My kitchen counter is a mess. Flour makes its way into the miniscule gaps between counter and stove. Scattered fruits and vegetables litter the surface of the counter, partially cut and put in the “for later” pile that we try to return to so as to not waste any food. There are limes sliced in half, dried up from the humid heat of a tropical summer. A pilón stands at the corner of the counter, still filled with garlic, olive oil and salt to be put on tostones. Mom always says that if the food isn’t colorful, it won’t be good. So there’s color to spare in this kitchen.
The flavor of adobo, rice and beans still lingers in my mouth from tasting the food as we cook. I try to imitate what I’ve seen the women in my family do, just dipping my finger in the hot pan or pot to taste it. I usually pretend it doesn’t burn — even if it does — just so it looks like I’m doing it like them.
The sizzling, hissing noise coming from the pan reminds me of when I accidentally burned myself with oil after not listening to Mom. It reminds me of my grandma, bent over a pan of frying plantain and telling me to not leave them in too long or they’ll get soggy.
The smell makes me wish I could save scents like pictures on a camera. I would bottle up that medley of spice and comfort and send it to my family living in the States. At this time of year, they would usually be visiting us in Puerto Rico and eating with us while Grandma cooks.
That isn’t happening now. My family isn’t visiting, and most of us are too scared to visit Grandma and risk getting her sick just so she can cook for us. 2020 has changed our family routine: no more big family dinners, no more beachside grills until the mosquitoes bite up our legs.
But what has remained is the importance of sharing our meals together, even though it’s just me and my parents now.
When quarantine started, we stopped eating out of the house to be safe. We made our usual meals, occasionally complaining about having to repeat recipes. But eventually, we started trying new ones. Dad decided he would learn to make paellas. Mom decided to try making low-carb meals. I countered that and decided to stress-bake every possible pastry you could imagine. Babkas, berry pies, brownies, ice cream (from scratch!), chocolate chip cookies — you name it, I made it.
Our days were defined by the meals we prepared. In the mornings, my dad would make coffee, a strict routine he’s followed my whole life. He packs coffee into an espresso maker, leaving it on the stove while he heats up milk and fills mugs with brown sugar. The coffee is a perfect balance of sweet and bitter. Culturally, coffee is important to Puerto Ricans. We feed light coffee — more milk than anything really — in sippy cups to our kids as they grow up. My childhood and adolescence were marked by the smell of dad’s coffee waking me up in the morning. He sent brown sugar in the mail just last week, just to make sure I was making the closest thing as possible to his coffee while I’m in New Haven.
Lunch is less structured than dinner, but still a meeting point. We all go to the kitchen to make food, get a second cup of coffee and talk about our days. We keep our windows open, letting in the sunlight through our kitchen window as we eat. We check in and talk about what we’ll eat for dinner before splitting up again to return to work.
We succumb to ordering takeout on occasion, but dinner has become a consistent family affair. We work and run errands and go about our lives separately, but we always reconvene in the kitchen to fry or grill or boil or mix our food for the day. On rainy nights, we eat soup with gandules fresh from our own garden. On more casual nights, we have salty rice with beans. We make pasta and mix different sauces together to see what comes of it. (We even made pasta from scratch one night. It was a total mess, but so worth it.) We sit at our kitchen counter with the TV mindlessly playing in the background. We make plans and check in with faraway family members by giving them a call over dinner.
My mom jokes that the secret ingredient to a good meal is making it with love. I discovered this to be true in the last six months. Our best meals over quarantine were made with all three of us in the kitchen, dividing tasks and mixing flavors. Even if we made the most basic of meals, it was the best when we did it together. If a pastry or a meal took a while to make, we’d watch sitcoms and movies while laying on our L-shaped couch, swaddled in blankets with glasses of a wine my sommelier dad decided to open.
I should mention that wine is a big part of my family culture. Sommeliers are wine specialists — they study the drink in all its shapes and forms, learning the details that most don’t think to consider. (I should also mention that I am 18 and, in Puerto Rico, it was completely legal for me to try the wine my father decided to open.) Dad saves some wines for certain events, like a few bottles of champagne from the year I was born — he has kept them for milestones in my life. But in the last six months, he has opened wines that he would normally keep for special occasions. He teaches me what to look out for, what different colors and smells mean. I have become familiar with the smell of grapes and the satisfying pop of a cork. After seeing him do this for so long without understanding much of it, it’s been fascinating to see why Dad finds it so interesting, to learn what he is passionate about.
The little pandemic circle my family created for ourselves was a bit stressful at first. We were panicked about what we could and couldn’t do to stay safe. But throughout our time there, we fell into routines marked by our food and the time we spent together as a result of it. It’s nice to think that even while the world is off-kilter, we’ve made our own little bubble of coffee, food, and wine, a place to feel safe and simply be with each other.
Ángela Pérez | firstname.lastname@example.org