Deborah L. Costella
Nov 16 2020 . 15 min read
A Fork in the Road
A Fork in the Road
When the signs serendipitously lead you down the path you’re meant to forge
When the signs serendipitously lead you down the path you’re meant to forge
There are a few other early-bird hikers who, like me, briskly make their way around bends and over fallen tree trunks, dried leaves, and debris crunching like bags of chips beneath our boots. But I’m alone when my body quiets with that shadowy, déjà vu sensation, immobilized and uncertain. Which way should I go—to the left or right? Stranger still, though I’ve hiked this trail many times before, I don’t recall this fork in the road.
Ordinarily, I lean towards making quick decisions, open and curious to what might unfold. Not this time. Standing here on this clear stunning morning, I can’t decide which path to take. I extend my neck in each direction to see what lay beyond. I turn ‘round and with splayed hands rub my fingertips against my forehead.
After a quick and deep inhale, I jerk back around and take a giant step toward the left. Decision made. I know it’s the right one when a magnificent, red-shouldered hawk catches my eye. The whuft-whuft-whuft of her flapping wings as she swoops down from the branch of a tall pine, then with a loud screech, soars even higher into a faded blue sky. Thoughts of Michael surface. I shake them away. An avid ornithologist, I hadn’t realized just how much he’d taught me. Already, I’ve recognized three different species of birds thanks to him.
At the start of this hike, I’d spotted an old aluminum plate, battered and black with soot, leaning against a tree. Walking over, I’d brushed it off, recalling the lesson I’d taught a group of fourth-graders about how people used “trenchers”—a flat, round piece of stale bread to hold food before the invention of plates. Now, I encounter a cup hanging from a tree branch. Secured with fishing line, the blue and white speckled cup swings wistfully in the breeze. Without evidence of any campers nearby, I use my pocketknife to cut it down and stuff it into my backpack with the plate.
I resume walking, contemplating my finds and their significance, trying to avoid thoughts of Michael. I’ll have to Google plates, but know cups are associated with water. In the tarot, the Suit of Cups pertains to situations and events of an emotional nature. I’ve been emotional lately and it has reflected in my cooking with comfort-food dishes.
If I hadn’t been looking down, I would’ve missed it. But there it was, tucked beside a California lilac bush—a real fork in the road. The three tines bent, one completely sideways like a wild hair. With head cocked to the side, I circle the bush, taking heed of a recent promise to pay better attention. Look for signs, I’ve been telling myself, hoping some sort of clear directive will emerge. I pick up the fork.
Returning home, sweaty and fatigued from hiking, I excitedly tear open my backpack and set my treasures on the counter. Admiring my finds, my heart sinks when I realize Michael is not here to share in my discoveries. My eyes linger on one of his many glass-blown bong pipes he’s left behind. Reaching into the cupboard my hand bumps his “World’s Best Boyfriend (is there one?)” mug. He’d bought it for me as a joke during our first getaway weekend in Newport. We were trying to come up with a moniker for our relationship—girlfriend/boyfriend, soul mates, life partners—none appealed to us until we saw the mug.
It wasn’t that long ago, we could both exhale comfortably here. There are still parts of our home I take solace in. The crazy way we painted the interior, each wall a different color. After an entire weekend painting, we sat on our second-hand couch, sharing a joint and munching on a charcuterie platter, admiring our work. Michael sighed. When I asked, ‘What?’ he laughingly said it was going to be like living in a cupboard filled with Fiesta ware. He was right, it was, and I loved it. Our home was eclectic but cozy—my cookbooks, his artwork, my chef’s tools and electrics, his brushes and air compressors, his pipes, my papers, our weed.
I shake these thoughts from my head. It’s time to prepare my weekly canna-dinner party. I do these dinners to practice and try out new infusions. Fortunately, I never run out of willing guinea pigs. I ceremoniously wash my three finds from this morning. Then spread the tie-dyed table runner I made last month across the table and arrange my treasures in my version of a 3-D installation. Plate on the bottom. No, too predictable. Cup first, on its side. Then I lean the plate against the cup, in the same position I found it. The fork is set, slightly askew, a few inches away. Satisfied with my handiwork I head out to the garden.
While hiking I’d decided to tap into the abundance of butternut squash for a seasonal twist on my entrée—one of Michael’s favorites, enchiladas. Yielding to this masochistic desire to cook something he’d enjoy felt like succumbing to the screaming, tantrum-throwing child inside me: So, what if I kicked him out! Now I want him here! There wasn’t any point in arguing with my inner self.
Besides, I reasoned, infused Butternut Squash Enchiladas with Cinnamon-Spiked Créma Sauce would be a delight for anyone sitting at my table, not just him. A salad with jicama and green apples to give the meal some crunch and texture, a garlic-lime vinaigrette for “high” notes and one of my childhood favorites, maduros. Plantains flattened with a tortilla press then sautéed in a mixture of beurre noisette and granulated sugar. I garnish mine with bits of candied ginger.
Looking at my watch, I hurry to the kitchen. Then it happens, as it always does. Magic. An energy that dances and swirls its way around me as I tie my apron around my waist. Everything in the kitchen comes alive as if sprinkled with culinary fairy dust. My worries and woes dissipate. I don’t question myself about anything. I’m centered and in my happy place.
After massaging the split squash I’d commandeered from the garden with canna-oil, salt and pepper, I pop it into the oven. Moving on to dessert, I cautiously cook a sugar and water mixture on the stove until it turns a dark amber. Thick and dangerously hot, like the oozing of a glue gun, I swirl a generous amount of the candy coating into individual ramekins. Then the flan—a velvety, eggy mixture, the herbaceous undertones of the canna-cream tamed with fresh orange zest and the essence of a scraped vanilla bean pod.
The afternoon sped by and was suddenly nudging against happy hour when the screen door slams and Michael enters the kitchen. His worn and raggedy overalls held together with more paint than thread, strands of his dishwater-blond hair resting on long black lashes. Dropping my spoon into the pot of flan I ask, “What are you doing here?” The audacity, thinking he can just walk in. Ignoring my question but nodding at the clock he pours two glasses of wine then leans over inhaling the roasted and caramelized squash cooling on a sheet pan.
“I’ve been texting you, asking if it was okay to come and get some of my stuff. When you didn’t answer, I thought I should stop by and make sure everything’s okay. I see it’s canna-dinner night.” His eyes scan the mess of ingredients strewn across the counter. “Enchiladas?! Is it okay to taste?” Nodding, I watch him dip a large spoon into the smoky-red concoction burping and bubbling on the stove. He smacks his lips in approval. Reaching in for a second taste, I warn him, “Careful, that sauce is heavily infused.”
“Just the way I like it.” A lengthy pause follows. Is he hoping I’ll ask him to stay for dinner? Is that why I was strangely set on preparing enchiladas; a part of me knew he’d show up? Did I make them in hopes he’d show up?
“What’s with your centerpiece? Looks like one of my art installations in its beginning phases.” Michael smiles, his turquoise-blue eyes inviting me in, adding to the intoxicating effect of his southern accent.
“I found them this morning while hiking. One by one. It was so weird, they were just, there. My stumbling upon them must mean something.”
“What could they mean? Besides use us when camping
“I don’t know, but clearly, I was supposed to find them. Michael, there was a fork in the road on that trail we used to hike. I didn’t remember it being there. Do you remember a fork on Calico?”
“Right? But there it was. I couldn’t decide which way to go, right or left…”
“Since when can you not make a decision?” A dig, he always has to make a dig.
“Anyway, I went left and kept finding these things. What if I’d taken the path to the right?”
“You’d have fresh flowers on the table instead of this worn place setting?”
My jaw tightens, my teeth clench. Michael moves on to sampling my cilantro dressing. I’m annoyed by the way he’s eating it. Then I feel badly about my mean thoughts. Poor guy probably hasn’t eaten a hot meal since he left. “Want to stay for dinner?”
Oh god! The words just tumbled out. It’s too late to take them back, Michael is already accepting my invitation asking if it’s okay he’s in his painting clothes. I grumble a yes then excuse myself to shower. As I come downstairs Hannah, her husband Jeff, and the other girls arrive, their eyebrows arched in astonishment at Michael’s presence. I shrug without explanation.
After some small talk, we relax into our meal. Oohs and aahs make their way around the table. An enthusiastic surge of applause breaks out when I place dessert in front of each guest. Michael is quieter than usual. I chalk it up to his being a little too stoned. He’s had seconds on everything. But it’s Hannah’s breach of a topic Michael and I have carefully avoided in recent months when I go quiet. “When are you going to open your cooking school, Erika?”
My reply is mumbled and disjointed, a weak and meandering explanation. “The pandemic. It impacted everything. Bringing people together for in-person classes, well that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Then when Michael and I had to cut back due to loss of income, leasing
a facility to teach wasn’t an option. Then the fires hit, and
we had to evacuate…”
It was a litany of excuses. For the umpteenth time, I hear myself explain why I have yet to fulfill my dream. None seemed to hold water.
Hold water…hold water, that cup I found today, it holds water.
While everyone else’s eyes look at me with pity? Compassion? Jeff’s are crossed on the ramekin lifted to his mouth as he unabashedly licks it clean. Slamming it down like he’d just drained a shot of whiskey, he announces it’s time to head home and watch stoner cartoons. After we say our goodbyes at the door Michael turns to me, “Can we talk, for a minute?”
Was he going to ask to move back in or just sleep over? Which is dangerous, since sleeping together always brings us back together.
“I’ve been thinking about us.”
“Huh, is there an us?”
He continues, “You know how you said finding those pieces and that fork in the road might mean something?”
“I think you’re right. Maybe we’re at a fork in the road of our relationship.”
My thoughts scramble to understand. “What are you saying?”
“At first, when you decided we weren’t happy anymore and needed a break, I took you at your word. Figuring you meant, you weren’t happy, like all the other times. Then it hit me. Shoveling enchilada into my mouth, your best ever by the way, made me feel happy. I was happiest when eating your food, other than that, not so much. I can’t remember the last time we did anything together. We don’t hike, we don’t go to movies, well pandemic did that, but we haven’t been a real couple for a while.”
My gaze moves downward, as though the chipped nail polish on my toes is the most pressing issue in my life.
“You’ve stopped showing interest in me, Erika. All you do anymore is cook for me.”
All you do is cook for me? The words loop inside my head. “That’s a lot, Michael. I don’t just cook for anybody.”
“Yes, you do. You get paid to cook for anybody who walks into the restaurant.”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about how I cook for you. From the heart. For our friends, our family and for you, Michael, I cook from the heart. When I can’t talk to you, I cook for you. When I’m cranky and have been short with you, I cook to tell you I’m sorry. When I’m sad, cooking for you lifts my spirits. When I’m drenched in crazy love for you, I cook. To say, ‘all I do is cook for you,’ is a pretty big thing for you to miss!”
But it was true. I had stopped doing everything but cook for him. I’m a cook. It’s what I do. Cooking for people is usually the first thing I do for them. And apparently, when there’s nothing else left, it’s the last. I needed to think, “You’re right,” I sigh. “Can we sleep on this and talk about it tomorrow?”
“I can sleep over?”
“On the couch.”
The infused meal allowed us both to sleep heavily and through the night. I woke early to a murky sky, a few stars twinkling their last hoorah before succumbing to morning’s light. Stepping into my bunny slippers, I cinch my bathrobe around my waist and tiptoe past Michael, still snoring in boyish oblivion. Shuffling to the kitchen I ready my coffee. Mindlessly moving the spoon in a figure-eight as I stir in the cream, I stare at the centerpiece.
Then pulling my laptop towards me: Plates, colorful plates denote feelings of happiness. A porcelain plate is an omen one will experience success and harmony in life. Damaged plates indicate an urgency to review relationships. Actually picking up a plate foretells of good luck. Cups, dreaming about cups can mean the need to spend more time on the mundane aspects of one’s life. Cups also represent healing and rejuvenation.”
I pull the fork from its position in the centerpiece, fingers clutching then releasing the handle. I know forks symbolize aggression, committed by oneself or the need to defend against. Forks also represent bifurcation or division. “A fork in the road expresses a deciding moment in one’s life.”
It’s right there in front of me—the sign I’d been asking for. I turn towards Michael now awake, looking at me. In that moment, I know what I need to do.
Cosmic Muffin Café’s Butternut Squash & Chorizo Enchiladas with Cinnamon-Spiced Créma
1 medium butternut squash, fresh or 16 oz. frozen
6 oz. canna-butter
1 large shallot, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 cups infused beef or chicken broth
4 Tbsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin salt/pepper
3 Tbsp. cinnamon, divided pinch of nutmeg
1 tsp. ground cocoa powder
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 cup crèma Mexicana, infused and divided
10-12 oz. Mexican chorizo
12-16 flour tortillas
10-12 oz. shredded cheddar/jack cheese blend fresh cilantro for garnish
Preheat oven to 350° F. For fresh squash, slice in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and membrane. Rub canna-oil, salt and pepper inside and outside of squash. Set on foil-lined sheet pan and roast for about 50 minutes or until edges are brown and flesh is fork tender. When cool, discard rind and in large mixing bowl mash into a pulp. If using frozen squash, spread cubes in single layer on foil-lined sheet pan. Drizzle with canna-oil, season with salt and pepper then follow same directions as for fresh.
In large saucepot melt canna-butter over medium heat. Stir in shallot and garlic, cooking just until fragrant. Whisk in flour, cooking out starch, 5-7 minutes. Continue whisking butter/flour mixture while slowly adding half the broth. Add remaining ingredients up to and including brown sugar, using only 2 Tbsp. cinnamon.
If needed, add additional broth. Taste for seasoning. Remove sauce from heat, set to side.
For filling: Remove membrane from sausage. Cook meat over medium heat in skillet. Drain well. Add chorizo to squash.
For assembly: Stir remaining Tbsp. of cinnamon into créma Mexicana, folding half into prepared sauce. Lightly coat bottom of a 9 x 13 casserole pan with sauce. Brush a small amount of sauce on one side of a tortilla. Spoon some chorizo/butternut mixture into the tortilla, top with a handful of grated cheese, roll and set in casserole dish, seam side down. Repeat until casserole dish is full.
Pour remaining sauce over enchiladas and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake uncovered 15-20 minutes until cheese is melted. Garnish with remaining créma Mexicana and chopped cilantro.