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Stuffed Green Peppers

By Della Valenzuela

They are in the oven right now. I'm waiting for the bell to go off. 

I've found a curiosity in cooking during the pandemic. I was not really interested before or perhaps hesitant. To be honest, I came from a mother who was perfect in most every way, except for cooking. 

She burned it, and/or undercooked it, and was extremely uncomfortable with seasoning in general. She was "healthy" in the way that we had peas with every meal and never had any pre-packed salty, calorie-laden chips or pretzels hanging around. Friends talked of Hostess Cupcakes and Kraft Mac and Cheese, and I just nodded pretending I knew what the hype was about. We did have Kool-Aid, but it was an off- brand, that she would make with saccharine pellets stirred in, instead of sugar. Yes, saccharine, she must have scored it on the black market.  

Food that checked the boxes of protein, grains, vegetables and fruits are what we were served as we had our stimulating dinner conversations, played silly games and learned about life. We didn't go out to eat or have fast food often; it was the '70s, and we were struggling. We had a garden with plump juicy tomatoes — and I would sit in the baking sun with a saltshaker and a napkin and eat the most ripe. That was for a week and a half in August. 

For a year or so, my mom contributed to a newsletter for the townhouse complex we lived in. The women would meet in the basement of the clubhouse, and I would sneak into the coffee room and hoard sugar cubes and let them dissolve on my tongue. The saccharine substitute soon became questioned. I then had cherry Kool-Aid at Angela's house, and it tasted like pure magic. I finally understood why that Kool-Aid guy ran through that wall to get that sh**. I think these may be the food/taste highlights of my childhood — eating sun-ripe tomatoes sitting in the dirt and stealing sugar cubes for later.  

For a brief period of time, she decided she was going to cook like the others. We could eat healthy, on a budget, and she would appear as a hippy, female version of the Galloping Gourmet with all the skills.  The first attempt was LuAnn's Stew.  She told me proudly, "I am making LuAnn's Stew for dinner!"  I asked who LuAnn was. She told me about an afternoon spent at a friend of a friend's house. "Della, we went into her kitchen and she pulled out a box of index cards each with a different recipe on them and then she GAVE me this card." The handwritten card was some sort of stew, probably beef stew, but who knows. LuAnne had given her this recipe card and it was filled with all the knowledge of a good cook, like LuAnn, someone who knew how to present a feast to her family. The first action on the card was "brown the meal." She got out the food coloring.  

The green pepper incident just rests in the recesses of my mind. I saw a picture beforehand. She had borrowed a cookbook or maybe re-found one that she received as a wedding present years before. I gazed at the color pictures of gelatin molds and cheese trays and was thankful for peanut butter sandwiches and a good old apple. Words like blanch and sauté weren't easily Goggle-able back in the day. The meal that was presented was burned beyond recognition but also absolutely raw inside. Hard and sharp rice pieces mixed with scorched pepper flesh that were surprisingly also very garlic-y. This may have been the one and only time she purchased garlic. I looked at the glossy picture of the stuffed peppers again after dinner as she washed the dishes. I was glad, mostly, she didn't try the gelatin mold with Spam inside.  

Last week my husband mentioned his love for a good stuffed green pepper. "Oh, good God, why in the world would you want," but then I stop. Maybe like so many things I never knew, they are good. They aren't burnt or crunchy, perhaps. So tonight, we are having MY stuffed green peppers. I look over a dozen recipes and glean the good stuff. I blanched. I sautéed. I browned some meat. (Thanks, Google). They are in the oven now. 

I have all these memories swirling around of her. I don't feel less loved because she wasn't a good cook.  It was a quirk, a cute quirk, and she owned it. Her love was not found in blanching, but in a compliment that would make you feel unstoppable.  Her love was unfaltering, and she did feed us with nutritious food — it just wasn't ready for its own recipe card.

My mother-in-law cooks with an immense amount of love. She loves with her food, as well as her heart. It fills her with pride to feed you and to make you happy with food. Her flavors are life-changing. I am so lucky to have married into a family that excels at cooking. It has given me the courage to try, and a role model to aspire to.  

So, soon the timer will go off. There have been years of feeling hesitate to cook, not sure all the rules. During a pandemic, when I am looking around every corner for ways to love my family more, to show them I want them nurtured, fed well, and content, I keep trying to fill the void. Mine, too. 

I'm surprised that I love to cook. I love the face of someone who is enjoying the plate. If only with my new skills I could cook for her. If only she was here, ready with fork and knife and a napkin tucked into her shirt, ready to try MY stuffed green peppers. She deserves a good green pepper. We all do.  

— Della Valenzuela

Della Valenzuela is finding her way in a life that has been crazy, complicated and kind. Midwestern, yet reluctant to confess, she has an intuitive approach to most situations. She is a mother of a fine young man, who seems to get more handsome by the day and the wife to the man that continues to delight her. Her dogs are old and quirky, but loyal when they are hungry.   

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