A Hispanic Irishmen's Revelation of Food History: Part II
How many Irish Dominicans do you know?
A family secret recipe that I have often wondered just how secret and just how rare it possibly could be, “Mine es mejor,” is what I have grown accustom to hearing. It’s a single sentence with a perfect compliment of English and Spanish. A complimentary tactic my mother would employ in her cooking as well. Butter only goes with crumbs, salt only goes with the wet, seasoning only goes with the tender. But mostly it was because mejor translates to best, and if you have been around Dominicans long enough you would know that words with the letter “s” towards the end of them are just unfathomable to them.
I say this because the Irish aren’t any better. They have a thing for turning “you” into a plural and possessive plural word with “youse” and “yousers,” respectively. Already leaving their imprint in our food and the way we talk, I grew up on both sides of each culture and each culture is well known for their remarkable stubbornness in the acceptance of an “outsider.” Such conservative thought seemed to have come to fruition during my younger years growing up in a predominately Irish and Portuguese neighborhood. “Let’s ask the spic to play,” is what they would say. I’d hear them outside of my window before any one of them would knock on my door for a game of baseball out in the street. “Only 10 minutos,” my mother would say in English and Spanish.
Never truly being accepted on the team, I used to crouch in my mother’s kitchen and watch her make sancocho. A South American and Caribbean favorite, sancocho has a knack for being the paragon of a culture practiced by the countries who find themselves aligning with this part of the equator. It was served so, so hot that the kitchen would shoot up 15 degrees in Fahrenheit and its stench would linger in the air for what felt like days after my mother was done making it. But there was still something unique about it. The after scent left by the meat, vegetables, and other ingredients provided an aroma unlike any other kind of soup.
One whole chopped chicken, pork, stock, hot sauce, yucca, carrots, cilantro, lime juice, some seasoning, and a healthy dose of plantains was all you needed to be a full fledged Dominican in my mother’s kitchen. Seville orange juice, she used to say, was the trick to give it that tangy bitterness. In fact, sancocho can be traced all the way back to Seville in Spain before it made its way to the Dominican Republic. Like the Irish men and women cornered in a class structure met with poverty, the Dominicans sought refuge in a simple concept of accumulating all that they grew and cooked it in a single pot over a fire. Everything they had was thrown into the melting pot and it had no choice but to hold them over.
The Irish advanced this concept when disease struck the plants and their roots in 1845, causing a massive shortage of good and healthy potatoes. Millions died and millions migrated, mostly to America, but the ones that did stay found this single pot method quite unique since it a) was big enough to contain what food they had left, b) it was very much cost effective, and c) it really didn't take up that much time — meaning more time to grow whatever crops they could. This massive shortage later became known as the Potato Famine and it changed the landscape of Ireland both on a cultural and economic scope.
All kinds of meat have made appearances in the stew that is Irish: lamb, mutton, beef, chicken. Whatever takes your fancy just as long as you throw in some brown butter, flour, stock, and, of course, potatoes. Just like in the Dominican Republic, there are different ways to make your very own Irish stew from region to region, but for an authentic Emerald Isle stew, beer is used to make the mixture far more smoother and silkier. More specifically Guinness that is.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself Irish you know that there is beer… and than there is Guinness. A true expert in the arts of Guinness flavors can go on and on in one breath about the differences between Guinness and a regular old beer. Its dark brown tint simmering off a mist of cold droplets from its tan foam head that’s just about to spill over the brim of the beer glass. There is nothing like it since their barley is roasted with little to no bitterness. It is that simple detail of roasting that gives off Guinness’ famously nutty and sleek coffee smoothness with every sip down the hatch.
You know you’re Irish when your idea of a holiday is having an inexhaustible amount of people over with a few drinks. It is sort of a gateway into accepting your Irish heritage fix. This often left me wondering why that was. I would say that I have been to close to 30 quinceãnera parties in my lifetime, the Spanish equivalent to a Sweet Sixteen, and each one of them was no different in that it is a culture that embraces the very being of a family bond shared over some beers. Of course this is with the substitution of a dark icy Guinness for a light and equally cold Presidente.
Presidente is the Dominican Republic’s own produced and most favored of beers. It is a dark yellow bubbly drink with a foamy white head at the top. Maltier and much more sweeter than a Guinness, its bitterness is not tasted until long after it reaches the back of your tongue. A glass of Presidente will certainly do the drink on a hot sweltering day, but no one would ever compare it to a pint of Guinness. My mother, the epitome of love for her own country, even admits that her beer doesn’t hold a candle to a Guinness. “What we lose in es cervezas, we gain in la postres,” she would say to make herself feel better.
Indeed, the Irish are well known for pouring beer or liquor into their desserts, I mean look no further than their Irish Creme, but the Dominicans certainly get creativity points for theirs. Another speciality of my mother’s is habichuelas con dulce, or sweet cream of beans. It combines everyone’s first thought for a dessert food — red beans. The beans are boiled and then mashed in a blender with its juice and some coconut milk, evaporated milk, vanilla, some sugar and cinnamon, and, of course, dulce cloves. It is a bean liquid dessert that, somehow, makes bean liquid detectible, especially when it is served as a dip with some cookies or fried plantains.
The care and attention to detail that goes into this odd choice for a dessert is something that my mother takes pride in. The same kind of pride that went into her version of soda bread. She was warned about the difficulty and patience needed for the practice. However, quite up to the task she was since it is something she was accustom to in her own culture as well. This was a considerable connection for me between my two heritages. Sure, no one would think to see the two together, but they are still two widely different cultures with similar interests in carrying on the traditions beset upon them.
This is important for the millions of multiracial people like me who want to embrace more than one culture. Where would our cultures be today if South America hadn’t introduced potatoes to Europe or Europe hadn’t introduced their method of sancocho to South America. I certainly wouldn’t be overwhelmed by my mother’s tenaciously flavored sancocho. While the whole neighborhood would appreciate the absence of its strong lingering scent, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the wild combustion of tastes and zests that almost always accompanied it.
The bedrock of American culture is founded on more than one influence. A merging of a variety of contrasting cultures shaped by different regions, ideas, experiences, aspirations, hopes, disappointments, and changes. No matter the place, there is always a history behind it, in turn, making it no different when you think about it from that perspective. We are in a melting pot of interwoven stories and practices, brought together and developed to potentially structure this massive infusion of cultures where we honor everything as one. For now though, whatever issues are at bay or right next door, our love for food has had a long history of its own, not belonging to a single nation, but a history that has brought many to the same dinner table.