1536 words (6 minute read)

The Dinner Party by David Burga

TILAPIA FILETS — 4

“What’s for dinner, Papi?”

“Ceviche,” I say.

My son’s voice is punctuated by his stamping feet. “I. Want. Grilled. Cheese!”

I ignore him and carefully cut the fish into little cubes. Grilled cheese is my go-to meal for the kids. I feel guilty every time I peel the wrapper from the orange squares that are closer to plastic than they are to food.

I can see Ava standing on the ottoman in the reflection of the kitchen window—at seven years old, it’s something she knows she isn’t allowed to do. She screams to her little brother as she dives onto the couch. “Hurry! There are giant fish in the ocean!”

Alex joins her and they pretend to catch our dinner. They proudly bring their imaginary fish, held between thumb and forefinger, over to the counter.

I throw the fish—real and imaginary—into a Pyrex dish.


LIMES — 6

The doorbell rings—my parents have arrived. I wouldn’t normally invite them over on a school night, but as soon as I’d abandoned the grilled cheese idea, I decided to make it a family event.

“Abuelita!” Ava jumps off the couch. The imaginary ocean disappears.

“Abuelito!” Alex runs down the hallway, after his sister. He slips on the tiles but catches his balance before he falls. He’s only recently outgrown socks with rubber on their soles.

My father sits on the couch and Ava jumps into his lap. My wife brings him a beer and even though it’s a twist-off he asks Ava to bring him a bottle opener. He holds my daughter’s wrist and demonstrates how a lever works, the engineer in him never resting. My mother joins me in the kitchen. She washes her hands and starts pulling out the bigger pieces of fish, slices them in half.

“If you slice the fish thin, like sashimi, it cooks faster.”

“Okay,” I say, even though the fish doesn’t technically “cook.”

I haven’t intended for my mother to help, but I am slow getting dinner ready and I could use her expertise. I cut the first lime. My mother picks up a piece and squeezes it over the fish. She flexes her fingers, trying to stretch the pain out of her arthritic hands. She tries again but the lime retains its semispherical shape. I take it from her.

“It’s okay, Mami. I’ll get it.” I put it between my palms and press hard, trying to distribute the juice.

“Don’t forget to scoop out the pulp.”

My wife calls out from the living room. “Yeah, don’t forget to scoop out the pulp-o!”

My wife’s running joke is that any English word can be made Spanish by adding an -o to the end of it. My mother laughs because pulpo, in Spanish, means octopus.


CELERY HEARTS — 4 TABLESPOONS

“What the hell are celery hearts?”

My mother shakes her head and shows me the bottom of a stalk. The part we always throw away. She cuts thin lines into it, parallel to the length of the stalk, until it resembles a paintbrush. Then she cuts perpendicular to the bristles and makes a small pile of millimeter-sized cubes. She scoops them up and sprinkles them on the fish.

“This is the secret ingredient.”

“Really?” The bottom of the celery stalks don’t seem capable of locking in much flavour. They can’t even lock in any colour. Yet, for a recipe so simple, so many places I know have screwed up ceviche. It feels so cliché to say that the best ceviche in town comes from my mom’s house, but whenever my friends ask where they can get some, that’s what I tell them.


SALT — 2 TABLESPOONS… NO, TO TASTE

“Stick out your hand.”

I place my palm in front of her and she pours salt out from a box.

“Now sprinkle it around.”

But I don’t. Instead I pour it into a measuring spoon and then distribute it. I refill the tablespoon and it is only three-quarters full.

“No!” My mother pulls my hand away from the dish before I can empty it out. “I said to taste. Did you taste it?”

I laugh. “You’re standing right here. Did you see me taste it?”

“No!” She dips a finger into the juice. “It’s fine.” She dumps the rest of the salt into the sink.


RED ONION — 1 QUARTER, THINLY SLICED

I am staring up at the top of the window frame. My mother cuffs me on the back of the head. “Stop that!”

“Stop what?”

“I know what you’re doing. You used to do that as a boy when you did your math problems.”

She’s right. I was reducing the ratios in my head to single servings—6 limes to 4 tablespoons of celery hearts to 1 tablespoon of salt for 4 tilapia fillets is 1½ limes, 1 tablespoon of celery hearts, and ¼ tablespoon of salt per fillet.

“I said taste it.”

“Mami, when you were my age, you had two kids in high school, two kids in university and you’d been making ceviche for more than half your life. This is my first time. It’d be way easier if I had a recipe.”

My mother channels her inner Jedi Master. “Trust your instincts.”

“Okay.” I dip a finger into the salty lime juice, a marinade sold in Peru as leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, a delicacy and a cure for hangovers.

“If it tastes bitter then you squeezed the limes too hard.”

The juice has the right mix of citrus and salt.

“Now, take the onion and slice it as thinly as possible.” My mother stands over the onion and the knife slides through the quartered piece. She does a few more and then hands me the knife. I close an eye, staring down the blade, gauging the thickness of the slice and the distance from my fingertips. My mother doesn’t have the issue of depth perception since the glaucoma blinded her right eye.

I go slower than my mother and the slices are thicker, but they do the job. My mother separates the layers into individual crescents, scoops them up, and puts them in a strainer. She flicks up the faucet and cranks it all the way to the left. She sticks her hand into the running water.

“You want the water to be super hot. Feel.”

I stick my fingers into the stream and then yank them out of the scalding water. My mother’s hand is still there, a reminder that mine are only office-tough. She runs the onions under the hot water for a few seconds then douses them in cold water.

“This gets rid of the strong oniony taste.”


CILANTRO — 1 TABLESPOON

My mother points the tiny bushel at me and sucks her teeth. “Still?”

“Still what?”

“This is parsley.” She shakes her head. “See how the leaves are different and it doesn’t smell like cilantro? Just rub the leaves.” I delayed many ceviche dinners as a teen after mistakenly bringing home parsley instead of cilantro.

My mother walks down the hallway. She returns with a plastic grocery bag and pulls out a fresh bunch of cilantro. “I came prepared.”

I laugh and take it from her. I grab a handful of leaves and chop them as finely as I can, then sprinkle them over the fish and onions.


CHILL AND SERVE

I pop the ceviche into the freezer while we wait for the rice and corn to finish. My mother helps me set the table and I open a bottle of Chilean Chardonnay. We dish up the food and everyone sits.

“Salud,” I say.

Everyone digs in.

“Very good, hijo,” says my father, who has never been one to sugarcoat his opinion. I agree, though. It tastes just like Mom’s, even though I know that, left alone, I’ll botch this dish several times before perfecting it.

“I only quarter love it, Papi.” Ava is learning fractions in school. Watching her hide all the little pieces of fish in her rice, I am reminded of myself as a child.

My mother winks at my daughter, something she never did with me as a boy. Times were different then. Sacrifices were made. When she would yell at my sisters and me for not eating our food, we had no idea how tough things were, that food not eaten was scarce money wasted.

Our early days in Canada were a kind of exile for my parents. In the pre-Internet years, Christmases, births, birthdays, deaths, and funerals were events that could only be experienced by phone or via the weeks-long time delay of mail. Spontaneous Wednesday night dinners with my grandparents never happened as they were a continent away. But there came a point when my parents’ time spent in Canada was greater than their time spent in Peru, and a time when the longing to go back was eclipsed by the potential of a new home.

Sitting with my parents now, I know this is what they wanted for us. I look at my children and they smile. We talk and laugh and drink. Tonight, we celebrate as a family.