Pasta and Presidente

It was early afternoon in the Dominican Republic. To reach our final destination, we had to take a couple of buses, settle into the bed of a very old truck and cross a river on a horse led by a young boy who charged us five pesos. The trip required patience and stamina. A sense of humor helped, too.

I was U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer. My sister Liz was traveling with me, a visitor to this tropical island for the first time.

The typical Dominican diet relies on rice to make up the bulk of the meal, beans to add protein and flavor, and any combination of vegetables that may be fried or boiled and usually soaked in oil. No spices are added during the cooking process. Not even salt. It is a bland, boring, but generally healthy way to fill your belly. Day after day, one eats rice and beans, or lentils and rice. Sometimes this is accompanied by pollo frito or tostones for a little variety, but in my rural Peace Corps home, most people were too poor to eat chicken on a regular basis.

Out in the southwestern countryside, my sister and I were visiting a friend who hosted a large boisterous gathering of fellow volunteers and neighbors. We bought boxes of dried spaghetti noodles and a pile of tomatoes at the local store,  which was run out of the living room in someone’s home down the hill. Someone had located oregano and basil and salt. We had garlic. And onions. Even a green pepper.

After sautéing the garlic and onions over a camp stove, we crushed the ripe, misshapen tomatoes in a huge tin pot and set them to stew. Between sips of cold cerveza Presidente, we took turns stirring and checking on the pot, breathing in the rich Italian aroma. We boiled an enormous quantity of pasta for the dozen or so of us gathered together, and served big bowls of spaghetti to one another as the heat of the day began to subside. I remember how amazing it tasted, hot and flavorful, and how fortunate I was to share such a meal with good friends in a remote and beautiful place. Life felt free and easy and warm, and the spaghetti was immensely satisfying.

Later that night, we danced and drank tequila straight out of the bottle. We laughed and talked and sang. It was a marvelous night. And the meal was divine.

I was prompted to write this post in response to a memory based on a recipe. What is one of your most compelling food experiences?

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