by Diane M. Stillwood
The recipe for Cheese-Stuffed Peppers sat in my small green metal file box, printed in my girlish swirl on a not-yet-stained index card. I had been collecting different cooking ideas since becoming vegetarian several years prior, and had been meaning to try this one. I hadn’t had any kind of stuffed peppers since childhood, and had never prepared them myself. So during a routine trip to the grocery store with M–my tall, dark-haired honey–I picked up the ingredients: six shiny green peppers, slivered almonds, raisins, cheddar cheese; I already had the rice and the tomato paste, along with other assorted staples. We were doing one of those close-to-dinnertime sojourns, both of us fairly famished and thus susceptible to impulse purchases just to get us through to a decent meal.
So it was, while putting together the various parts of this special dinner later on in the kitchen, that we both started snacking on Doritos, coupled with thick chunks of blue cheese–a favorite of his, not mine, but hunger will make exceptions. To my surprise, the recipe took forever to prepare; there were several stages, most of them painstaking. We parboiled, sliced, chopped, simmered, sautéed, covered, spooned, emptied, diced, filled, assembled–all the while munching on the powdery triangular salt licks topped with the rich cheese–and finally, finally, popped the whole thing in the oven to bake.
As we cleaned up the cooking and prep mess, I finally stopped eating to give my stomach a rest before the meal. Alas, once I slid the Pyrex baking dish containing the wonderful, bubbling concoction from the oven an hour or so later–a full three hours after we’d started–I knew I still didn’t have enough room in my tummy to accommodate much more of anything. I ladled one of the peppers onto my plate, marveling in its piping hot aroma, a mixture of spices and sauce, pepper and rice, almonds and raisins. My eyes truly felt “bigger than my stomach,” befitting the legend my parents had bestowed upon me as a child. I savored a couple of bites, then put down my fork in despair.
“I can’t,” I told M.
“Why? What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Damn Doritos,” I muttered. “Your blue cheese didn’t help, either. I’m still full! There’s no way I can eat this–not and enjoy it.”
“So wrap it up and eat it later or tomorrow,” he suggested. “We made enough of them.”
I watched enviously as he polished off his pepper; he was relishing the experience thoroughly, maybe even a bit teasingly. I moaned softly and got up to wrap the leftovers while he cleared the table. The kitchen in our second-floor apartment was even more steamy than usual, with the continued warmth of the stove mixing with the languid summer heat. Once I had the glass dish covered in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, I padded over to the tiny alcove where the refrigerator sat. As I opened the fridge door, the dish shifted in my right hand and crashed to the floor.
“Oh! My peppers!” I yelled, bursting into tears.
M ran over from the kitchen, stopping just short of where I stood surrounded by splintered glass, tomato sauce splattered onto my bare feet and legs. Momentarily oblivious to the danger, all I could think of was the waste–of time, money, effort, food, even the love I’d put into the creation.
“Don’t move!” M said, sounding shaky. “DON’T. MOVE!”
“My peppers!” I wailed.
He looked almost ready to have me committed to a padded room. I thought at first he would admonish me for my seeming foolishness, but his voice softened as he continued to finesse the situation.
“OK, just stand still. There’s glass all around you. Let me get some of it up first.”
“The peppers…..” I whimpered.
“I’ll clean those up, too.”
“Save what you can.”
He looked up at me, pityingly, then went about sweeping and wiping while I stood in the light of the still-opened refrigerator. No matter how M tried to keep the thick red sauce separate from the glass shards, the two smeared together into one gooey mess. When I finally looked over at the peppers, I saw that none of them could be salvaged–food gone, favorite Pyrex baking dish gone, the entire evening a waste, it seemed. And I hated waste.
Years later, I stood in a different second-floor kitchen, several miles away, with my grown son, who was helping me tackle my second go at Cheese-Stuffed Peppers. I hadn’t had the heart in all the intervening years to attempt the unwieldy recipe, keeping the card tucked away in the now-rusting and slightly dented green metal box. I told myself it wasn’t the disaster that had befallen me the first time that had prevented me from making the peppers again, but merely the time and effort involved. No matter now, since I was sure my high-powered microwave would cut the prep time at least in half, and would ultimately streamline the whole endeavor. And I was definitely keeping my stomach “open” for the eating experience, although my tall, dark-haired son thought eating Doritos–one of his major food groups–would be just fine, and he loved blue cheese.
The irony–or was it just poignancy?–of making this dish twice was subsumed for the moment in the whirl of assembling ingredients and prepping everything, with Son and I sidestepping each other in the small space. We used equipment both old and new, but the basics remained the same as they had been in that earlier kitchen adventure–slicing, dicing, chopping, filling–and the one-hour bake in the regular oven was unchanged.
Total time for this second try at the lovely, luscious pepper dish: twenty years, two hours, thirty minutes.
Diane M. Stillwood is a writer and teacher who lives in the Mid-Hudson Valley above New York City. She is a graduate of The New School with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (2009), and is currently completing her memoir, Through a Brick Wall, a coming-of-age story with a twist, about the eighteen months she spent as an adolescent in an orthopedic rehabilitation hospital following surgery to correct scoliosis.