When you eat an arepa like Dona Berta’s arepas, it’s as if you were eating at your grandmother’s. It’s a direct reference to emotion, to nostalgia.
Did I ever tell you about the time a Caribbean fruit smoothie revived my soul?
Ok so I had a nervous breakdown in the late 90s, dropped out of college and came back home a hot mess. My mother took me to Trinidad, her birthplace, for a change of scenery and I was still pretty miserable for most of it but there was something that happened to me there that even in the midst of my fragmented existential inner torment I could not deny. And it stays with me to this day. I can never forget it.
My mom had a friend in Trinidad who made fruit smoothies from the patio of his house, a bright colored wooden house with a yard that brimmed with abundant fruit trees. All of the fruits and ingredients who used were locally sourced from the island. I remember going there with my mom and another friend of hers to get a few tall frosty blended fruit drinks before we got in a car to drive to the beach. Somewhat just as determined to remain as miserable as I actually was, I took the drink in my hand with no sense of gratitude and then I took a sip and my insides were dancing frantically against the will of depression. The taste was so joyful, so pure, innocent, open, unapologetically present and delicious.
These were not just flavors. This was the taste of something connected to spirit, something I would never taste again, something that could not be duplicated, the edibility of hope and life itself. I felt high and yet I was stubborn and inclined to stuff it down because it just didn’t go along with the heaviness that permeated my being at the time. But I felt it like a bolt of lightening and I know that drink made me want to live again. Taste made me want to live again. The seed was planted. Ridiculous? Maybe. But the reasons that truly let us know we’re alive don’t have to make sense to anyone else.
Watching Street Food: Latin on Netflix with my husband this weekend, we both had deeply emotional reactions to the incredibly human profiles of selected street food cooks and chefs in Latin America. The second episode literally had us in tears. The stories are told straight from the mouths of poor working class provincial people, most of them women. The ways in which the culture and history of Latin and Afro Caribbean (with varying fusions via colonization) cooking passed were down to them over time changing and shaping the direction of their lives are nothing short of inspirational and motivational. Some have carts, market place and fair stalls; others use the side yards in their homes to serve people who come from all over the world in droves to eat their food.
Street food is food made my someone’s Tio, Tante, Auntie, Nana, food they made for for their own families which by providence or circumstance both serendipitous and painful, made their way into a larger market usually for the purpose of survival, renewal and expression of spirit and the fulfillment of a deep and urgent calling to serve. If I could do anything with my entire being to make a living that made me smile the way Dona Susana smiles in episode 2, I would never work again a day in my life.
There is this theme that runs throughout the series of people coming to the small remote locations in Brazil and San Salvador and the coast promising the streets cooks fame and money if they bring their business to Europe or America. No one takes them up on the offers. Dona Susana needs to stay close to the healing waters of Yemenja, which surround her seaside home. For her it is not about being famous or having more than she needs, but about knowing that a change of location is also a shift in spirit and energy which changes the process and the chemistry of food, not to mention being removed from the sources of local and cultural food that cannot be found anywhere else. There are all sorts of structural, cultural and systemic dynamics that go into creating the alchemy that produces the “emotion and nostalgia” of good street food; the air, the sunlight, the earth, the ecology, the economy, the people, the traditions.
While watching the series, my husband and I started musing about the great food we’ve had during our travels to Caribbean islands. On our honeymoon to St. Thomas in particular there was a food van we frequented often. The man who owned it made delicious fish patties and soul stirring passion fruit juice. Much like my experience with the fruit smoothie in Trinidad, this food experience is stored in my emotional DNA as so much more than just a taste experience. . We loved these experiences so much that we bought a bunch of patties to take home with us in the states as well as a few mango stowaways. LOL!!
They didn’t taste quite the same in our Harlem apartment.
I’ve been on vacation from work for the past week and trust me, there is no real vacation in a pandemic. There’s the fantasy land that you’re able to escape into if you’re lucky and then there’s reality. It’s not healthy to get pulled too far in any one direction but don’t I try not to judge myself to harshly either way. We need some “reality.” We need repetitive views of Hamilton. We need to rein in our online spending. LOL!! And we need to be able to “travel in place” to learn about other people and cultures using whatever entry points inspire us to be open and allow new things in to expand ourselves.
I love to eat but I have not dined out once since the pandemic began. Fortunately I have a husband who not only cooks a lot (and would love me to cook more. LOL!) but also genuinely loves to cook. The energy of love in cooking is part of what matters most. You can’t mass produce that. You have to come to the place it was created in to experience it.