Here’s the second part of my reflections on this project and my food experience in the Dominican Republic. If you haven’t already read the previous entries, click here for #1, here for #2, here for #3, here for #4, here for #5, and here for #6!
Impressions of food culture
So, as you may have guessed, I am no expert on West African cuisine. The connections I drew throughout this project were based on a first-hand gastronomic experience in the DR and a lot of research on what the food is like in West Africa. However, I would argue that based on what I ate and what I researched, I can see the influence that West African cooking, via the 17th century slave trade, had on Dominican food.
Is that the only source of influence? Of course not.
Dominican food is based largely on Spanish food, which makes sense since it was a Spanish colony for so long. It also has lots of inspiration from the indigenous Taino Indian traditions and French cuisine. However, what interested me was the fact that Dominicans are so enamored by foods that have a distinct tie to West Africa (like Mangu, for example), yet continue to deny any actual racial ties to Africa.
The Center for Foods of the Americas perhaps summarizes the culinary history as “Europeans brought an entire culture of slavery to the Caribbean. Using okra, callaloo (a green leafy vegetable), taro, akee (Jamaica’s national dish), and pungent seasoning and spicing essential to make poor foods palatable, the African slave developed a style of cooking that is basic to Caribbean food. Soups and other one-pot hearty meals were the mainstay of the plantation slaves who relied on only one dish for their daily nutrition. Vital to Caribbean cuisine, soups are a reminder of the Caribbean’s humble origins.” These one-pot meals, like Sancocho, are extremely popular in the Dominican Republic, in addition to the spices used.
It is almost impossible to deny the influence that slavery had on Dominican Republic, both culturally, racially, economically, and gastronomically. The mismatch between the love of certain things African and the rejection of any possible African heritage by Dominicans is something that continues to amaze me. I understand its origin, but when you look at the country’s history, in addition to the fact that there are no more Taino Indians on the island of Hispaniola, it’s hard to claim that anyone is really pure Dominican by blood. Since the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic was a lot more porous in the past, it seems logical to assume that Haitians and slaves intermingled with the Dominican population, resulting in citizens who have racial ties to Africa.
The Center for Nutrition Studies “found that a family of four consumes, on average, a gallon of oil every two weeks, deep frying their eggs, salami, and cheese in the morning and evening, consuming 4-6 deep-fried eggs, per person, per day, while consuming two to three servings of deep fried salami, cheese and processed foods.” While I knew that the diet was not great for your cholesterol, I didn’t realize how prevalent Diabetes type 2 would be. Most of our host families had members who had been diagnosed; my host mother had Type 2 and had lost both her father and brother to complications from Diabetes. When you look at how rich in carbohydrates the food is, it becomes clear why so many Dominicans are affected.
According to the International Diabetes Foundation, the Dominican Republic is 21st country in terms of population affected by diabetes – the USA coming in after at 26th! About 10% of the population has been diagnosed with Type 1 or Type 2. The biggest problem is the poor variety of nutritional sources available: a diabetic diet should not include the Dominican staples of rice, pasta and root vegetables, especially not in the amounts that Dominicans eat. However, most people cannot afford to buy other foods. Author Lindsay De Feliz notes in her book What About Your Saucepans that whole grain options, which are healthier alternatives, are taxed more and are not readily found in stores.
Additionally, from what I understood while talking to locals, there isn’t a lot of education on how to best avoid (or manage) diabetes. A lot of advice is passed by word of mouth, creating this telephone chain of poorly communicated information. Being that I’m going to become an educator, I can’t underscore how important it is to give people the knowledge, and therefore the tools, to help better their situation! Volunteer groups like AYUDA (American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad, Inc.) are working to empower communities affected by Diabetes, starting with educating children about prevention and care, so they can help their parents and also avoid being diagnosed with diabetes. I’m hopeful that with more education, the Dominican population can decrease the number of those affected by Diabetes, but I know, because of the diet and economic situation, that it will not be easy.