

You're welcome!

Hello @deeanndmathews,
How I enjoy these excursions you offer into Louisiana folk tradition. You remind me of my mother in a way. Her idea of a birthday gift was to make a culturally significant dish that could not be bought or duplicated anywhere else. Love was in the food.

There is beauty all around in this story. The beauty of the fresh produce. The beauty of shared tradition. The beauty of family. It is a lovely story, but dangerous. It makes us want to eat :)

Wonderful writing.

Thank you ... I thought about the Texans I come from and the Louisianans who were their friends ... and the ones who were my friends that I made after Hurricane Katrina ... and how they used their food as a way of maintaining connection. I also watched these people shift to cooking more vegetables as news about how to stay healthy longer became so much of the California conversation ... so, the Dubois family benefits from all of that. There IS a greens gumbo, as it happens ... I just built it out a bit, just like I take old recipes and tweak them just a bit more ... and, after all, if the Stew of the Colors makes you hungry, you actually can eat as much of it as you want ... the whole point is to plant the idea that YES, healthy food is SUPPOSED to make you hungry, and YES, please indulge, because THIS is the food we need!

🍅 🍆 🍇 🍈 🍉
:)

Five servings ... right on!

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 last year  

Hello @deeanndmathews Lovely story of preparing for the trip to Virginia by the Dubois family. Their trip to the market to gather supplies for the stew is delightful. There we're given a visual glimpse of the array of colors in all the vegetable items they required for their recipe. As Louisa is introduced to the produce, I can imagine her face lit up by the adjectives with which you describe each.

Then once home, her education begins with the preparation, cooking, and ending with the canning and storage. You take us through the colorful journey that any farmer's market would reveal as we peruse each isle.

A thorough view for some readers, and new acquaintances were made through your story.

Thank you for sharing.

You're welcome!

This is brilliant, @deeanndmathews - in multiple ways! Lovely writing and such vibrant details! Great job with the prompt. The absolutely amazing glory and color of the vegetables going into the stew is quite tantalizing!

One little correction for you. "Rue" should be "roux." It's a French word - ha ha. And "rue" is generally used as a verb meaning lament.

Thank you ... I will go back and fix that!

 last year  

I remember my mother taking on an hour long trip in a bus to get some strawberry from this one guy who grew them in the edges of Baghdad (They weren't commonly available like they are now), looking at your story and remembering that I understand why that trip was necessary as opposite to just getting any type of strawberry or even a syrup can for it, especially since we lived very close to a market. There's a need to do things right, and we're talking about home made jam here.

The whole story kinda gave me that feeling of working hard to what seems almost unimportant on the outside, but people who do it and participate in it know to be really worth it. I may be wrong in reading it but that's just the main feeling I left with.

That's actually just right. Just right. People like your mother and mine and the elders I grew up understand the importance of these things ... glad you picked all that up!