In the days following Thanksgiving and Christmas, the sound of glass bowls clanking on steel pots reverberates throughout my house. Rather than heating our leftovers in the microwave, my parents insist — much to the frustration of my sisters and me — that we scoop our mashed potatoes and sliced pernil into a bowl and place it in a pot of boiling water.
They call it “un baño de Maria,” a phrase that took me years to realize was the Spanish translation for the French term bain-marie, or “double boiler.” Ever since I can remember, my parents have used a double boiler to reheat most of our leftovers. It’s a technique they have remained loyal to for more than 20 years of marriage even though neither one of them can recall quite when they picked it up. My parents rarely used the microwaves in the four houses we’ve lived in throughout my life. Whether in Woodhaven, Queens or East New York, they chose the clacking of the stove burner over the digital beeping of the microwave, and encouraged us to do the same.
My parents both grew up in the Dominican Republic. Though my mother lived in a rural village and my father in the city, both were accustomed to the slow way of doing things. My mother’s childhood home had a small kitchen in a room off of the main house with a rumbling fire at its center that was always working — giving rise to kneaded buns in iron tins and delicately crisping the skin of that evening’s roast chicken. The unruly flames required careful tending — the trick was to keep them low, nestle pots in between the ashes and bide your time.
In a cramped cinder block house, my father watched his mother sit for hours by a tall stockpot on her tiny porch, boiling pinto beans to sell to women in her neighborhood. She began most of her days at around six in the morning, pouring the dry beans into the pot, adding water and turning on a low flame. This was her daily ritual — sitting in her creaky rocking chair on her porch, occasionally getting up to stir the mixture in the sticky summer heat.
Slow cooking is my heritage, a practice that means curbing my appetite for the promise of something worth waiting for. Reheating a meal in the microwave is taking the easy way out. For my parents, the machine’s resounding beep is indicative of a uniquely American impatience that they have managed to resist, despite living in the United States for over 15 years.
As a child, I found it difficult to grasp my parents’ constant rejection of what they conceived as “American values.” Like most immigrants, they struggled to retain their cultural heritage while living and raising children in the States — a dynamic that often played out at our kitchen table.
To them, American food was fast: takeout, Happy Meals, instant rice. This cuisine left no room for all the anticipation they had come to expect from preparing a meal — waiting for water to boil, for sauces to thicken, for plantains to fry to a deep golden-yellow. To them, patience during these crucial moments somehow made food taste even better, and made all the waiting worthwhile. Time was the secret ingredient for good food, and they were shocked by what they perceived as an American willingness to sacrifice this value for a quick meal. Even though I empathize with my parents’ views now more than ever, I am still, undeniably, an American millennial with the food habits to match: I eat more Trader Joe’s frozen meals than I care to admit, I meal prep almost every week, and I use the microwave often.
And yet, my most cherished food memories are built upon slow cooking. It is through that process of anticipation and patience that I learned to value the intention and care behind nearly every meal our family shared.
One of my favorite dishes that my mom made when I was growing up was habichuelas con dulce — a sweet, rich bean dessert we had only a few times a year. Though it is traditionally prepared for Easter Sunday in the Dominican Republic, my mother would make it sporadically throughout the year. “Creo que voy a hacer unas habichuelas dulces hoy,” she would say on a random Sunday morning, implicitly enlisting me as her helper for the day.
Making habichuelas was a daylong affair — we needed to soak the beans for hours before puréeing, then simmer the resulting liquid and slowly add the sugar, milk and spices while stirring. The mixture cooked on a low heat for what felt like an eternity, and only my mother knew precisely when it was done. We were the only two people in the family who enjoyed the dish hot, so we indulged in the first steaming bowl as soon as she deemed it ready, topped with signature milk cookies from the specialty supermarket.
For days afterwards, our fridge was always stacked with Tupperware full of leftovers. These were set aside for friends and family who eagerly awaited the few times a year they got to eat my mother’s famous habichuelas. My sisters and I fought for the last portion nearly every time, knowing that after our last spoonful, we’d have to wait months for another taste.
Recently, I have started preparing meals from scratch a few days a week. I turn on my favorite podcast, lay out the ingredients on my countertop, and start chopping. This hour of my day has become nearly sacrosanct — standing in my kitchen peeling garlic and mincing onions is one of the few tasks I will do any given day that is entirely for my own benefit. Outside of this hour, most of my time is neatly scheduled, regulated by deadlines and dedicated to working towards long-term academic and professional goals whose results I won’t see for weeks or months. One hour in the kitchen sautéing kale and roasting chickpeas might be my only chance to be present in a moment, rather than planning for a future. In the Dominican Republic, slow cooking is the norm; in America, it is a privilege.
“Ten paciencia,” my mother tells me whenever I stand above the bain-marie clanking away on the stove. I sigh and look away from it, knowing she’s right. Filled with anything from leftover lasagna to last night’s rice pilaf, the sound of glass bowls sitting in bubbling water serves as my family’s signal that, despite the long wait, dinner is almost ready.