On Rice and Beans

Jul 6th, 2014 | By | Category: Blog

Ever since I read the book “Goat Song,” by Brad Kessler, I’ve been in love with the concept of “terroir.” It’s a term that belongs to the world of winemaking, and refers to the unique environmental conditions that create the inimitable taste of a certain wine. Subtle differences in soil, temperature, humidity, and numerous other factors mean that no two bottles are ever the same, at least in the eyes of an aficionado (which I am most definitely not). Once upon a time, I saw viticulture’s vocabulary as kind of exclusive and maybe even esoteric. From my first sips of wine at the family dinner table, I struggled to overcome my skepticism. Hints of chocolate? Velvety undertones? Notes of liquorice, vanilla, and cloves? Wine descriptions were not only tongue-twisters to say, but also to taste.

That was until my time in Haiti converted me into a connoisseur of a different sort: not of sophisticated and expensive wines, but simple and everyday food. After long hours building houses in the rugged mountains, I was ready to refuel with my fellow volunteers—“refuel” the operative word here, as we ate solely to sustain our energy. My trip was an adventure in every sense except the culinary. The humanitarian organization that we worked with didn’t pack in specialty dishes or drinks, so I went to bed never full, but always nourished for another day of arduous construction. Yet our smaller rations were much more substantial than what the Haitians have on a weekly basis (an average of seven meals). To be honest, a privileged dining experience for American “voluntourists” would have been insulting to the residents of the village who subsisted on the most basic of staples: rice, beans, plantains, and on rare occasions, scrawny chickens that make America’s definition of “free-range” seem restrictive. Even so, the nightly, nearly identical rice and bean meal that the villagers prepared for the volunteers could not have been better. There were few, if any spices, to supplement the dish. Yet I found that raw, pure ingredients satisfied me.

I can’t attribute my affection for Haitian food to the “technical” taste. It’s the more abstract qualities that I appreciated, the social and cultural terroir that I savored. We were well-fed American volunteers, and Haitian mothers inexplicably and generously fed us what could have—and should have—gone to their own children. It was difficult to reconcile our service work, regardless of its value to the village, with the saddening sacrifice they made on our behalf. As I look back on the experience, I’ve come to believe that Haitian hospitality is so rich and complex that it exposes the injustice and illogic of our socioeconomic distinctions. How can we call Haiti a “developing nation” when its food—symbolic of Haitians’ willingness to open their lives to strangers who live literal and figurative worlds apart—is so far above American fast-food? It’s a tragedy that the “developed” label suggests superiority somehow, yet entails a loss of connection with food, and ultimately, a detachment from place-based culture. Can the United States be a nation of homogenous chain restaurants and at the same time a cultural “melting pot”? I’m more skeptical about this apparent contradiction than I am about winemaking adjectives. The give-and-take nature of my time in Haiti—we helped Haitians improve their infrastructure, while their gratitude manifested in lodging and meals—is the relationship that we should share with our food in the U.S. If we pay better attention to the origins of our diet—the care of both place (environment) and people (culture) who cultivate—I think our empathy will deepen. We’ll be able to bridge cultural divides and recognize the commonality of the human experience, with food the ultimate and universal element.

The mornings at Middlebury when I can barely stomach burnt coffee in the dining hall, I reminisce about those two brief weeks in a country that could hardly be considered a “destination” hotspot. And yet for me, happiness in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation was as simple as a thick, rich cup of Haitian coffee, loaded with frothy milk and fresh-cut cane sugar. Even more important than the unique flavor was the fact that Haitians and American volunteers drank the coffee side-by-side in silence, welcoming the warmth of the sunrise. No faltering words were needed—the strong coffee easily broke the language barrier. I remember getting up at the crack of dawn once to watch a Haitian woman tend to a cauldron of the bubbling brew with loving care, like it was her own child. Given the superstition surrounding cauldrons, there are many mysterious ingredients that could’ve been in that enormous pot. But I wasn’t wary. I’d witnessed the craftsmanship and sacrifice that went into a beverage that many people don’t take time to think twice about, so it was no mystery to me why Haitian coffee could taste better than any Starbucks special blend.



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