There are dishes that warm our hearts as much as they fill our stomachs. They do more than merely sate hunger - they stir feeling, release memory. They are place settings in time. I always associate certain foods with certain people. Whilst hardly the first writer to acknowledge the strong ties to memory that aromas, flavors and textures have (Proust beat me by 112 years), I can say that when I contemplate making arroz con pollo y gandules, I think of my father, and of Nancy, my stepmother.
The summer I was 10, I met my stepmother for the first time. Her marriage to my father only lasted two years. I never saw her again after that August. When I told el esposo I was going to write about my stepmother, at first, he looked bemused. He had a stepmonster. A truly despicable creature whom neither of us could bear when she inflicted herself upon us twice a year (and surprise, surprise she hated cooking - always a sign of a nasty selfish individual). After all, as far as he knew, I had no such creatures in my own past that could haunt the recesses of my cerebral cortex. I hadn't mentioned her once to him before. The truth is I have no real reason to remember my stepmother. Except maybe this one:
My father took time off for good behavior after his 10 year marriage to my mother. Of course, as far as my mother was concerned, he freed himself from the bonds (& a few of the less stringent vows) of marriage well before the divorce decree was ever final. They lived with each other for a total of four years.They'd been childhood sweethearts since grade school. I was two when they separated; 8 when they divorced.
Permit the little girl in me to gush about my father. The man was a born charmer with an Adonis-like body, a rapier-like wit and a dazzling smile, armed with just enough self-deprecating humor to make him seem humble without turning him into a Puerto-Rican version of Woody Allen. He had charisma. That 'thatness' that drew people to him.
In fact, he was recruited by a Hollywood talent scout in the 60's when he was doing a stint as a waiter in New York's Russian Tea Room. They were looking for another John Garfield (whose movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Lana Turner was hot stuff back in the day and reminds me of my parents' near fatal relationship). My mom gave the idea of a Hollywood-bound husband the big 86 (restaurant speak for HELL NO!)
Theirs was a passionate affair. My mother's and my father's. She was the Lana Turner to his John Garfield and she wanted to keep it that way. I learned the bewitchery of tumultuous relationships early on - from them. I conflated a certain degree of mischief and mayhem with love. Maybe I still do...
I remember being 2 years old, my father was taking a shower. I entered the bathroom. The bathroom was good & steamy, so I knew the shower was hot. I had asked my mother for a glass of water. She poured from a bottle in the fridge (she liked everything ice cold). I still had the glass in my hand as I entered the bathroom. At that time we lived in one of those enormous old pre-War buildings in the Bronx on Gerald Avenue, just a subway stop away from Yankee Stadium. Our tub was an old clawfoot titan that had been converted into a shower and had a shower curtain that circled as an enclosure. I could see my father's legs through the curtain.
I said, "Hi, Daddy!" then pulled the curtain open and threw the cold water at him. He let out a HOWL! I went running out of the bathroom giggling like crazy. He came out with a towel wrapped around his waist, grabbed me and tickled me like crazy. It's the last memory I have of living with him. I guess I'm always trying to re-live that moment. I'm sure every man I ever loved could attest to my porcupine nature- my need to alternately badger & cuddle.
Legend has it that during the course of one infamous blow-out with my mother, he once lifted the fully stocked kitchen refrigerator in their Gerard Avenue apartment and hurled it out the first floor window which despite its first floor location was actually some 20 feet above ground level.
The refrigerator and its contents splattered all over the large back alley of the building complex. Fortunately, the only witnesses were a few startled stray cats who eventually got over their trauma enough to pick over the more delectable bits of the wreckage.
I have only the vaguest recollection of the incident. Most of that recollection is based on my mother's recounting of the story to me. Still, I told her she was lucky. Better the Frigidaire than her carcass. At least, he showed some level of self-control. Knowing my mom, I'm sure it took a helluva lot of restraint on his part not to have defenestrated her, instead. She makes Katherine from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew seem like Shirley Temple. Hell hath no fury like my mother. Period. Even on her best days. She never needed a reason to be hellacious. She was born feeling scorned.
Soon after that incident my father was sent to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary on 'racketeering' charges - a polite way of saying he was a part of the NYC mob - and my mother, baby brother and I went to live in The East River Projects with my grandparents; back to the apartment my mother was raised in after our family's immigration from Puerto Rico. I remember long rides from the Port Authority terminal on 42nd Street to Pennsylvania on Visiting Day - sardine-canned into stuffy buses with my mother, and the ham and cheese heroes on Italian sesame rolls from Tony's Deli on 104th and 2nd Ave. that she bought for the trip that somehow made seeing my father in that place palatable.
|Picture of me and Daddy in Lewisburg Penitentiary on Visiting Day. |
My mother cropped him out - her way.
My father never smoked, rarely drank as a young man; although alcoholism did eventually claim his liver, just as complications from AIDS later claimed his life far too soon. His name was Hector Afortunato Gomez - years of enduring that name may eventually have taken its toll on him. To hector means to bully. He had a dark side -- one that sent him into my arms one day, he drunk, maudlin and full of regret apologizing for the many unsaid deeds done; me young startled, trying to accept the weight of him and realizing that maybe every terrible thing my mother ever said about him might be true -- but bullying wasn't one of his vices. He joked about his name often enough to make me realize how much he hated it - calling himself HAG (an acronym with his initials). My full name is Lori Ann Gomez. I called myself LAG for that whole summer I spent with him...
He was a poet, an artist, a voracious reader, part-time waiter and a professional cook - in fact, all of his side of the family were in the restaurant business. I suppose the proclivity for finer dining could be a genetic pre-disposition, not unlike a form of insanity that undoubtedly afflicted us all.
He had a strict code of honor. He never swore and was extremely insistent to those within earshot of the beloved females in his life that they toe the line of respectability... or else!
A gifted martial artist, as well, he would not hesitate to impose his idea of civility on those whose behavior fell short of the ideal. Like John Wayne (actually more like Steven Segal), after a fair warning, he would knock the offenders lights out. Really thrilling and I'm sure very sexy for those lucky ladies he was courting. You always felt safe even in the deepest darkest corners of the concrete jungle of El Barrio with my Daddy.
I called him Daddy. I was after all his little girl. Sometimes I called him my gypsy. Daddy was a gypsy, too. He never stayed at one address for longer than a few months. He traveled sans caravan, however: "He travels fastest who travels alone" - and he was always alone until that summer.
Daddy was light speed with hummingbird wings. Alone he stood proud on the edge of Life's prow along the river Tao with open hand and open mind feeling the whim of the wind, but his will sailing firm on its own chartered cut-across. He told me, "You must learn to kill and then not to kill." and showed me his empty hands. Palms uplifted, like a supplicant. I clasped them, feeling their supple strength. Studying them like a treasure map. Fascinated by his lifeline. I remember him as a wink and a smile. He smelled like sunshine and sky blue serenity, like some men smell of toothpaste and Aqua Velvet. Yet he died young. Crying into empty bottles at the end. His tears only salting the wound in the broken skin of his wrongs. I never saw him dead. I barely saw him alive. But so fiercely I feel his pulse - through mine. I feel his pulse - in mine. In a way that I have never felt my mother's.
After scores of women, he finally took the plunge again. He only dated women who resembled my mother both physically and temperamentally, but when he remarried, he married someone who was her polar opposite.
My mother was... how shall I put it? I'll try to be fair, but I doubt I'll succeed...
The bad seed.
The rotten apple in a barrel full of crisp, shiny Jongolds. When she thought of us at all, she resented our smooth, glossy skins & tart/sweet juices and made us miserable for being something she was not. She was to be more pitied than censured, she was ultimately wormy, mealy and so unhappy about the fact that nobody really wanted to take another bite after the first taste. Why would they? She did nothing to improve her flavor & everything to poison us. Still, she couldn't help it. Everyone knew this and forgave her it. Even my daddy.
Daddy married Nancy. Tall, slender, dark-skinned mulatta with fine features and beautiful hands. Her fingers fascinated me, long, cool to the touch, and very capable. She was a Seventh-Day Adventist or Jehovah's Witness, I forget which. Both seemed so foreign, so exotic like she was.
Daddy was a Catholic (well like most Puerto Ricans, he was dutifully baptized, communed & confirmed in that "universal" Church of Rome, if not exactly devout) but converted to Nancy's form of Protestantism which she took very seriously when they united in their holy wedlock. And holy it was. Daddy, a lifelong reader, began eschewing other reading material to focus on his Bible studies, such was Nancy's sphere of influence on the man.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe death is a state of non-existence with no consciousness. There is no Hell of fiery torment; Hades and Sheol are understood to refer to the condition of death, termed the common grave. Jehovah's Witnesses consider the soul to be a life or a living body that can die. I bet that appealed to Daddy, far better no consciousness than an eternity in the hell he figured was bound for under the Catholic Church.
He knew he loved Nancy, he said, when they were traversing La Ruta Panorámica in Cordillera, Puerto Rico. He was driving & showing her the sights. The Panoramic Route is a single lane, two way snake-like road. Really a combination of over 40 of Puerto Rico's secondary highways along the spine of the island's mountain range and through the Cordillera Central.
As he was talking to her, gesticulating wildly while navigating a hair pin turn, she suddenly very calmly and casually said to him, "Bear right, dear."
Which, thankfully, he did as a reflexive response to her interruption of his flow of prattle. If he had hesitated at all, they would have gone careening off the edge of a 1500 ft cliff and been smashed into smithereens.
He took her lovely calm demeanor in the face of such imminent catastrophe (not to mention their subsequent avoidance of death) and his reflexive reaction to heed her lightest word as a sign that they were meant to be together and proposed to her on the spot!
Nancy was a good woman. Quiet, calm, kind. She had a natural elegance and poise that belied her simple dress and lack of cosmetic enhancement. Music and dance were not allowed in her religion but she never seemed severe and she never preached. She would tend to house, go to her services. I spent a good deal of time with her that summer, but all I can recall about her was her beatific Madonna-like smile and a sort of zen-like sensibility she had. The way she was fully present, seemingly engaged yet silently observant. Like the moon. Cool, brightly beaming, benevolent. Content to shine in the night sky and revolve around the larger planets in her orbit.
I don't remember her ever laughing which is funny because Daddy was always joking. Some things were corny, some things were brilliant. While she may never have rocked with laughter at our antics, she never scowled or sulked or seemed resentful of my presence.
She bore a son, my half-brother, not long after the marriage. He looked almost exactly like me. She & my daddy separated after two years of marriage. I strongly suspect it was his fault. He was a restless soul. My gypsy. I never saw her or my baby brother again. I don't blame her. The universe is a big place filled with billions and billions of stars. We all have our own planets to revolve around, I guess.
Unlike my mother who never saw a frozen t.v. dinner or take-out menu she didn't like, Nancy cooked. Cooking is a true sharing. Every dish is another opportunity to show the love. My mother's mother, mi abuelita, exemplified this. She was not an affectionate woman, but she moved tectonic plates making sure that I had everything made EXACTLY the way I liked it... it was so important to her that even a slice of toast be done the perfect shade of golden brown. She CARED! Nancy cared, too.
I do remember Nancy's arroz con pollo y gandules. I suppose I do because it felt like so magical a time for me. For the first time ever, I was part of a conventional nuclear family - short-lived though that moment was. Mother, father, kiddies... we could have been featured characters of some Walt Disney film. Daddy in the starring role. As I lay on the living room floor devouring my daddy's Stephen King novels and sucking on quenepas ( a Puerto Rican fruit, so tart on the tongue with a slick fleshy pulp that can adhere to your tastebuds, they should be served with a warning), Nancy was in the tiny galley kitchen cooking up a storm.
Arroz con pollo y gandules is such a quintessentially Puerto Rican one-pot meal. It is the island's national dish. A true family-style food. The warm rice kernels mingling with savory spices and chicken was soul food, the real deal - la cocina criolla - a panacea for what ailed you, if anything did; and doled out as preventative medicine even if anything didn't. Most Americans will associate Creole cooking with Louisiana’s Cajun cuisine, but that’s not the case here. In the Spanish Caribbean, “criollo” refers to Spanish Americans of European descent. Hence, “cocina criolla” is the cuisine created by the European (predominately Spanish) colonists using their traditional recipes while intimately canoodling with the native Caribbean foods of the Tainos. Those gandules themselves having traversed as long and far as Columbus and the African slaves that once populated the island. Consequently, you will find both native and Spanish influences, cooking techniques, and ingredients in Puerto Rican cuisine. La comida criolla is THE melting pot.
My mother would never have stood over a hot stove on a sweltering summer night for her own children, no less her stepchildren, but Nancy chopped, fried, and stewed like a pro. Daddy, who was the superior cook, peering over her shoulder the whole time, suggesting a bit more sofrito, a pinch of adobo, a splash more tomato sauce, sprinkling a few more capers over the rice, but Nancy didn't mind. She added the most essential ingredient of all - love.
Traditionally, pigeon peas (gandules) & sweet (not spicy) scotch bonnet peppers are used in the dish; however, they are not always readily available especially here in San Francisco where seemingly every other latino country's staples are available except amazingly those from the only U.S. latino nation, Puerto Rico. So, small bell peppers or even banana peppers make adequate substitutes for the sweet scotch bonnets, and garbanzos or small English peas can be substituted for the gandules. Gandule is another name for pigeon peas (Cajanus Cajan). Pigeon peas are a small bean that are native to Africa and/or India but most likely originated in India and were brought to Africa millennia ago...
Arroz con Pollo y Gandules
Adobo for the chicken:
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- 1 teaspoon lime juice
- 2-1/2 lbs. of chicken pieces (with skin & bone for additional moisture & flavor)
For the rice:
- 1 ounce pancetta or salt pork, cut into small dice
- 2 ounces prosciutto or other lean cured ham, cut into small dice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 green pepper, seeded & finely chopped
- 3 sweet (not spicy) chili peppers or one red pepper, seeded & finely chopped
- 1 tomato, seeded & chopped
- half a handful of cilantro leaves, finely minced
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 10 spanish olives, stuffed with pimientos, cut in half
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained
- 1/4 cup of tomato puree or tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons of achiote (annato) oil or 2 tablespoons canola oil mixed with 1 teaspoon of paprika
- 3 cups of long grain rice
- 3-1/2 cups of water or low-sodium chicken stock, heated & reserved
- 1 can of gandules ( pigeon peas), drained or 1 cup of frozen green peas, thawed
- 1 jar roasted red peppers, drained for garnish
Place first 7 ingredients in a mortar or food processor & mix into a paste. Cut chicken into equal sized pieces & rub all over with the garlic paste (known as adobo) marinating the chicken in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
In a dutch oven or large braising pan heated over med-high heat, add olive oil & rapidly brown the pork fat & ham. Reduce heat to medium, add the chicken and cook for about 5 minutes, searing all sides of the chicken.
Reduce heat to low, & add the onion, green pepper, sweet or red pepper, tomato & cilantro (known collectively as the sofrito). Saute for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Increase heat to medium, then add the salt, olives, capers, tomato sauce, achiote or paprika oil and rice. Mix well & cook for two or three minutes, stirring rice mixture occasionally.
Add the reserved heated water or stock to the mixture, mixing well then cook uncovered over medium heat until liquid evaporates and rice is dry.
When rice is dry, turn it over once from top to bottom using a fork.
Lower heat to lowest setting, cover rice with tightly fitting lid or use aluminum foil to create a seal & cook for 20 minutes, turn rice over again with a fork & cook for an additional 20 minutes. (40 minutes in total)
Add peas, folding them into the rice carefully with a fork, and cook for 15 minutes. Then remove pot from heat, allowing rice to stand with lid firmly in place for 5 minutes more.
Meanwhile, heat large platter or plates for 1 minute in microwave or 5 minutes in oven. Serve rice on warm platter and garnish with roasted red peppers & sprigs of cilantro. A simple little salad of sliced avocado, tomato, cooked green beans & lettuce with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & fresh lemon juice makes a nice accompaniment to the dish. Serves 6-8 nostalgic Puerto Ricans. Buen Provecho!