TAK Erzinger is an American/Swiss poet and artist with a Colombian background. Her poetry has been featured in Bien Acompañada from Cornell University, The Muse from McMaster University, River and South Review, The Welter and more. Her debut chapbook entitled, “Found: Between the Trees” was published by Grey Border Books, Canada 2019. Erzinger’s most recent poetry collection “At the Foot of the Mountain,” Floricanto Press, California 2021, has been announced by the University of Indianapolis, Etchings Press as the Whirling Prize winner for 2021 for best nature poetry book. She lives in a Swiss valley with her husband and cats.
You can find Tak on Twitter and Instagram at @ErzTak, and on her website https://takerzinger.wixsite.com/poet
The transcript of the story is below:
You are what you eat: the taste of Barranquilla Colombia
by TAK Erzinger
“Life would be much nicer if one could carry the smells
and tastes of the maternal home wherever they pleased.”
-Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
“No matter where you find yourself, you will always be Latina.”
– Mariana Atencio
I plucked several garlic teeth, crushing them one by one beneath my palm, my knife purposely slicing them finely. Then I squeezed limes, the citrus fragrance filling my hot kitchen as I collected the liquid in a bow. I mixed in cumin, salt, chopped thyme and dried oregano before placing the pork chops in the marinade. The chuletas, Colombian pork chops, would marinade for hours. It is through cooking and food that my family expressed love. Tonight I am preparing this meal for my boyfriend, when we will discuss what direction to go in with our future.
My first memory is associated with food: a combination of garlic, cilantro and cumino. My mother comes from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, a place called Barranquilla. It is a seaport town, a place where the Atlantic Ocean is met by the Magdalena River. From birth, until third grade we returned there regularly to the large Spanish colonial house built in the 1920s situated on a long boulevard in the Viejo Prado neighbourhood. It is a place where the avenues seemed endless to me as a child, and then, as today, are lined with sumptuous mansions and gardens. The neighbourhood was designed by two Iowan brothers Karl and Robert Parrish who decided to relocate in Colombia. The styles of the homes, however, are an homage to the diversity of Barranquilla brought by the immigrants who settled there: Lebanese, Syrians, Germans, Italians and Jews, who were attracted to the possibilities of the port city of Barranquilla and what it had to offer. My Abuelo’s best friend and business partner was Lebanese.
Those early childhood experiences in Colombia left a lifelong impression on me and my relationship with food. Especially visiting the coasts of Santa Marta and Cartagena. I will always remember the little huts set up on the beach where mojarra, a type of fish found in the Atlantic waters was fried up with arroz(rice) and crispy patacones (fried green plantains) or arroz con Chipi Chipi (small white clams), a recipe that incorporates the deeply rooted influences of the indigenous cultures of Colombia: the European, Afro-latino and Indian heritage. After a morning of playing in the surf my mother would call me to her side where a young man would take a machete and open a fresh coconut, placing a straw inside for me to nurse on its warm milk. This would be accompanied by a snack of patacones fresh off the griddle. To this day, every time I eat patacones I am taken back to the sensation of that salty hot delight hitting my sun-kissed lips, salt on salt. It was heavenly and it encompasses the better moments of my childhood, it is what I knew, what I was used to. The flavours of Barranquilla also evoke memories of mis Abuelos enclosed patio with its Spanish tiles, centerpiece bubbling fountain and large turtles that had already been old when my mother was a child. We would sit under the large guava trees where they would pluck a fresh fruit for me, my teeth sinking into its soft flesh while the juice would run down my chin. There was a constant flow of delicious aromas infusing the air of mis Abuelos home. As an adult whenever I am confronted with these intoxicating smells I am transported back there in a heartbeat.
I check on the chuletas I had placed in the oven and my kitchen fills with an aroma, an infusion of all the herbs and spices into the chuletas. My memory revisits various kitchens of my childhood: my mother’s, mis tías, mis abuelos and I feel warmed by love. I hope my boyfriend will be able to taste the love I have also put into this meal. I hope he will be able to appreciate the flavors. It is so much more than a recipe, it is a part of my past that makes up who I am today.
The closest I have ever felt to my mother is when we cook Colombian food. It is when I most understand her love and expression which she demonstrates when either cooking for me or with me. We are a complicated bunch however cooking in my family is an act of love that is demonstrated without words. It unifies our cultural divides and misunderstandings. Within the walls of the kitchen tensions dissipate and the existence becomes peaceful between 1st and 2ndgeneration Colombians in my family. It is a ritual where we convene with our ancestral past handed down through generations in the form of recipes and traditions. When I cook the food of Barranquilla with my mami or her sisters, we are transported back to Colombia through our senses invoking memories, retelling our stories and experiences. It’s like the kitchen becomes a time machine that takes us home when we cannot return. En la cocina, food forges my relatives together, allowing us to put our differences aside and commune as one. We all get excited about the prospect of sharing a meal of san cocho, arroz con pollo, changua, an egg soup recipe from my Abuela’s childhood home in Bucaramanga. It is the capital of the region of Santander, in north central Colombia, surrounded by the Cordillera Oriental range of the Andes. And when we are apart the ritual of preparing these meals keeps us close at heart. My knowledge of these recipes has helped me to stay connected to my roots, keeping alive my early childhood experiences in Colombia. The food of my mother’s country has helped me to explore the Latinx in myself, allowing me to express myself in an intimate way, transcending language. And much like mami, whenever I feel homesick, I return to these recipes finding comfort in the preparation and joy of sharing these meals with my friends and husband. Every time I relive a different occasion and memory, but I also create new ones as well.
I won my husband’s heart over a plate of chuletas (pork chops) I especially prepared for him using the flavours of Colombia. I felt it was imperative for him to get to know me through my cooking. If he had not liked the food, the spices or overall flavours I would have to rethink how we proceeded with dating because for me, the dishes I prepare are enmeshed with my cultural identity. Years later, he still comments on the first meal that I made for him, and that he could taste the love in my cooking. He jokes that I used brujeria (witchcraft) in my food to get him to fall in love with me.
My boyfriend later became my husband, and on Valentine’s Day, when I arrived home after a long hard day and opened the door, I was embraced by el sabor of familiar scents. It was as if my family had returned to me but instead my husband had taken it upon himself to cook arroz con pollo, exactly as he had witnessed my mother and I making it. I could smell and taste the love in every bite. He knew how homesick I had been for the women in my family and since he couldn’t bring them to me, he felt that he could at least recreate the feeling of family enabling me to taste and even digest the spirit of those I was missing.
He has embraced this part of my Colombian heritage in the kitchen, nourishing my soul as well as my body. And much like my family, he used this recipe, so close to my heart to show his love for me.
Now more than ever, since the start of the covid pandemic I have felt isolated and separated from my family who are scattered across the world. My Abuela has died, people have had falling outs and it has been a lifetime ago since I have returned to Colombia. However, inside my kitchen I have all the ingredients at my finger-tips to comfort me during times of stress and frustration, keeping me grounded and close to the cultural traditions that shaped who I am. Colombian food is the portal to my heritage and keeps me close to those that are faraway. All those recipes are like love letters from the past that transport me to the various kitchens of childhood. Those dishes taste like home and keep me connected to my roots.
4 green plantains, olive oil, salt to take (preparation, 20 minutes)
- Place a mug at the side of chopping board. Peel green plantains and slice them at a thick angle.
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry plantain slices in the hot oil until slightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer plantain slices using a slotted spoon onto the upside-down plate, reserving oil in the skillet. Place plantains onto chopping board. Smash the plantain slices by gently pressing the mug bottom until flattened.
- Place the smashed plantains in the hot oil and fry until browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer fried plantains to a paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle salt over plantains.
San Cocho de Pollo (chicken) Colombian Chicken Stew
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 2 tsp cumino
- 5 scallions (chopped)
- 1 tomato (chopped)
- 2 tsp of vinegar
- 4 cloves garlic (chopped)
- 1/2 spanish onion (chopped)
- 1 small whole chicken (remove giblets). Can be substituted for skinless chicken breasts or thighs for a less-fatty alternative.
- 1 cup cilantro (roughly chopped)
- 3 large potatoes (peeled and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes)
- 2 cups of yucca cut into 2″ cubes
- 3 Carrots
- 4 long pieces of celery
- 3 ears of corn (cut in half or thirds depending on size)
- 1 small green plantain (peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces)
- 1 tsp cumin
- 2 cubes of chicken bouillon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Side of fresh chopped cilantro, avocados, scallions, Tabasco & lemon wedges.
- Side a pot of steamed rice.
- Heat a large pot over medium heat.
- Once hot add oil, scallions, onions, and garlic and saute for 1 minute.
- Add onions and continue to saute for 1 minute.
- Add chicken drenched in vinegar and cumino, brown on all sides.
- Season mix with salt and pepper.
- Add yucca, potatoes & other vegetables, fill the pot with water.
- Add chicken bouillon, half of chopped cilantro, cumino and vinegar. Bring to a boil.
- Once boiling reduce heat to low and cover the pot.
- Simmer on low for about 40-minutes and taste to measure seasoning. Add more if necessary
- Serve in large bowl topped with a large spoonful of rice, chopped cilantro, avacados, scallions, tabasco & lemon juice.
Arroz con Pollo (chicken and rice)
4 chicken breasts
- 1 tablespoon of cumino
- ½ bag of frozen peas and carrots or a whole can
- 1 bushel of cilantro
- 3 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 cups of rice
- 5 cups of water
- 2 cap fulls of vinegar
- 1 chicken bouillon cube
- 1 packet of seasoning with saffron
- 1 jar or packet of olives with pimiento
- ½ jar of small capers
- 3 stalks of chopped scallions
- Lemon juice or lemon wedges
- Salt to taste
- Add chicken breasts to water with cumino, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Once it starts to boil, turn down to medium heat covered and let poach for 35 minutes.
- Remove chicken from pan onto a chopping board, use two forks to shred chicken apart, will be very tender, place in bowl to the side.
- Sautee garlic in olive oil in a large pan for rice.
- Add 3 cups of rice and stir into sauteed garlic.
- Add 5 cups of water, peas, carrots, chopped cilantro, cumino, bouillon and saffron. Stir and bring to boil, turn down to lowest heat, cover and let cook at medium heat until the rice dries and is soft
- Stir in chicken, capers, olives, fresh chopped cilantro, fresh scallions, two caps full of vinegar and squirt with a heavy dose of lemon juice, add salt to taste and stir and serve.