Mise en Place

by Kristin Bonilla Read author interview September 23, 2013

Wash your hands clean. Pick up your knife.

Onion. Sweet onion. Twelve pounds of sweet onion. Onion number one. Left hand, hold onion like a ball to be thrown underhand. Do not let Chef see you holding onion like a ball to be thrown underhand. “Does this look like your mama’s kitchen?” he would say. “Did your mama teach you to cut an onion like that? Your mama don’t pay my worker’s comp, little lady. Put it on the board and do it right.”

Stop thinking.

Hold onion underhand anyway cause Chef isn’t here. Short, shallow slice. Just through the skin. Like your Mama taught you. Don’t press too hard, don’t lose any fingers. Simple. Peel away onion skin, throw it on the floor. Sammy will be by soon to sweep the skins away. Sammy walked here from Guatemala. There are long raised scars across his back, like mountain ridges pushing through the snowy film of his white shirt. He said it happened in Mexico.

Stop thinking.

Place onion on board, slice onion in half. Place onion half on board, left hand pressing down with fingers curled up. Three horizontal slices, just enough to make layers, not enough to separate onion completely. Curl fingers under so that only your knuckles are exposed. Six long vertical cuts. Onion still whole but ready to fall apart like a quilt cut into ribbons. Now slice. Perfect dice. Onion falls off the knife and piles up like little diamonds. The crunch of the knife and watery onion droplets fall. Just like your Mama taught you.

Repeat, thirty-four more times. Try not to cry.

Garlic. A crate of garlic. Divide garlic according to prep numbers. Garlic to be chopped have heads that will be smashed on the counter with your fist, cloves that will be smashed on the counter with the back of your knife. This garlic doesn’t have to be pretty. Garlic to be stored in oil have heads that will be cracked with your lightest touches, cloves that will be peeled slowly and carefully to keep everything pretty. Garlic to be sliced thin have heads that will be smashed with your fist and cloves that will be sliced pretty. There is no garlic in your daughter’s soup in the refrigerator at home. She would turn up her nose and send it back. There is no garlic but there is a note telling her for how long to heat the soup in the microwave and also a listing of things that should not go into the microwave. Like spoons or crayons or the cat. Be a good girl for Mama, you wrote.

Chop and peel and slice the garlic until your shirt sticks to your back. Think that your daughter will not work in a kitchen.

Stop thinking.

Green pepper. Twelve pounds of green pepper. Green pepper, the first. Place pepper on board the right way cause Chef has flown in on his broom. He’s loud and he’s looking for a fight.

Hold pepper with left hand and pick up your knife. Slice top off pepper and throw on the floor. Sammy will be by to sweep pepper tops away, but not before Chef walks by and grabs your ass. Listen to the whirring hum of the kitchen fans as you pause and hold your knife in the air. Look to the left and feel the breeze now leaving as he walks away laughing and doesn’t turn to see your face. Think about throwing your knife like a circus performer, handle rotating over blade, spinning silently through the air to land inches deep in the back of his neck. Know that you will not throw your knife because you need the job, he knows you need the job, he knows you won’t complain.

Bring your knife down out of the air and slice the pepper in half the way you would slice Chef in half. Put your knife down and use your hand to scoop out the veins and seeds the way you would scoop out Chef’s veins and seeds. Repeat, Thirty Seven times.

Hear the sweep and scrape of Sammy approaching. Meet his eyes and see that he knows, but there’s nothing he can do about it either. Put your knife down and walk outside. Squint against the sunlight. Sit with your back against the building but check first to see if the graffiti is wet.

Watch the mockingbird on the chain-link fence across the alley. Listen to her song. A stream of sounds she echoes from the world around her. She has a beautiful song all her own but she sings instead like a car alarm, like a chained dog barking. When she is done repeating herself, she flies off, and leaves you to return to your place on the line.

About the Author:

Kristin Bonilla lives and writes in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in NPR: Three Minute Fiction and NANO Fiction.

About the Artist:

Karen Prosen has been taking photographs for about five years now, and although she has newly branched out into various other modalities, photography will always be her most favorite and most natural way of sharing with the world. She believes photography is like being a mirror for someone, and saying, "Did you know that this is the way I see you?" It's why she loves portraiture—the ability to turn beauty in all its forms around to show the beheld. To Karen, photography is a gift.