Thursday, September 1, 2011

Food, the Universal Language

Back in 1992 I was a young bride, flying to Colombia to meet my in-laws for the first time in three years of marriage. Although I was glad to go, it wasn't a voluntary trip. We were sent there at the behest of La Migra, to await my husband's visa. Being the government, they don't like to be too specific about promising you anything, in case you might get used to it. Instead, they just told us to expect to be there anywhere from two months up to two years. My husband had to go right away, of course, but I needed to straighten things out with work before I could follow which meant I would have to travel separately. A couple days after Valentine's day I got on the plane and flew off to South America alone, with my pocket-sized English-Spanish dictionary in my hot little hand.

In retrospect, I probably should have studied Spanish in high school. Most kids did, actually, but not me. I studied Chinese and, after that, Japanese. The Chinese never really stuck, but I did pretty good with Japanese, even winning an award for it after spending a summer as an exchange student in Tokyo. But none of this was any help whatsoever in 1992, as I was landing in an airport in Cali, Colombia. I got off the plane and somehow found my bags and then fumbled my way through customs with the help of my dictionary, lots of hand gestures and some very patient (and long suffering) airport employees.

Despite the language barrier, Colombia was wonderful right from the very first. Cali is a tropical city, very close to the equator. It is hot and bright and loud and friendly and filled with a riot of sounds, colors and smells that competed for my attention all at once. It seemed every street corner had a pollo asado restaurant, every car and house had Salsa music pouring from every open window and everywhere I looked, there were people, cars, motorbikes, horses and dogs, all competing for the use of the roads and all apparently without any particular concern for personal safety or traffic rules.

Was it any wonder, then, that I was totally overwhelmed by the time we reached my sister-in-law's house? My husband is next-to-youngest of 11 siblings. Between all the brothers and sisters, their spouses and their children, it was a blur of new relatives of all ages, all as excited to meet me as I was to meet them. After a rush of jumbled hugs, kisses and attempts at conversation which consisted mostly of a lot of smiling, nodding and some creative hand gestures, we all sat down at the table together for dinner.

I still remember that meal clearly. We ate my sister-in-law's superb Sancocho de gallina, with beans, rice, multiple salads, tostones and strong black coffee with sugar. I was relieved to see that I knew these dishes, although at the time I may not have known all the names. Seeing me eat their cooking without being hesitant about it put my sisters-in-law at ease, too. I was still a stranger, but a stranger that at least understood how to eat their food. By the end of the meal we still didn't understand what each other was saying, but at least we knew we had a little common ground to work with.

Over the coming days my husband's sisters, Elena, Leyda, Alicia and I continued to get to know one another around the daily preparation of meals. We may not have had a common language, but this, the familiar routine of feeding the family, was something we could all relate to. I helped with little things, peeling carrots, slicing onions, or even just stirring a pot, and in between slicing or chopping or stirring I took out my dictionary to ask questions. We learned to squeeze paragraphs of meaning into a single word, while we laughed together at the absurdity of the hand signals and acting we sometimes resorted to, or how oddly some of the phrases in the dictionary sounded in my terrible accent.

When we went out in the car to do the shopping we bought chontaduros from a roadside vendor at the gas station, and when we got a flat tire (which we did almost every time we drove anywhere) it was an opportunity to enjoy ceviche or fresh fruit or toasted peanuts from yet another road side entrepreneur. In the outdoor market I was amazed by the almost glowing colors of fresh pineapples, so unlike the dull, armadillo textured ones I was used to seeing in my local supermarket. For the first time ever, I tasted fresh guanabana and lulo and many other fruits that I didn't even know the names of. My sister-in-law Elena pureed them into juice, poured over chipped ice and crowned with her own special signature touch, a single drop of vanilla extract mixed in for smoothness.

When we traveled two hours outside the city to Tuluá, where my mother-in-law lived, my sisters-in-law and I made empanadas and tamales together, assembly line style. The empanadas were amazing, stuffed with beef, hot and crisp right out of the frying oil, burning our fingers as we scarfed them down with the aji my nieces made with tiny dried peppers from their grandmother's garden. I still remember the rich buttery flavor of the Colombian yellow potatoes we used to make the empanadas. I've searched high and low for a potato like it here in the US ever since, but even Yukon Golds don't come close.

The three weeks I spent there seemed to last forever, the rhythm of each day formed around hand-washing the laundry in the mornings, and shopping and cooking in the afternoon and evening. During the hottest part of the day we rested out of the heat of the sun. Connected by a covered walkway, all the rooms of my mother-in-law's house opened onto a central courtyard, filled with lush greenery and the fuchsia blush of the bougainvillea that bloomed here and there, and the fig tree where Chabela and Juancho, the two chatty green parrots lived. We would sit fanning ourselves, drinking fruit juices cooled with chipped ice, me pouring over my dictionary and stringing words together like mismatched beads on a necklace, while the men listened to soccer on the radio and the women chatted.

And then, suddenly, it was time to get back on the plane again and fly home. My husband's visa had come through. A quick, very bumpy flight to the Embassy in Bogota and back again the next day and he finally had the much-desired stamp in his passport that we had come for. We were grateful, of course, since we both had jobs to get back to and suspended lives to re-start, but I was very sad leaving Colombia behind. A part of me wished that the INS hadn't decided to suddenly work efficiently for once, so we could have stayed a little longer.

To this day, that time I spent learning to communicate with my Sisters-in-law, one fruit and vegetable at a time, still informs my cooking. A couple of years ago I bought a Colombian cook book, thinking it would be nice if I could learn a few of the dishes to make for my son. I was shocked when I got home and started to read through it, because I realized that I already knew how to make a good two thirds of the recipes. I had just never known the names, or even realized that I had picked up how to make those particular dishes.

At least once every year I still make Colombian empanadas for my son, exactly the same way I learned from my sisters-in-law. Every time we bite into the first ones to come out of the oil, piping hot, burning our fingers, I'm right back there, in Tulua, Colombia, on a tropical February afternoon in 1992.

My first night in Cali, Colombia at Sister-in-Law Elena's home

My Mother-in-Law Alicia, and Sister-in-Law Leyda in the kitchen in 

Enjoying Sancocho in

Sisters Yaqueline and Luz Carime, making the aji for the empanadas

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