Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Aroma del Almuerzo

I grew up in the Texas Hill Country where the air is incredibly clean and fresh (even during the dreaded Cedar season). Even in Austin, where I spent about 14 years before we joined the Foreign Service, I felt like you could take fantastic deep breaths despite the number of cars on the road.

In contrast, Santo Domingo is a stinky city. It’s polluted. Black soot settles on everything. If you don’t have someone to mop everyday, your feet will be caked with grime from your own floors. In my unscientific analysis I think it’s probably worse the New York City, but better than Mexico City. Who knows. In short, it doesn’t smell good. Except…

Except for lunchtime. I love lunchtime in the DR! Even in Santo Domingo, you can sometimes walk by a local mom-and-pop restaurant with just a couple of plastic chairs and a doña cooking over a dented and blackened metal pot directly over the flame of a gas canister. Dominican rice and beans and meat (la bandera) is so, so, so tasty and the smell just draws you in. Even today I was leaving the hospital (my husband got his yearly ER trip out of the way early this year) and the cafeteria aromas (is that an oxymoron?) wafted out and I seriously considered going back in and getting dinner to go.

And then! Add those perfectly seasoned scents to the countryside – the smell of dust and fruit and sometimes the sea, but more often the earthy smell of things left humid just a few years too long – and you get this pungent, rich, almost historical smell (like if you were to visit a famous landmark like a long-dead president’s home or a Revolutionary War row house only the people were still there cooking and living).

This weekend we drove down to the southwest – my favorite part of the country – where the smells simply overwhelm. The remote roads wind and wind through villages wedged between the Caribbean Sea and mountains. Unlike in Santo Domingo, you can roll down the windows and breath deeply. The smells draw you in and you feel like you’re transported to an entirely different world. And, at each bend, if you find yourself passing just as noon begins to roll towards one, you can catch a hint of la bandera simmering over an open flame waiting to be eaten, all crowded onto one plate, heaping piles of addictive Dominican white rice, with a soup spoon. The true DR piled into one perfect, aromatic bite.

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