The Boys in the Kitchen*

“More corn meal.”

As he leaned over the campfire, Mubanga, 15, tossed a handful into the pot of boiling water as Evaristo, 16, stirred. The boys’ lanky teenage arms and hands seemed to gain grace and purpose as they worked over the pot. Around them was the chatter of the other boys on the parish retreat, held in the bush outside of the boys’ home of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia.

“So what happened, you know, with school?” Mubanga asked his friend.

“I completely froze. In the middle of the exam,” Evaristo scowled. “I guess I just panicked because I had missed so much since I dropped out last time because of the fees.” Evaristo brushed away beads of perspiration from his forehead with annoyance, then adopted what he thought was an adult kind of voice. “It’s just too much of a hassle, school. I’m glad I dropped out.”

“Yeah, me too. I mean, what’s the point, right?” Mubanga took the spoon from Evaristo so he could take his turn at stirring. The boys stood silently for a moment, watching the corn meal thicken.

“So, what are we going to do for money?” Mubanga asked, trying to sound casual.

“We could do what my father did.” Evaristo lifted the corn meal out of the water and, once it was cool enough, began shaping it into balls. “You know, sell charcoal in the city, and wood cut down from the bush.” He tried to sound enthusiastic, but Mubanga knew better.

* based on the stories of Evaristo and Mubanga

Evaristo, lapsing again into silence, stared at the ball of corn meal in his hands. Cooking wasn’t like school, where the lessons and tests seemed never-ending. Making a meal had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And when it was done, it was done. No piles of papers and books hanging around. Just leftovers. And those you could eat. Evaristo grinned.

Father Joseph, who was leading the retreat, and who had been watching the boys out of the corner of his eye, grinned also. These two seemed to know what they were doing. Unlike last retreat’s volunteers. Father Joseph grimaced as he thought of the burnt dinner everyone had choked down, then put a hand to his stomach as it rumbled in anticipation of a better meal. We’ll have a fine dinner tonight!

Father Joseph watched again that evening as Evaristo and Mubanga bantered their way through dinner, and as they replied modestly to the compliments on their meal. He turned over in his mind all that he had overheard the boys saying earlier that day. There must be a way to encourage these boys in their talent and get them back in school, he mused, furrowing his brow. By the time dinner was over, he had an idea.

“Fanny Farmer?” Mubanga eyed the dog-eared paperback skeptically. “What kind of a name is that?”

Evaristo picked up the book and began flipping through it. “What do you want us to do, Father? Make something for a parish dinner? I could adapt this recipe…” He ran his finger along a page and began mentally substituting local ingredients for the American ones.

“Not quite.” Father Joseph folded his hands. “You both know Mr. Chama?”

“Yeah, the missionaries’ cook. Your cook.”

“As you know, our parish budget is tight, and Mr. Chama has a wife and family to support. He
has started a new job cooking for a convent.” Father Joseph paused meaningfully.

“You need someone in the kitchen.” Mubanga grinned.

“I need two someones in the kitchen.”

“Two?” Evaristo asked, surprised. How much did these missionaries eat?

“That’s because when one of you is in school, the other will cook here,” said the priest. “It’s a very simple arrangement.” Father Joseph kept his voice calm and businesslike, trying not to look oveReager. Nagging the boys about going back to school was, he guessed, not the best way to win them over.

The boys frowned at the mention of school, but Father Joseph could see they were excited at the prospect of cooking for wages, and reluctant to pass up the opportunity. A decisive glance passed between them. “So,” said Evaristo, picking up the cookbook. “When do we start?”

“Mmmm. Smell that.”

Evaristo, who had just stepped out of the missionaries’ kitchen, wove his newly baked cake
under Mubanga’s nose. Mubanga, standing over the dining table folding laundry, sniffed disdainfully.

“My last one was better.”

“Liar. Last time you used a cake mix.”

Hmph. Mubanga grunted. “Go back to the kitchen, little boy. You’re disturbing my work.”

“And you’re offending my cake. This is a new one I’m trying for special orders. We’ve both got more time for them now that we’ve finished high school. I made a test batch. Eat.”

Mubanga cut himself a small slice, ate, and grinned.

“Not bad.”

“Boys!” Father Joseph came swiftly into the room, pausing only to sniff appreciatively the cakescented air. “Good news! I’ve just spoken with the other missionaries. We’re very proud of all the work you’ve done, not only with finishing high school, but also with your cooking. It’s clear you both have a talent, and we’d like to encourage you in that.” Father Joseph took a breath. “How would you like to attend a cooking trade school?”

The boys exchanged glances, stunned. “You mean, learn how to make fancy dishes and eventually become a chef in a hotel or something?” Evaristo and Mubanga could hardly believe their ears.

“A high school diploma simply isn’t enough to get a salaried job anymore,” Father Joseph explained. “You boys could do very well if you finish the trade school.”

Evaristo disappeared into the kitchen without a word. He returned a moment later and placed a fork into each of the men’s hands. He gestured proudly to the cake.

“Allow me to introduce you to my one-of-a-kind, trade-school celebration cake,” he said with mock formality. “Dig in.”  CD

Love Your Neighbor
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