I avoid Tía Alba’s awkward conversation about colonizers and inquire about the strange pie instead. “What kind of pie is that?”
“Smells good, right?” She smiles, confident the answer to her question is a resounding yes. “Tell you what, I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”
I’m positive I’ve spilled no secrets, but Tía Alba seems convinced I’m hiding something. And she’s not wrong. “Okay, so what kind of pie is it?”
“I understand all about secrets.” She ignores my question. “You don’t get to live out here all your life without knowing how to take a secret or two to your grave. Besides, you’ll soon hear I’m known as the Queen of Lizard Pie.”
I’m not sure what she means but I pretend to follow along.
“Do you like Lizard Pie?” She turns to reach for something, then turns back to me with a perfectly round piece of pie served on a perfectly large porcelain plate in her large hand. She sets it in front of me, rests both hands on her wide hips and demands. “What are you waiting for. Dig in!”
“Did you say Lizard Pie?” The freshly baked pie looks even more amazing up close, with the most golden crust I’ve ever seen and steam escaping between the spaces of the flaky but tightly knit pastry latticework.
The entire café, like at Big Betty’s, is filled with the aroma of minced meat with a sofrito of yellow onions, cumin, achiote, paprika, salsa de tomate, Pasilla peppers, plums and carrots, all sizzling and dancing around a hot pan until its nutty, spicy, and sweet scents like molasses, hypnotize every hungry customer in the place.
“Well?” She asked impatiently before I have time to pick up a fork and test her lizard meat concoction. Sensing my confusion, she decides to help my curiosity along. “Why don’t you just ask me what you really wanna ask me? The obvious question.” She winks, handing me a spoon.
The obvious question? I don’t even know where to start. What is lizard meat? Why would you put it in a pie? Why add it to a menu? Do you not like your customers? All great questions just not sure which she’d considered the obvious one.
Tía Alba finally breaks through the silence. “It’s okay. I get why people wanna know if there’s actual lizard in my famous Lizard Pie.” She laughs.
“Is there real lizard in your Lizard Pie?” I am equal parts interested and weirded out. “Well, I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.” She laughs again, this time reaching for a pie spatula and slicing the pie into eighths.
“Right, secrets. To the grave. I remember.” I bring my index finger to my lips. Shhhh.
“I’m pulling your leg. I can’t afford any homicide charges. Who’d take care of the café?” Tía Alba places two vintage plates with pink roses on the counter and serves one slice per plate. “I promise to trust you with my pie secrets and maybe tomorrow you tell me all about how you ended up in Why, Arizona with the likes of us.” She grabs two forks, rinses them in the nearby industrial sink hanging off the wall that separates the café from the back kitchen, wipes them and hands me one. “So, nothing to worry about here,” she takes a forkful and chews up a smell bite. “No lizard in my Lizard Pie. Lizards are too skinny. Too bony. Too much trouble and not enough meat. Like those silly models in those fancy magazines that look like they haven’t had a good meal in a decade.” Alba laughs at her own joke, then looks sorry to have made it, not knowing if she’s gone too far. Too insensitive. Too politically incorrect.
I laugh to assure her, her joke is fine. More than fine, it’s hilarious. “If not lizard, then what?” I pry but feel certain I smell most of her ingredients and can identify ninety percent of them accurately—so much for secret recipe.
“Okay, kiddo, lean in,” She leans on her elbow and swallows her mouthful. “There’s actually no meat in the pie at all. I am a master of deception. Instead of ground meat or turkey or chicken for meat pies, I cook it with minced nopales.” She giggles and brings her big hand to her face. “The cactus tastes slightly bitter or a little sour and plays nicely with all the ingredients, especially the sweetness of the plums and paprika. It eats like a meat and gives the whole pie a vinegary-citrusy kick.” She winks at me and asks. “Well?” Her patience clearly running out.
“It’s amazing.” I say with a mouth full of Alba’s delicious non-lizard pie.
“Aww, thank you, kiddo.” Tía Alba is almost finished with her slice and goes off for something to drink. “But you know, my secret-secret weapon isn’t even the nopales. The real secret of the recipe are the little cubes of prickly pear that act like tiny raisins to create the perfect sweet and salty bite.” She returns with a pitcher full of a strawberry-colored liquid that she pours into two brown plastic tumblers, filling them to the brim.
“Makes sense. That’s why it’s the Prickly Pear Pie Café.” I take a sip of the pinkish drink and it tastes like wine not strawberry juice, which is what I thought we were drinking.