Sometimes I crave an ambience more than a cuisine. When someone asks me what I want to eat, I have trouble naming a particular food but I can describe perfectly the setting I want to surround it. On the rare occasions when Husband and I decide to venture out of our own house for a date night, he’ll ask me what I want for dinner. “I don’t know,” I’ll answer, “but I know I want it on a white tablecloth that blows slightly in the breeze of an outdoor café with hanging baskets of pink flowers and a view overlooking a cottage garden.” He’ll respond with “I’m in the mood for Chinese.”
Every meal we ate in Puerto Rico satisfied my hunger for aesthetics as well as nourishment. After Uncle picked us up from the airport and shuffled through traffic to home, he sat us at the kitchen counter and served us bowls of silky white bean soup, habichuelas. We needed that simple dish to help settle us in while we simmered with excitement and plans for the week.
Language also plays a big part of our food experience; I love the way some dishes have the perfect names for what they are. Think “steak.” Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, utilitarian. Steak. This follows in other languages, and one of my all-time favorite dishes prepared by our Puerto Rican family epitomizes this trait: Papas a la Huancaina. Say it with me. Papas. A. La. Wan—ki—EEE—na. Now say it fast: papasalawankieena. It sounds like fun, right? Something based in comfort, yet playful, full of unexpected ingredients or little surprises, right? Exactly. Originally a Peruvian dish, my Puerto Rican family introduced us to this potatoes and cheese sauce creation years ago. Pillowy lumps of mashed potatoes sit on a bright bed of Romaine lettuce leaves. A turmeric-rich, golden cheese sauce coats the dumplings and whole olives get tucked into niches and edges. That hit of vinegar and salt deepens the richness of the sauce.
Uncle made this for us, as we begged him too, as we always do. He halved hard-boiled eggs and placed them like students in neat rows. Dairy, protein, carbohydrate, vegetable. Done. And once the name gets stuck in your head, you’ll hear it like a music lyric all day long: PapasalaHuancaIna, papasalahuancaina, papas, papas, papasalahuancaIna.
My cousin Cynthia cooks like I do: gladly. We both enjoy eating, but we love the cooking part just slightly more. With young children still at home, Cynthia measures out her day according to meals. Mary and I reaped the benefit of this, spending time watching her fry tostones and bake chicken and hold the baby and answer our questions in English while answering her daughter’s questions in Spanish and wipe up the water on the floor with one foot on a paper towel all while looking beautiful. You know: motherhood. She pan-fried pork chops marinated in ginger with limes, picked from the tree in their yard. On the day we went kayaking (story comes later), she fixed us canoes—baked whole plantains stuffed with a rich beef filling and topped with melty cheese. Mary and I returned salty and sticky, bug-bitten and exhilarated, and stood at the counter telling our stories and eating canoes.
The day we made it to Naguabo, we ate lunch at a little stand on the side of the road. They call it a boardwalk, but it isn’t really that. It’s more of a hodgepodge of scraps of wood and metal, layers of plastic sheeting, bungee cords and two of the most important elements: a bar and a deep fat fryer. These pop up along most of the beach areas—the one in Luquillo beach stretches for a quarter mile and offers coco frio. (Green coconuts kept in a fridge, then brought out to have their ends chopped off with a machete. Stick a straw in to sip out the rich milk then use the straw to carve out soft tubes of white coconut meat. I watched the machete part and missed Husband).
As we pulled into the strip in Naguabo the sky started to turn a shade of lavender, and the stray dogs moved from their spots in the middle of the street to flop under tables and benches lining the beach. The snack stand/bar smelled of fried things, seawater, beer, cigarettes, hot sauce, old wood, hot metal, aftershave. Perfect. Uncle ordered us plates of fried whole red grouper, beans and rice, doughy pockets of crab and shrimp, sweet strips of fried ripe plantains, and cold beers. As we picked apart our fish, pulling out flaky sheets of white meat, the sky opened up and tucked us into that cozy atmosphere of being dry when the world is wet.
Back home, Mary and I call each other with frantic questions. “What was in that sauce again, do you remember?” “I think it was….bay? Was it bay or oregano?” We know we can both turn to the internet for help, Googling various dish names and sight-reading recipes like music—does it have enough garlic? Does it seem too heavy with the tomato? Finding the recipe, the nuts and bolts, the basic instructions for how to season and fry a fish like the red grouper we ate in Naguabo—that I can do. Where are the instructions for conjuring up rain hammering a tin roof awning, the worn wood of a picnic bench, a puppy curled up sleeping under a barstool? I want the recipe for a white skiff anchored offshore, nodding to the ocean as it rocks in the surf.