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updated: Feb 19, 2011, 8:00 AM
By Sean Daly
I interviewed a new man, Francisco, for the job of pipe fitter. He was a little bald man with a look of agitation etched into his expression. During the interview he told me he had a few scrapes with the law, but he reassured me that it was behind him now, "I'm a good man, a hard working man, a Christian man." I thought he could do the job so I took him at his word, but he never said anything about his cooking.
I put him with a crew of three, welding pipefittings for oilrigs. At the end of his first week he asked me if he could have a company barbeque on a Friday.
"I like to share my food and my faith," he said. I didn't care much for his religion, but I didn't see any harm in it. I told him it was OK with me, and early Friday morning he showed up with his own barbeque and utensils in the back of his truck. As a kitchen he used one of the work bays that had become the unofficial storage are for broken down equipment and scrap metal.
Every Friday, from then on, Francisco cooked for all fifteen of us in the grime of it all. When some of us offered him money for the food he waved us off, instead he held out a box and told us anything we could contribute would go to his church and it would be gladly accepted. He always made us something different - carne asada, adobada, carnitas. He took great pride in his cooking. He told us, once, great cooking was a family tradition, and then grinned which he didn't do much. He soaked his own pinto beans overnight and got up early to cook them over a slow simmer. He brought his own pico de gallo, taking great care to remove all the bitter stems from the cilantro. He even made his own tortillas from masa. Once, I saw him kneading the corn colored doe with his open palms before his shift started. He only gave us authentic.
It became a Friday tradition. At the end of the week, we feasted on his succulent meats and tortillas, and he talked about the end of the world.
"No one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven," he said. He was enthusiast about both, and sometimes he would infuse end time theology along with commentary about his cooking techniques. I could see the passions stirred in the other crewmembers. Feeding their minds and stomachs embolden him.
One Friday he stood up and looked at us very seriously, "On that night, two will be sleeping, one will be taken and one left behind," his tone was hushed, but then, after a long pause his café colored eyes lit up with cheer, "this is a lime from my own tree!" He said, and he squeezed it over a small mound of carne asada that had been topped with chopped onions and salsa.
Every Friday around eleven thirty, the buzz would begin: What was Francisco going to make this time? But Francisco would never tell us. He kept it close to the vest. Then the propane went on and he started preparing the grill, the guys would look up from their work area and lift their noses with anticipation. When Francisco brought out his bible most of the guys couldn't stop themselves from salivating. The grip he was beginning to have on the crew worried me. They were mesmerized not only by his foods, but also by his words. Soon they would be eating out of his hand. The shops usual sedated harmony had been replaced by a new sense of anticipation and excitement.
One Friday he bought a vat of oil, cabbage, and some white fish. When the oil came to a boil he dropped in some batter soaked tilapia. Then he placed it on top of a tortilla with cabbage and a white sauce that had the texture of yogurt. The crew ate with joy and listened attentively as he talked about the end times.
"Just as I am standing here, Jesus will come back," he said. "Not as a lamb, but as a lion."
"Never mind the second coming, how about a second helping," a welder named Brad yelled out. Everyone laughed, but Francisco could not bring himself to smile. He was locked into a stare down with Brad when I returned to my office. I walked past the vacant bays and walked up the steps to my loft. It was then that I heard the commotion from the shop floor. I raced back down the wooden stairs and heard yelling and scuffling. I looked up and Francisco and Brad were pushing each other. It looked like they were entangled in some kind of two-step that seemed sure to lead to violence in the mid day heat. Before I could get to the barbeque area, Francisco had landed a haymaker to Brad's nose. The other's quickly pulled them apart. Brad's hair was disheveled and he looked a bit stunned. I went to get between them, yelling.
"I want to see you both in my office," but Francisco ignored me, as if caught up in a rapture. He was pointing at Brad's bloodied nose.
"You can insult me, but you cannot insult my Lord or my food. That was me Abuela's recipe!" He seemed ready to go at Brad again, but the other fitters kept a hold of him. Finally Francisco calmed down, and the two of them followed me up to my office. By the time I got them seated in my office. Francisco looked quite remorseful.
"I have sinned" he said, "I am sorry. Please forgive me," he extended his hand to Brad.
Brad reciprocated, moving his hand toward Francisco's without reservation.
"No, I am the one who should apologize. I didn't' realize that was your grandma's recipe." All seemed forgiven. I figured Brad was more worried about losing his Friday food, than losing the fight. Even though all seemed well, everything sorted and reconciled, I still had no choice but to investigate. I spoke with the others in the lunch area about what had happened. They agreed: Francisco was the only one who threw a punch. As a result I had to let him go - zero tolerance, company rules.
Looking very sad, Francisco packed up his tools, and loaded his barbeque outfit into the bed of his truck. He carefully cleaned his utensils and put them into their designated case. As I gazed down from my window, he said his goodbyes to each crewmember. He blessed them and came up to my office.
"I understand why you had to do it."
I watched as he drove off wondering if I had done the right thing.
The following day Brad came to see me. He said that the guys talked it over and they wanted to keep up the Friday Barbeque tradition. I told him it was all right with me. The following Friday, Brad bought some hotdogs and hamburgers, but nobody thought to bring the condiments. I said I would take care of the barbequing the next week, but when I did they didn't seem very enthused on my cooking. I was no match for Francisco. It wasn't long before Friday went back to being like any other day, except that a few of them began to meet in Francisco's old work bay where they sat in a tight circle to read from their bibles. Keeping a vigil to the cook they lost.
At times I heard them talking about Francisco. I was sure they were doing it within earshot of me, to make sure I heard. Most of the talk implied that Francisco was wronged, that he should not have been let go for one little punch. Who of us can cast the first stone? In time, their muted whispers became bolder, eventually to become a fevered pitch. One day I came to find his name spray painted on the wall of the bay he used as a kitchen. The paint was the color of guacamole. I got to the point that I dreaded Fridays. I started to question my own human resources skills. Did I cover fighting during his orientation? I checked his file to be sure that I had hired and fired appropriately, that a proper investigation had been conducted and that the grounds for his dismissal would hold water.
The more I thought about it, I had to admit, the happier I was to see him go. Before he arrived, the men went quietly about their work. Now there was an edge to them all, as if something better had been promised them, and then taken away - something within their reach that I couldn't help them get.
Months went by and the shop returned to the fabrication of parts as before. Talk returned to the threading of pipe and the maintenance of valves. But one day another employer in the area called to inquire about Francisco.
"Word has it the man can cook and he was a good welder, but is it true he was a troublemaker?" Stunned by the sound of his name, I gave a non-committal answer but he wasn't satisfied.
"Let's put it this way, would you rehire him?"
I thought about the question remembering Francisco's food. I didn't miss his sermons, but the thought of his ceviche made me feel like I was missing something in my life. I could almost feel the texture of the cured tomatoes on my tongue as he waited for my response. His chicken with bits of chorizo simmered in red chili sauce - his rice dashed with salt and cumin.
"Well?" he said, "would you rehire him?" but I was only thinking about how many times I was glad to see him go, hoping that I would never see him again. Was my stomach more important than the culture of the shop that had returned, more important than the company policy I championed?
"Yes" I said after the long pause, "I guess I would."
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