|The lovely Miss Jennifer. I pilfered this photo from
La Botanic Organica’s facebook page.
I had been looking forward to this night ever since I had heard about it two weeks prior. A new friend, Jennifer, was going to be cooking dinner for thirty people at a local restaurant in Playa Chaquita called La Botanica Organica. It was a special event simply to bring people together and nosh on some good, healthy eats. I had ridden by on my bike on numerous sunny occasions but had never stopped in to eat. For the passerby, it has that charm of being an all open-air restaurant, with dark hardwood tables and chairs. What I hadn’t seen was the floor, which is cement but with huge inlaid outlines of various local leaves. The coolest floor I’ve seen in quite some time. Soft lighting, vivid bouquets of tropical flowers on the tables, and tea candles lent an almost romantic feel to the dinner. Like thirty of us were perhaps at a speed dating event in the Caribbean. Not only was I eager to meet some new people, I was also eager to eat some delicious, organic, and soul nourishing food.
I must admit I haven’t gotten too inventive with my cooking since I left the states. I pride myself on being a great cook and baker at home. Heck I co-owned a bakery in Rochester for a year and did the entire gluten-free line of baked goods myself. Two out of the seven months I’ve been gone I have been doing homestays where all the meals have been provided. A little Spanish practicing over arroz y frijoles. However, when on the go, I feel frazzled and lost in an unfamiliar kitchen in a foreign country. Sometimes I pine for my well-equipped kitchen; my eggplant colored Kitchen-aid mixer (the excaliber of electronic mixers), several great sharp knives, my two big wooden cutting boards, my crockpot, my food processor, my blender, my cast iron skillet.
Some women prefer to spend their benjamins on expensive clothes and shoes. I like to spend my benjamins on expensive kitchen appliances and shoes. I get as excited about going to specialty kitchen shops as a cat does when a can of tuna is opened nearby. I get equally excited for shoe shopping. I won’t even entertain the idea of being in a deluxe kitchen appliance store that doubles as a shoe store. A pair of Clark’s next to a Le Creuset pot? God help us, I’d never leave and my bank account would suffer. I have flitted through one hostel after another with shitty dull knives, warped plastic cutting boards, no counter space, inadequate pots and pans, mismatching tops to those pots and pans and a general feeling of ill ease in the kitchen. I don’t think Jennifer feels this apprehension. This was the menu: swiss chard and rainbow carrot salad with tumeric ginger dressing, raw beet salad marinated in tumeric ginger dressing (I loathe beets and ate a giant helping of this it was so delectable), cucumber apple salad with fresh herbs, spicy guacamole, brown rice, red beans with oodles of garlic, curried ginger tumeric roasted potatoes, watermelon “cake” with coconut cream icing, granola and strawberries and brownies with a cocoa, coconut, cashew spread.
|I also pilfered this photo from La Botanic Organica’s facebook page.|
Jennifer’s meal was the Eiffel Tower of dinners, lighting up my taste buds like the tower itself lights up at night. Most of my meals could be likened to something as boring as a beret, and some have tasted like what I imagine a beret must taste like, dull and lifeless. “Oh, I just bought a bunch of veggies at the supermarket, I think I’ll sautee them and eat them with beans and rice because I never eat that while I’m traveling.” I marvel at people who move in any kitchen like a happy baby, giggling and cuddling with whomever will bestow attention on it. I’m not good with just thinking meals up on the cuff. Usually, back home, every week I would pour over my cook books and decide on two or three rather elaborate meals that I would make for the week. Braised lamb shanks with a blueberry red wine reduction? Done. Pulled pork tacos with handmade corn tortillas? Done. Chicken breasts wrapped in bacon stuffed with kale and goat cheese? Done. Baking intricate desserts didn’t phase me at all but you’re lucky if there is an oven in your kitchen here. Usually, hostel kitchens have glorified camping stoves hooked up to a gas tank. I don’t know if it is considered a luxury to have an oven in Central America but I have found them few and far between. When I stayed with my host family in April, my host mother used the oven as storage. It reminded me of my Grandma Kay’s dishwasher when I was a kid. It was the kind you had to hook up to the sink faucet with a hose so she only used it on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the 363 days of the year, it housed her bread, crackers, cookies and other items that she bought from the Super Duper. I, in my child-like fascination, would open the dishwasher door and stare, marveling at how strange it was that she kept actual food in there and not dirty dishes. It wasn’t until much later in life I realized that because she lived alone, the need for a dishwasher was a bit obsolete.
There wasn’t a dishwasher at this restaurant (that’s another thing I haven’t seen much of here in Central America) and I had volunteered to help clean up after the dinner. Being a waitress for many years, my idea of efficiency is utilitarian. There is an order to things, everything belongs in a place. It was slightly not so as I was putting the clean glasses away after the owner handwashed each one in the sink. There were all different types and it just seemed natural to me that each one would have it’s own shelf. This was not the case and the owner told me there was no rhyme or reason to where they went. My reaction was to feel stressed. I thought of all the restaurants I’ve worked at in the past and how each different type of glassware was always stored with ones of the same kin. The same went for my own cupboards in any kitchen I’d ever had. I decided to not let it bother me, this was not my restaurant, I was not going to volunteer for one night and completely rearrange their shelving unit according to my own OCD preferences.
I’m so glad that I was able to go to this dinner. When you are living in a new place, nights can sometimes be lonely if you are always cooking dinner alone, especially a meal with almost no variation night after night. Food brings people together. Think about how almost every get together involves at least a little nibble of something. When I was a kid visiting family in Pennsylvania or New England there was always cocktail hour starting promptly at 5 and it always involved some cheese and crackers, veggies and dip. My advice to you, if you are traveling, seek out meals with people. It’s a great way to meet new friends and combat loneliness as well as shovel some yummy food down your throat. And I definitely did some shoveling. Had I been a chipmunk, I’d still be feasting off the reserves today, three days later.