Ana Hebra Flaster~Under Pressure with Abuela

Ana Hebra Flaster

Maybe a lot of people have a secret irrational fear of pressure cookers. Maybe I’m not alone.

I grew up in a large extended Cuban-American family, with multiple generations of relatives, and dogs, and cousins, and assorted friends milling around our tiny kitchen every day. My grandmother was always in the middle of the maelstrom, guarding our ever-hissing pressure cooker while it bobbled and shimmied on the stovetop. Abuela would shuffle between the sink and the stove, trying not to trip over us—or our enormous German shepherd—as we all chased after each other, searching for snacks in the cupboards, or begging her to make us more café con leche. Like we needed caffeine. “¡Cuidado con la olla de presión! Abuela would warn. Be careful of the pressure cooker! ¡Va a explotar! It’ll explode!

A few years ago my mother gave my sister and me pressure cookers for Christmas. “I’m afraid of those things,” my sister told me later when we were alone. “They’re a lot safer now,” my mother called to us from the living room. Her hearing was always excellent.

I planned to avoid the cooker as long as possible, but within a few weeks my mother asked me to bring one of our family’s favorite dishes to our next dinner together. Ropa Vieja, old clothes, is best prepared using a pressure cooker, so I knew my time was up. I’d only savored this dish, a wonderful mix of garlic, green pepper, tomato and shredded beef so tender it melts in your mouth in a swirl of flavor. Now I’d have to follow my mother’s famously incomplete cooking directions and survive the maiden voyage with my new pressure cooker.

I read the owner’s manual. I prepared the ingredients. Placed them in the pot. Consulted the manual one last time. Reassured, I lowered the heavy, long-handled lid over the cooker and rotated the lid counter clockwise to lock it into place. What was that? Something caught too early in the turn. Was it the rubber ring inside the lid? That little yellow thingy on top? I couldn’t move the handle—forward or backward. The lid was stuck, wedged at a peculiar angle unlike any of the cute drawings in the manual.

Now what? I had about $25 worth of meat and other ingredients in the pot and a family dinner to go to. At least it couldn’t explode… Right?

Maybe there was a tech support number for this thing. I checked the manual. No. On the box? No. Online? Nothing, only business numbers. I rifled through the manual again and at the end, in the tiniest script, I saw something: a phone number for an office in Texas somewhere.

The nice woman on the other end listened and said, “Hold on, honey. I can’t help you but I think someone else can.”

After a few minutes, the line rang at anther extension. A new woman’s voice came on the line.

“Um, do you have a rubber mallet?” she whispered.

“No.” I whispered back.

“I’m not really supposed to be telling people what to do with their cookers…”

I pleaded with her. “Look, I’ve got all this meat in there, and I’m supposed to bring this to a dinner tonight. I swear I won’t tell a soul you helped me. Can’t you just—”

“Okay, okay… Go get a thick towel, wrap it around a hammer, you know, with an elastic?” Whisper Lady was back.

 “Don’t hang up, okay?”

 “Uh uh.”

I ran around kitchen gathering equipment. Hammer. Check. Elastic. Check. Dishtowels. Check! “I’m back,” I whispered.

“Now, hold the cooker with one hand, and bang the handle gently but not too gently up and back, like you’re pushing it back to where you started. That should do it.” Whisper Lady’s voice was soft but intense.

“I’m putting you on speaker. Don’t hang up,” I told her and put the receiver on the counter.

“I won’t.”

I banged my “mallet” at the handle. I pried at the lid. Nothing. I banged on the lid again. Nothing. Wh– what was that whistling sound?


“Was that you?” I asked the receiver.

“Honey, you’re not hitting it hard enough. I can hear it from here. Really get in there.”

“Okay.” I aimed my weapon and banged on the lid again, hard.

“Harder!” Whisper Lady’s voice rushed out of the receiver. “Hard!”

I picked up the mallet, squinted at the lid’s handle, and swung hard at it, up at an angle. Pop! Something let go, and, with the lightest push, the lid sprung apart.

The intrepid woman in accounting, or purchasing, or wherever, and I celebrated for a minute or two—quietly, of course—and then she guided me through the proper way to close the lid. She sent me on my way with encouraging words.

The rest of the cooking went flawlessly that afternoon, and the Ropa Vieja was a hit. But the next time I used a little more vino seco, dry white wine, one of Abuela’s go-to ingredients, and got even better results.

I still look at my pressure cooker with a mixture of fear and respect. It yields the tastiest foods, in mysterious ways, and reminds me of the kind woman in Texas, and of the women in my family, especially the one whose voice I can hear sometimes when the cooker begins to hiss, !Cuidado! Be careful! I will, I tell my Abuela. I will.


Ana Hebra Flaster is a freelance writer and Lexington resident. Ana’s work has been featured on NPR and the Boston Globe.


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