Un chin de sal

Written by HHI’s Summer Research Intern, Sarah Green

I gingerly cut off the top and bottom and hack off the sides, careful to not remove too much of the fruit. I select a piece that looks especially juicy and slightly darker yellow. The pineapple instantly satisfies my sweet tooth; then it turns slightly tart, trying to prove it has an attitude and is not all sugar.

From the market in Montellano

Food in the Dominican Republic speaks to me. The bananas may be brown on the outside but they are bursting with flavor; the gandules are all different sizes and provide texture in stir fry; the avocados have enormous pits and are so creamy and sweet you can hardly tell it is a fruit; the barbequed chicken from down the street has so much flavor it dances in my mouth. However, Dominican food speaks to more than just my taste buds. It has given me insight into Dominican hospitality, sacrifices, and beliefs in the power of their land.

From the moment I entered the country, I was embraced by the welcoming arms of the Dominican communities. I stayed with Laura in the staff house for the first few days so I was not by myself; she greeted me with a stir-fry of gandulesand vegetables that introduced me to the bold flavors of eggplant and onions here. Later, as Charlene and I were doing our patient interviews, we followed our noses into the homes of the Community Health Workers, who greeted us like old friends. I remember a particularly hot day in Pancho Mateo when Claudia and Carlito gave us grape soda—perhaps the best soda my dehydrated body had ever gulped.

Mercedes and Charlene, Sarah's co-researcher, making arroz con dulce

Then there was Mercedes. Words cannot describe the enormity of the feast prepared for us; she clearly has a passion not just for food, but also for sharing her gift with others. I left her house about 10 pounds heavier, and with a fabulous recipe for arroz con dulce, which is like rice pudding but much better (perhaps owing to the fact that she cooks over a fire pit). Her recipe included white rice, an entire coconut, condensed milk, sugar, and un chin de sal (a touch of salt).

The Dominican passion for sharing food extends to more than just hospitality; even the poorest Dominicans are able to sacrifice what little they have in order to feed a stranger. One family with whom I have grown close lives in a small tin hut in a crowded community. When I asked the mother if I could buy some of the peanuts she sells, she immediately stated rummaging around her large basket to find the perfect ones for me. She handed me two bags of peanuts, two pieces of peanut brittle, and one coconut treat I have decided to name “I died and went to coconut heaven” (I didn’t tell her that; my attempts to make jokes in Spanish have been largely unsuccessful). When I tried to pay her, I was met by a stern look and a shaking head. I persisted but in the end she would not allow me to pay. She might be 80 pounds and 4’8’’, but that woman was strong. In hopes I too would gain superhuman strength, I devoured her gifts. The tastes of roasted peanuts, caramelized coconut, and pure sugar, as well as the taste of the pure desire to do something sweet for a fellow human, still linger on my tongue and in my heart.

Fresh avocado and tomato with black beans and rice - qué rico!

As we have learned through our hypertension research, Dominican food can also affect the heart in other ways (and I don’t just mean due to the effects of fried food and red meat). From their gardens and conocos (small farms), Dominicans can produce foods that they use to help manage their hypertension. We have been told of the healing powers of anise, passion fruit, guanabana, and noni, among others. I honestly have no idea if these remedies work. But I mention them because to me, these methods represent a sense of control for these patients. On an island where a significant proportion of the population suffers great discrimination, in a country that doesn’t think they deserve paved roads, in an area where the closing of a factory a decade ago is still felt by the economy – these are people who have had little control in their lives. And now they have hypertension, a disease they cannot feel or see. So food is their power: they do not need someone to give it to them because they can grow it themselves, from their land. Of course, the medicines provided by HHI help a great deal. However, providing medicines is not the only way in which HHI has improved health care here; they empower individuals through education and responsibility.  And in the same way, food gives individuals power: to welcome a stranger, to bridge the gaps of social class, and to heal. For some patients, all it takes is agua con azucar y un chin de sal (sugar water with a touch of salt) to help with their hypertension. I wish that we could all gain peace of mind from such a simple recipe.

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  1. Posted July 30, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    What a thoughtful and incredibly resonant blog post Sarah. I had a similar experience in my one week there, and it’s incredible how food can tell such a story. Also, still slightly obsessed with you and Laura working together 🙂

  2. Posted August 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Sarah – the power of food compels me/you. Thanks for reminding me how amazing Mercedes’ cooking is, all that is wrapped up in diet and exercise, and what true hospitality is. We’re all behind you and Charlene – whoOO!

  3. Megan
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    What a beautifully written and insightful post! I was immediately taken back to Montellano — the avocados, Mercedes’ fire pit, Carlito and Claudia’s soda — and I can not thank you enough. Kudos to you for being so observant, respectful and sensitive during your time there.

  4. Janelle
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    What a beautiful blog post, Sarah. So wise, and so right. We miss you already! Thanks for reminding us of how closely food factors in to both hospitality and feelings of empowerment for our people here near Montellano. I’ve recently learned a new recipe from Mercedes for a sweet cornmeal dish that I love. If I can figure out how to make it like she does I’ll send you the recipe.

  5. Nicole
    Posted September 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Sarah, thanks for such a descriptive and vivid blog post. I certainly spent my share of time eating in the DR, but I never considered all the meanings of food so deeply. Thanks for making my understanding of Dominican society and HHI’s work even clearer!

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