From the Heart
The first time Naveen makes beignets, it is a failure. It is a failure for many reasons. The biggest -- as Tiana is very enthusiastic about telling him -- is that while persistence is the key to success, so is the strategic application of talent, and Naveen may have reached his own limitations early on when it comes to cuisine. Also, that he should not attempt to burn down their very expensive kitchen that they just finished remodeling with extra room for the sauce pans, not when they had to save up for months and argue through three different contractors, no sir.
("Ain't worth nothing if I don't earn it," she'd insisted for the tenth time when he'd offered to write home for funds. "Can't learn the value of something if you get it for free. You look at Lottie, bless her heart, but she couldn't market price a pig if you dropped it in her hands, and so help me, Naveen -- ")
"What on earth possessed you to try such a thing?" she snaps through the smokey haze. He cowers a little -- in a manly way, because even he must admit that his Tia can get a little scary. At times. Like now. She transfers her glare back to the fusion of dough with the frying pan, prodding the tip of a knife at black lesions that used to be almonds. "You're supposed to be sticking to basics, aren't you? This," the knife pries at one spot, succeeding in peeling up a substance that has a distinct resemblance to concrete, "is not basic, Naveen."
"You tell me that cooking comes from the heart!" he protests as Tiana applies her ire to the cloudy air, and flaps a towel around like a banner. The smoke, confused, flees to the kitchen windows and batters against the glass. Naveen brandishes his piece of paper as a shield. "So it should not be a problem if it was not exact, yes? I followed what this recipe said to do -- "
"Recipe?" Quick as a cat, Tiana spins around. The edge of the towel whips by Naveen's face. "Just what tomfoolery are you trying now?"
He lets go hastily, before the yellowed paper gets torn. "I found it in the back of the shoeboxes that have the jam recipes," he replies, a little indigently. "You had me clean and arrange them just the other day!" He cranes his head, fighting to get another look at the paper just in case he has missed something written in cipher along with three cups of flour. "What is so difficult about this one?"
Tiana flicks the recipe straight with a snort in his direction. But all the fire drains out of her as she scans the writing, slower and slower until her eyes stop, and she makes a little sigh.
"My daddy's special recipe," she says quietly. "'Sweet Boulevard Beignet.'"
Naveen never had a chance to meet Tiana's father. He's seen photographs of James, which haven't helped much. He's spoken a little with Tiana's mother, and earned a few dropped comments here and there about how Tiana's daddy had a dream, Tiana's daddy had a gumbo pot, and Tiana's daddy had a family that carries his memories on even today.
Anyone who left that much of a stamp on Tiana must have been formidable. Naveen is not foolish enough to think that death should be any reason to forget the man's presence.
And, besides. Tiana left the recipe with Naveen, which means she trusts him with it, even if it's just to put it away where it will not do any harm. That's as good as permission.
In the back of the secondary storeroom, between sagging sacks of flour and a barrel of molasses, Naveen finds a good place to hide. He brings out the recipe carefully, holding it like a soap bubble on his fingers. The print is fuzzy in the half-hearted light. The letters are blocky, stenciled with consideration for how much room they take up. The lines don't overlap. If Naveen were a graphologist -- which he is not, but he is hardly uneducated either -- he would say that the author was a man who had a crystal-clear picture of what the intended result should be.
Dry yeast, water, granulated sugar. Salt. Egg: beaten. Evaporated Milk. Flour. Shortening, vegetable oil, powdered sugar. Almonds. Vanilla. Rum. A few other additions that Naveen had not been entirely certain of, and which had proved problematic once he had begun to apply heat.
Separated, the ingredients do not seem mystical. Together, they form an incantation beyond anything Naveen has ever seen, beyond even Facilier's powers. He has seen Tiana decipher a labyrinth of directions before; he sees it every day in the kitchens with the cooks. He himself does not have the gift. The recipe is from another world, one that is more exotic than Maldonia to his eyes. It is part of what Naveen has become fascinated by, this New Orleans of a million wonders and a million possibilities.
It is also part of Tiana's heritage.
"I do not know how they do it here," he says quietly to the paper. "In Maldonia, there are, there are contests and parades and very much in the way of gallantry when it comes to proving oneself to one's love. As your father, you would have had the right to set a challenge to test my mettle. I will not share what you could have asked, if you were her mother."
He falls silent, gloomily. Through the walls of the storeroom, he can hear the staccato of the cooks as they tap pans on the stoves and spoons on the sinks. Tiana's voice plays occasional counterpoint.
"If you wanted, I would have traveled to the highest mountain in search of a rare flower that blooms but once a year. I could have leapt a fence of knives -- which I would have done, for your daughter, and think I even may have done during our time together while we were both amphibious. I would have composed a dozen cantatas in her name. In short -- if I must be brief -- I would have performed whatever you desired to prove that I am sincere in my intentions. But," he continues, drawing up his knees, "I do not know how to show Tiana that I would like to be a part of this as well. Cooking is something she loves very much. And I -- love her. So."
Falling silent, he stares at the recipe, at the soft blurriness the letters have gathered from years of gentle handling, at the weathered paper that has taken on a fine embroidery of dust and humidity. He looks at the mystery of cups and teaspoons, and finds only letters written on a page.
Several months bring them through the seasons of New Orleans, going from hot to hotter, and then to tolerably murky. Business is brisk. They entertain a pack of dignitaries from France that keep Tiana hopping, demanding excess bottles of wine and making snobbish remarks about the band. Naveen gets some revenge back; he regales them with songs in his native tongue, which none of them know enough of to realize he is not saying charitable things.
He manages -- with no small amount of charm -- to coax Tiana to take a break that weekend. She won't relent until the dignitaries are packed up and seen off, and even then she fusses around the restaurant until he conspires with the assistant manager to doublebook the waitstaff. Despite having achieved her dream, Tiana remains inclined towards overwork; having done so much on her own, she is reluctant to let go. Naveen reminds himself that it is an endearing trait, even as he is forced to physically steer her out onto the balcony.
It is not the first time he has surprised her with a meal -- the first time since they were human, that is. Her acceptance of them is just one of the many things Naveen likes about his Tia. She does not get jealous of other chefs, she gets thoughtful; she tastes each course and makes notes so she can improve her own meals in the future. He has varied his presentation frequently, but a common theme has been the covered dishes, the bouquet of flowers, and lace napkins on the side.
So he has done here. This time, he has added another layer of cloth over the entire table, as insurance to keep the contents from being disturbed. The white linen makes lumps out of the dishcovers. Poking out near the middle is a cylinder, marking a canister of powdered sugar.
He lowers Tiana's hands to rest them upon the table before whisking away the drape, careful enough not to add such exuberance that he dislodges the trays. Despite his efforts, the smell is impossible to hide completely. The warm odor of fresh dough leaks out, suffusing the balcony with mouth-watering scents.
He settles himself in the chair across from her. "I have a surprise."
"You finally figured out how to make beignets?" she asks, a little unsteady with disbelief, already jumping ahead like a kid eager to ruin a predictable punchline.
Naveen keeps smiling, and smiling, and smiling -- until he finally has to admit, "Ahhh... no."
A shimmer of disappointment swims across her face before she closes it down. He swoops a hand onto her wrist before the emotion has time to take root. His lack was not due to an absence of effort, that much was certain. And he had thought about having someone local prepare her father's recipe, but to do so seemed disrespectful; it also wasn't the message he'd wanted to express.
With an elegant crossing of his wrists, Naveen plucks the lid off the nearest serving tray. Squares of golden dough are stacked in a perfect pyramid beneath. They're beignets, but also more -- they smell of almonds, yet also of honey and cinnamon and the Maldonian spice known as chayyda that is ground in small silver handmills and packaged in silk. They smell like summertime and warm tea and all the places and things Naveen would like to show her someday, everything about Maldonia he realized he loved when he wanted to share them with her, coupled with all the good memories he has of New Orleans, its jazz spirit and verve for life.
Studiously, he wonders if a piece of pastry can emote all of that.
"I sent a copy of your father's recipe back to my sisters," he explains, gallantly. "And they have each taken a turn at adapting the recipe to our own local cuisine -- and my mother as well, and, might I add, my second cousin, and one of my older brothers, and also his son. And perhaps a niece. Or five. But the point," Naveen adds hastily, not wanting to lose the spirit of the moment, "is that this recipe that was passed down from your family has now also been passed down by mine, to the both of us. This is," he tries to say, dizzied by the nearness of her, by the curve of her lips widening in a smile, and by all the poetry he should know how to say in English except that she makes him tongue-tied, "this is... from me to you, Tiana. In fact, from all of Maldonia itself for you. This recipe is ours together now -- though it could never be as sweet as you are to me."
There, he decides. That sounds charming enough. All that is left is to catch her when she swoons.
Tiana is faster to get the gist of it than he is to explain; before he can think about how to capitalize on his success and angle himself properly, she is picking up one of the beignets. "How did you get them here fresh like this?"
"Ah, well," he says, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "About that, you know..."
She eyes him over the corner of the dough. "Yes?"
"You know how I mentioned my sisters? And, might I add," he's laughing now, short nervous chuckles that he knows she can see right through, "my, ah, mother and my second cousin and one of my older brothers and possibly his son -- "
The powdered sugar goes everywhere when she throws it at him: on his shirt, his pants, his eyebrows. She gets it on his nose. He gets it on her mouth.