Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Homemade Chef

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A sandwich made from two slices of toast, American cheese, and one slice of ham, slightly warmed by a short ten second rotation in the microwave paired with Kool-Aid was the first meal I learned how to cook.  I was seven years old, living in New York and I was on a mission in the kitchen.  Yes, my first meal wasn’t a spectacularly, scrumptious feast, but I think it was a good start, considering the uninspiring example set by my mom.

My mom hated to cook.  When she was younger, the only chore she refused to do was cook dinner.  When she got married and had kids, she was forced to cook, but she never did it more often than she had to.  It’s not like my mom is a bad cook, she just hated being in the kitchen.  I, on the other hand, have always had a great appreciation for the culinary arts and have always been hungry to learn more.  When I was in middle school, I decided that, if I wasn’t going to learn family recipes from my mom, then I would turn to my aunts.

My aunts are cooking aficionados.  They cook everything from scratch, make use of every ingredient available, and love every minute of it.  At their houses, it’s not uncommon to wake up at nine in the morning to a kitchen decorated with freshly peeled vegetables, marinating meat, and a preheated oven.  They see cooking as a reward, perhaps even more a luxury.  The more people they feed, the happier they are.  The more young ones they teach, the prouder they feel.  Family recipes to them are like the torch to their legacy.  Some of the recipes they use now are the same ones their mother taught them.  And, in the future, I’ll pass on those same recipes to my own kids.

When I first asked them to teach me how to cook, my four aunts invited me into the kitchen during every meal they made.  I started with a notebook and pen in hand, taking rigorous notes about which ingredients I needed, how much I needed, and when I needed to add what into the pot.  Along the way, they would grab my notebook, asking if I had written down that the potatoes go in first or that, if I couldn’t find whole cloves of garlic, then minced garlic would work just as well.

The first dish I made on my own was vanilla flan, a Hispanic custard dessert.  My aunt taught me how to make flan during one of her summer visits, telling me that it was a secret recipe.  After she left, I tried it on my own, following all of her instructions.  The flan was gone in a few hours and all that was left was the residue of homemade caramel at the bottom of the glass plate.  To this day, my family still asks me to make my flan and, after the countless times I’ve made it, none of them know all of the ingredients.

Soon all of the staple Puerto Rican dishes were being perfected in my kitchen.  Within a year, I had added chicken and rice, pork loin, steak and onions, beef stew, fried cod, and a few other dishes to my repertoire.  I was soon a full-fledged Puerto Rican woman in the eyes of my aunts as I could now make a traditional Caribbean meal.

Once I had my family’s recipes flawlessly memorized, I moved on to other types of cuisine.  I particularly like making Italian food and homemade burgers.  I’m always amazed at how a few changes in seasoning and cheese can create a completely different kind of burger.  With this branching out, came the inevitable stage of experimenting.

I soon got the itch to mix together different flavors and ingredients to create my own original recipes. Not all of my experiments were good ideas, but most have led to good reviews from the family.  My brother and his friends never fail to ask for my quesadillas every time there’s a party at our house.  My sister has even asked for my recipes, so she can make my dishes at her apartment.

I don’t think my recipes are complicated and I don’t think cooking requires a lot of work, but I do think you have to love it.  I certainly appreciate the many kitchen lessons that my aunts gave me.  They’re some of my favorite memories and I hope to create the same moments for my kids in the future.  I didn’t have the most extravagant start with cooking, but, with the support of my aunts and my love for making food, I have easily become the best cook in the house.

Playa Santa

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Playa Santa, or Holy Beach, is no more than a twenty minute drive south of my hometown in Puerto Rico.  Parking is easy to find, being that spots aren’t marked by white paint, but are decided by the driver’s opinion on which patch of sandy grass is the most convenient.  As long as you don’t park on the road that might be occupied by green iguanas the size of small cats or past the point where the grass stops growing and the beach begins, then any spot is yours for the taking.

The sandy shore separating the eco-friendly parking lot from the calm, clear water stretches no further than thirty yards and is surrounded by palm trees.  It is a quaint, familiar getaway, nothing like the perfect oceanfront view at the Hilton in the island’s capital of San Juan.  Here, I don’t have to look for an unattended plastic beach chair or avoid the masses of tourists, while the obnoxious honking of city life driving is miles away.  I can sit on the damp sand with my bare feet buried underneath the grinded up grains of grey, white, and cream colored rocks and sea shells in peace.

The occasional twig the length of a finger surfaces between my toes, becoming a drawing tool in the sand.  With every hand motion, the path of my twig swirls around leaving lines and circles that flow with the light waves I hear in front of me.  If I dig too deeply, its tip is buried by a miniscule avalanche of sand, but, if my indent is too soft, then the hot breeze erases any marks I made.  It’s a craft that takes some practice, but this practice is always cut short by critters that don’t enjoy others remodeling their homes.

I’ve found that making sand art mostly leads to an encounter with a few electric ants.  The tiny fire ants, known on the island as abayardes, are not much bigger than a grain of sand, but their bright golden color is enough to warn against their brutally painful stings.  Once when I was six years old, I tested the six legged bug and didn’t move away as it rushed toward me past the flower I had just drawn in the sand.  The heat that erupted throughout my leg was memorable enough for me to never challenge the electric ant again and be thankful that they are not found in the U.S.  Instead, I usually take the arrival of the abayarde as my cue to leave the sand alone and move into the water.

Within a few paces, my bare feet coated in a weak armor of sand sink into the warm water of the Caribbean Sea.  They don’t disappear, just fade as the rays of the pastel yellow sun illuminate the underwater world below my waist.  Clouds of sand, light reflecting sea shells, and guppies can’t hide from the bright star as I look beneath me.  My arms sway like I’m trying to make a snow angel on the surface of the water and I watch as the ripples that mimic my movements fight against the flow of waves that always seem to win the battle.

The sea is endless and peaceful.  Aside from the shoreline behind me, there is no land in sight and the horizon seems to be the point where the light blue water melts into the light blue sky above.  The thin, white clouds are scarce and their choppy edges seem to reflect the foamy white waves of the sea that form with the winds.  The sandy shore tries to imitate the bright hue of the sun, but the noon position of the star directly above has no competitors in dominance.

The only thing that the sky doesn’t have is the greenery that borders the stillness of the land.  Aside from the palm trees and the grass that scatters throughout the sandy dirt in the parking lot, mangroves peak into the water and cling to the land, making the sky envious of Puerto Rico’s lush, green colors.  The green colors that, in my mind, paint the shapes of the island from the sun’s perspective.  The dark green tops the mountains in the center of the island, while the rainbow of green shades mark where El Yunque rainforest is in the northeast.  The light green hue lets the sun know when the shore is about to begin and the sky can meet Puerto Rico on the horizon once again.

But, it’s the song of the coquí, a tree frog smaller than the size of a thumb, that makes my home better than any tourist attraction.  For a long time, the coquí frogs could only survive in Puerto Rico and their songs lulled natives to sleep every night, me being one of them.  Now, the small amphibians can be heard in other parts of the world, but the songs aren’t loved like they are on my island.  Not even San Juan, which has become the vacation getaway for tourists, appreciates the songs of the coquí anymore.  But to say that the high-pitched sounds of the coquí frogs are annoying is worse than sinning to a Christian.  After a long day of soaking in the water, being warmed by the sun, and feeling the breeze on my face, the song of the coquí is what truly makes me feel at home.

The pink sun begins to melt, disappearing into the ocean’s edge, the green trees darken to a shade closer to black, and the breeze gets chilly, but the coquí song makes the fading scene remain peaceful and unchanging.  It’s the coquí that make this beach holy as if they were sharing monk chants and choir songs.  Without the whistling of the frogs, this beach would be like any other distant shore that hasn’t been blessed by the amphibians.  I watch the day turn to night at playa Santa completely at peace until I fall asleep.  The frogs’ melodies are like a prayer over me that let me know I’m safe at home.