I made empanadas on the first Saturday night of April. It was Matt's and my last evening together before he reported for duty in South Carolina, the first leg of a long journey that will soon take him to either Iraq or Afghanistan.
We had been staying at his family’s home in Tennessee for the week. It was just the two of us and we had no schedule. We spent days maneuvering the Appalachian Mountains in tennis shoes and evenings watching movies on the couch. We shopped at Walmart, ate pulled pork sandwiches in empty restaurants off the highway, and tried hard to avoid the rain. I cooked a lot.
But on Saturday night – our last night – I wanted something special. As the sun went down and the vaulted ceilings of the house grew shadowy and dim, Matt packed his deep green rucksacks with uniforms and combat boots. I needed to distract myself. I wanted flour on my hands and my head in a recipe.
We had eaten empanadas almost daily while in Argentina, where we had traveled in order to escape the manic schedule of New York, the thoughts of war and the empty bags waiting to be packed. While there I loved the dish with origins in Spain: rich, spiced fillings nestled within crisp pockets of dough. We ate them with beef, with chicken and with cheese. We ate them baked, piled on metal trays and plopped on the table at cafes. We ate them fried, wandering through antique markets in Buenos Aires, the whorls of my fingers left slippery with grease.
I started cooking late on that warm Saturday night. We had spent the afternoon hiking and were moving slowly. Thoughts of the next morning, when I would drop Matt off amid a long beige line of barracks at an Army base in South Carolina, were cold in the pit of my stomach.
In the kitchen I concentrated on the movement of my knife, the temperature of the oven and the scent of butter. First I mixed the dough – a sticky, soft thing immediately sent to chill in the fridge. I sautéed onions and garlic. I watched the pink fade from a pan of crumbled beef. Olives and hardboiled eggs came later when, combined, I let it all cool on the counter.
“It smells good,” Matt called out from the living room where he was packing, surrounded by boxes of clothes and stacks of books.
I rolled the dough into small, flour-dusted circles. I filled them, pinched them, and brushed the sculpted mounds with egg wash. They came out of the oven crackly and brown. We ate them later with our fingers sitting on the couch.
These empanadas were good, though not great. I had miscalculated the ratio of dough to filling and could have used a bit more spice. That couch felt far from everywhere, especially Argentina. On our plates, butter replaced lard; bottles of Sam Adams took over for those of Malbec.
I woke up the next morning, like every morning, with my head in the crook of Matt’s arm. He smelled warm, like soap and fabric. But the now-familiar chill soon emerged from my stomach as I took a few deep breaths and remembered the day.
Before we left I took one last look at the kitchen. I emptied the dishwasher and brushed some errant crumbs of empanada dough off the counter.
That’s the end of it, I thought. No more distractions left.