In Nia Ita Thomas' creative non-fiction piece, a lesson in the kitchen from her mother to learn a family recipe becomes a reflection on her mother's life, her relationship with her mother, and a beautiful example of love found in the making a meal of plenty when life feels limited. Told in thoughtful and beautiful prose, Nia Ita's personal essay reminds us all that a family recipe can often be an opening door to familial connection and reflection.
Nia Ita Thomas is a bilingual, school-based, NYC speech-language pathologist with a love and passion for words and language. Born to two Dominican immigrant parents, she is also a writer and educator who is focused on improving the quality of life of others through reading, writing and the sharing of resources.Her work has been published in Remezcla, Blavity, La Galeria Magazine among other publications. You can find more about Nia Ita and her work at www.niaitathomas.com
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs & Rice Writing Prompt: In Nia Ita's piece, she uses footnotes as a way to observe the piece's full layers. Go back to a piece you have written in your preferred genre. Find areas where you can expand and explore the full layers of it. Write the layers. This can end up as footnotes, like Nia Ita used, or even become its own fully realized piece. Write on. This does not have to be food-related.
Sancocho for the Soul
By Nia Ita Thomas
I step out of my Uber pool towards the end of our dead-end block, open the black cast iron gate powdered white and climb up the brick stoop covered in grains of salt. At the entrance I kick my boots against the top step to loosen the snow from the grooves in my soles and shiver before ringing the doorbell.
It is the first snowstorm of the season in 2018. An indelible, icy Thursday in November. The next day newspapers would chastise the incompetence of local government for allowing the city to be shut down by a mere six inches. While cars sit in standstill traffic on bridges across the city, I arrive at my childhood home half an hour later than planned.
My sister opens the door and a warm gust meets me in harmony with her welcoming smile. “She’s been waiting for you,” she lets me know.
I walk behind my sister through the amber yellow foyer, a color I had warned my mother only belonged on an island. To my right, there is a wooden shoe rack littered with boots, sneakers and chancletas. To the left, there are black draw-string garbage bags of aluminum cans and glass beer bottles stashed next to and on top of the furnace. Everyone brings Mami their recyclables. When the weather allows, she will sell them back to the store and send the money to D.R. We walk through the second door that leads to their first floor apartment and I can hear the shower running towards the back of the house. I look around at Mami’s newly renovated kitchen (1). A granite countertop breakfast bar opens into the dining room area. There are new dark-stained wood cabinets and modern tiled backsplashes where the white walls and stained cherry cabinets once were. Out of habit, I glance at a pantry that is no longer there looking for the scorched burn marks (2) I remember from most of my childhood. I make my way to the bathroom and barge through the unlocked doors, calling out to my mother inside the shower, “llegó la alumna pa la clase.” I am there to learn how to make sancocho.
“Va a quemar el primer examen esa alumna ya.”(3) Her response is curt and I chuckle at her threat to give me a failing grade for being late.
(1) Mami waited twenty-four years to renovate her kitchen. She prioritized helping her daughters pay for school and caring for her family in the Dominican Republic.
(2) Papi almost burned down the house once by leaving a hand towel on the handle of a pantry closet too close to the flame under the greca.
(3) Mami despises tardiness. Being late has been at the root of many an argument that spiraled into specific critiques about all of my life choices. She has softened a bit over the years.
Mami always wanted to make a home out of a house.
I imagine that desire sprouted inside of her when, at seven years old, she was shipped to the capital to work as a domestic servant. This was a time when muchachitas del campo (4) like my mother were rented out to hijos de mami y papi.(5)
She doesn’t say much about the hunger (6) she lived with as she cooked, cleaned and cared for the aristocrats that paid her father wages. She doesn’t acknowledge the longing that became her childhood companion in her shoebox (7) corner of their grand home.
The pictures that were never taken would have shown a scrawny girl with skin the color of a cacao bean. She was responsible for grooming herself which meant that her hair was always tied in a low ponytail or bun that wouldn’t interfere with her housework. Depending on whose dress she inherited, she would be either swimming in excess material or adjusting her movements to accommodate too-tight fabric.
Her older brother, Marino, was in charge of checking on her. One day he pulled up in a dusty red pickup and saw that his sister could not be consoled. She stood before the headlights, eyes red and swollen, nose running and her frame thinner even then the last visit which he didn’t think possible. He had no choice but to tell their father.
Papá Nicio replaced Marino on the next check-in to see for himself what state the child was in. Upon seeing her father arrive at the front of the house, Mami ran outside. In her recollection of this nightmare, everyone else fades away into the folds of her memory. She cried and cried and cried. Realizing that her father had no intention of taking her back home, she latched on to his pant legs and wailed, “yonomequedo- yonomequedo- yonomequedo- yonomequedo.” He tried to pry her fingers off, but his strength could not compete with her distress. She clung to the leg of her father’s pants with such despair that he had no choice but to give in and bring her back with him. They left out in a cloud of tail lights and dust.
As she neared their house en Los Quemados in the dark of the night, she breathed in the familiar scent of overturned dirt and climbed into bed with her older sister Paula, letting herself feel joy again for the first time in months. Paula woke up early in the morning a colar el cafe and Mami trailed behind her, an excited puppy happy to be near family again. It was custom to strain the first batch of strong coffee for the men before they went out to work and the children would get the watered down second batch called clarito.
When Mami saw her mother for the first time she jumped and ran towards her expecting to be met with welcome back kisses and hugs, a young and naive expectation that would soon shatter. Instead, she was met with an open hand slap across the face that surrendered her to her knees. She looked up at her mother, both hands nursing her brown cheek now tinged with a red swell.
“Y tú qué busca aquí?” her mother asked, each word spit out of her downturned mouth with the same tension of the smack she had delivered. She wanted to know why Mami had returned without being called for.
“Yo quería venir a mi casa,” said seven year old Mami, voice squeaky and recoiled with fear and a slow drip realization.
Mami’s heart bottomed out into her belly, aching worse than any pain she had felt on those half-starved nights in the capital. The sting of her cheek burned the taste of iron onto her tongue. The burn traveled up her face and her eyes brimmed with tears as she began to understand that her mother would never love her, not in the ways she hoped for.
Mami’s mother stood over her, almond eyes scrunched and creating ripples in her clarito shaded skin. Her thin nose and mouth contorted in rage. Her frail limbs tensed as though they still had more blows to deliver. Mami’s brain chiseled this image of her mother into her memory as she hurled her final words before walking away, “Mejor debían echarte al mar pa ya no regresar.”
Tia Paula scurried to Mami’s side and helped her to her feet. She dismissed their mother’s words with the ignorance of a girl (8) who had never seen the ocean. Her siblings couldn’t understand the depth of Mamá’s words when she grunted that it would have been better for Mami to be thrown into the ocean than to return. They couldn’t grasp the cruelness of it. All they knew were mountain streams and rivers.
As the first child and only girl who had been sent away to work, Mami had gazed upon the vastness of the ocean on her way to the capital and on her return home. She had witnessed the immense magnitude of the waters and the powerful pull of the waves that shifted ships in all directions. She imagined herself being thrown into the turbulent waters and sinking until there was no breath left in her lungs.
For the months that remained before she was set to work in another house in Santiago, her mother threw scraps of food at her as though she were a stray dog. “Ten.” Her deliverance of words, much like food, was cold and clipped, “que tu no debía tar comiendo aquí en eta casa.”
(4) lower class girls from the country or small villages.
(5) pretentious kids from upper-class families
(6) In the United States, this practice would be considered child abuse. In the Dominican Republic, it was common practice and kept the families in the campo from starving.
(7) Domestic servants typically resided in “cuarto de servicios” or service rooms found in the back of the house. Mami would work in three different homes in her childhood. In this particular home, there was nothing but a wooden box frame and a mattress on a ceramic tile floor. She would fold her clothes and place them neatly under the single bed.
(8) There was no way to see the ocean from the mountains in Bonao, Dominican Republic. There were rivers and waterfalls in Los Quemados but no mar.
Mami howled with laughter when I asked her to teach me how to make sancocho.
She didn’t laugh because she didn’t want to teach me. She laughed because I told her I was going to measure her ingredients and write down the recipe and she thought that was crazy. She comes from an era of women who measure in un chin, un poco and otro chin.
“Yo no aprendí así,” she chuckles in between each word, eyes shimmering with mischief through her glasses. Her laugh is young and it fills the spaces in between the cabinets. It bounces off of the plants she has lined on the window sill. My sister and I exchange smiles because it is not often she lets out such resounding ripples of joy. This tiny woman who just barely escapes the guidelines for being considered a dwarf doesn’t let loose like this often, but when she does, it is glorious.
She repeats herself after each step, feigning annoyance. Her words say one thing but the smirk lingering on her lips tells another story.
We stop her from adding water with a jarro and hand her a measuring cup, she shouts, “eto hay que medirlo tambien? Ayyyy Dios Mio.” She slaps her forehead with the inside of her palm and stretches out both hands to the sky in jest. We stop her from using a cucharon to add adobo and hand her a tablespoon, she howls, “Ay Padre de la Gloria. (9) El adobo también?” The shine in her eyes twinkles a little brighter after each exchange. Her cries are exaggerated and sing-songy. She makes a show at each interruption, but she loves the attention. She is overjoyed and honored that we want her to instruct us. That we are off our phones and looking right at her. That she can teach us something our college degrees could not. I know she is happy in this place with her two daughters.
We are happy too. This is what she knows. How to be in her kitchen surrounded by the percussion orchestra of banging lids on pots and the scraping or tap-tap-tap of solid spoons against saucepans.
(9) Dominicans are very creative in calling out to God, saints and holy mothers when looking to make a loud, resounding point.
The first time Mami and Papi met in the Dominican Republic, she was 14 years old and taking sewing classes from his mother. Years later, they would reconnect in the United States, get married and start a family.
Papi started making more money and even getting cash bonuses when he worked his way up from selling ice-cream to warehouse manager. He asked her (on more than one occasion) if we could finally take a family vacation somewhere other than a road-trip to Florida and she would say no (on each one of the additional occasions.)
“Este dinero tiene nombre” she would tell him. She was adamant that any extra money that came in would be for the house they would raise their daughters in one day. Papi would walk away each time, tall shoulders slumped like a disappointed school boy. But her small frame could not be moved.
The summer of 1996 in the borough of Queens, Mami and Papi scraped up every last bit of savings they had and even borrowed some money to put a down payment down on a two-family semi-attached house. This was the house that Mami transformed into a home.
I was seven when I helped pack up the first-floor apartment of the house we rented up the block from the Queens Library at Corona. Emptied of furniture, the living room was filled with boxes and boxes of bed sheets, clothes and hoyas that were older than me. Newspaper was scattered in every direction on the moss green carpeted floor.
Dust creeped out of dark corners in closets and settled over everything like grains of sand. And while I don’t remember the exact day we moved to the new house or how we moved all our belongings two blocks and one avenue over, I do remember the two parts of our new house that were my favorite: the basement that I was convinced was going to become my personal playground, and the kitchen.
The kitchen was the sun. The center of our Universe. The heartbeat of our new home. Mami created magic every time she walked into the kitchen to make our family meals.
We make the sancocho together in a caldero that’s almost as old as my little sister, Chiquita. Chiquita records our lesson on her laptop for research purposes. Mami sits in a swivel chair, one we stole from Papi’s office, and instructs me on what to do, standing up every few minutes to stop me from doing it in the wrong order or slicing my hand open. She emphasizes the importance of timing. How the beef needs to cook longer than the chicken so it goes in first. She lectures us on the right tools, which knife to use for which vegetables. She is a scientist in her own right and we are lab technicians that need safety protocol training.
Mami threatens me about what will happen if she finds out I posted any of this video on the internet as she uses a cucharon to scrape the side of the caldero that is holding the rice. She shapes the wet rice into a little mountaintop before wrapping the lid in aluminum foil (10) and covering the caldero.
“Tú ve lo que yo tengo puesto?” she asks as she points to her floral bata with her big spoon. Her navy blue Aeropostale hoodie is zipped all the way up to her neck and at some point in this process she has wrapped her hair in a black paisley bandana.
We laugh and laugh until we can’t laugh anymore.
(10) Mami says aluminum foil helps the rice cook faster because it seals in all the air, especially with older lids that let air out sometimes. I was NEVER allowed to remove the lid while the rice was cooking. That would earn me a quick slap to the hand, no questions asked.
Mami was one of eight children. There were six girls and two boys. Everytime Mama Elena gave birth, my grandfather would send word to find out if it was a girl or a boy. Each of the six times he learned he had another daughter, his response was always the same. “¿Otra puta?” He would turn his back on the messenger and return to working the land. Girls were a burden to bear.
Mama Elena, who was also sent out to work in other peoples’ homes for most of her childhood, was married to a man who couldn’t love her well. She never saw or experienced healthy love so she didn’t know how to give it. She tried to earn her husband’s love with the meals she cooked. The extreme poverty they lived in meant they had limited food and so often the children were given just enough to survive. Their bellies became accustomed to the ache of hunger.
Once a year, on Christmas Day, no matter what the circumstances, she gathered all she could find and even borrowed what she need to make a Sancocho. Mami reminisces watching her father’s bowl of sancocho and wishing she was him. He had all the meat on his plate while the children were served the skin, bones and broth.
Mami still sucks on chicken bones for flavor, cracking them open with her molars to eat the marrow inside. She has a separate plate set aside at all her meals for the bones she is finished with. The bones always clatter when they land, cleaned of meat and cartilage because she will never forget when all she had as a meal were the bones.
Chiquita turns off the camera. She sits across from where I’ve been taking notes at the breakfast bar. I glance up and am struck with how much Chiquita looks like Mami, especially when she’s wearing her glasses. Her long brown hair is tied up in a bun so I can see the sleek silver of her behind-the-ear hearing aids.
“Mira, no me deje esta cocina sucia,” Mami threatens me some more about how the kitchen better be clean before I leave.
I turn to Chiquita without hesitation, “I’ll give you twenty dollars if you wash the dishes.” She has settled in with her legs criss-crossed to get comfortable for the meal. She cocks one eyebrow up and smirks. I know she would have done it for free, but it is my offering to her. I’d give Mami money too if she would ever let me, but she insists that I save all my dollars for a future home. “Ese dinero tiene un nombre” I imagine her saying as she shoos away my offering.
Mami sets aside Papi’s lunch in an aluminum container and packs two lunches for me before setting out the bowls of food before us. One bowl holds a rich broth the color of toasted sesame seeds. The steam tendrils twirl their way from the stew into the air. The second bowl holds a Dominican sized (11) serving of fluffy white rice. In a porcelain plate beside the two bowls, she has laid out several slices of aguacate. Chiquita likes to take spoonfuls of broth to moisten her rice in a separate bowl, adding the meats and vegetables as they went. I serve myself the sancocho first, shoveling the rice into the stew and creating a mixtape asopao. There is no right or wrong way of eating sancocho. Combining the separate servings is a part of the experience.
Chiquita and I let out moans of approval and delight. Mami smiles as she watches us both enjoying our food.
“Gracias mamita,” I tell my mother, “Ta rico.” She only serves herself and starts to eat once she is satisfied that we are satisfied. Mami’s sancocho, filled with spices and memories of her island, always tastes like home and feels like a warm, fuzzy cocha on the coldest of days.
(11) A Dominican serving is typically triple or quadruple the standard serving size, but varies from household to household.
I started my love affair with books in the house we rented near the public library. By the time we transitioned into our childhood home, I was full on consumed(12) by a desire to read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I discovered the magic satisfaction of finding the right combination of words to express something I’d always felt but hever had the language for.
When I experienced these eureka moments, I would underline, highlight and squeeze notes into the margins of my books. I was reading like a writer long before I even knew what that meant. I was especially enamored by reading memoir and creative nonfiction. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was an avid fan of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series when it became a widespread phenomenon in the 2000’s. I loved reading people’s testimonies of hope and resilience. The personal vignettes dug wells inside of me and warmed me from the inside out. I found comfort in their stories.
Mami’s sancocho was the first time I understood what it meant to find comfort in food.
Mami (13) and I both realized early on that she wouldn’t be able to help me with my homework. In the third grade, I skipped over to her in the kitchen with one of my math problems and lifted the workbook up to her waistline asking for help. Mami took the book in her brown hands and walked it over to the dining room table, leaving the boiling pots unattended. She glanced at the directions in English and scanned the page with her index finger, hoping to find something familiar.
“Ay, yo no se mija,” she admitted out loud, “haz lo mejor que puedas.” She pulled the chair out for me to sit again and my legs swung without meeting the floor. Do the best you can was a mantra I carried with me for many homework and collateral assignments to follow.
I felt the weight of not having someone to help me with my work. I chewed at the top of number two pencils, leaving bite marks on the yellow wood underneath the metal that held the pink eraser. That night, Mami called us all to the table for family dinner. We always waited for Papi to come home so we could eat together and talk about our days. I was still carrying an uneasiness in my belly when I sat down at the dinner table.
Mami smiled at the three of us and started to serve us individual bowls of sancocho. She served each of us one, taking her time to snake around the caldero and give us healthy portions of meat and vegetables. She brought us each a second bowl of white rice, cooked so that we could taste the tender, subtle toothiness of every single grain. Last, she cut open an avocado from the bodega and slice it into pieces and lay it on a plate at the center of the table. She served herself last and sat down with us to say grace.
Any sense of uneasiness I felt vanished with the smell of Mami’s sancocho. The nerves were calmed. The panic of not good enough or potential failure melted when I shoveled the first spoon of soaked white rice in broth into my mouth, barely taking the time to blow it cool. The heat traveled down my throat, past my heart and into the seat of my soul. It was like Mami was saying, This I can do for you hija. This, I know.
(12) I loved reading so much that the only time I ever got in trouble at school was for reading a Nancy Drew book underneath the table during an English class in the 7th grade.
(13) Papi worked long hours and Mami was always the one to pick us up from school.
“You made me so happy being here tonight hija. Thank you for coming.” She says this in English and hugs me.
I kiss her forehead and rest my chin on the top of her head. She calls me “hija” but the way we are standing and the playful laughter and jokes throughout the evening make me think of seven year old Mami, small and innocent and excited to be home with her family.
For a moment, it feels like she’s the daughter, fitted in her dress-like apron and wanting to be held and comforted. I wrap my long arms all the way around her body and hug her tight.
“Te amo” I whisper into the back of her head, the way her mother should have upon her first return home.
1 lb beef shoulder
1 lb chicken
2 stalks of celery cut in 1-inch pieces
1 bunch of leafy Cilantro
1 tbsp of homemade sofrito
1 tbsp of ajo (garlic paste)
2 tbsp of adobo with pimiento
1/2 lb yucca 1-inch pieces
1/2 lb West Indies pumpkin auyama cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 lb taro yautia blanca cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large loose carrot cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large russet potato cut into 1-inch pieces
2 unripe plantains cut into 1-inch pieces
1 Knorr or Maggie Cube Caldo de Pollo
Cut all the meat into small pieces. Coat the beef with 4 tbsp of homemade sofrito and place in caldero with one cup of water and 1 Caldo de Pollo cube for about forty minutes before adding in chicken. (Twenty minutes in add a cup of water.) Coat chicken in 2 tbsp of adobo, 2tbsp of ajo and allow it to sit with cut up celery as you wait for beef to soften.
Add chicken and celery and allow to cook for another 25 minutes.
Uncover and begin to put in the water. At the start, put in 10.5 cups of water. (You will add more later as needed.)
Add a piece of the auyama and use spoon to mash into water and give it color.
Start to add the vegetables, carrots first. Once the water begins to boil again, add the plátanos. 10 minutes later add yautia. 5 minutes later yucca and potatoes.
Add the juice of two limes and half of the bunch of cilantro and let simmer for 15 minutes.
Add two cups of water, the rest of auyama and the other half of the bunch of cilantro.
Simmer until the last ingredients you added are cooked through.
Season with salt to taste. Serve hot with white rice and slices of avocado.