Writer Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, raised poor in New Jersey and is now a professor of creative writing at MIT. He holds a Pulitzer, a MacArthur Genius Grant and an armload of other awards. He writes about Dominican immigrants -- people figuring out their lives while they're halfway between memories of a homeland and realities of a supposed promised land.
Diaz is still very much a part of the Dominican community of Northern Manhattan. It's called El Alto, and it seems to be where he loves to eat and to be.
His latest book is This Is How You Lose Her.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You've written a lot about El Alto and you've talked about the food there. Describe El Alto food.
Junot Diaz: We're talking about a really big neck of the Manhattan woods, and we have a very large, very dynamic, very diverse community. There's a ton of Caribbean restaurants. It's a great place to eat if you're a Caribbean food type of person.
LRK: And I gather you are definitely a Caribbean food type of person.
JD: Yeah. I probably would be even if I weren't from the Caribbean, given the way my palate runs. This is what ends up happening when both your parents were really good cooks. Personally, if I'm looking for really good Caribbean food, a great test is whether the restaurant has goat on the menu. Goat is a tough dish to prepare well.
As far as the old standards in Caribbean food go, I'm a pollo guisado man. It’s the brown-stewed chicken that is common throughout the Caribbean. There's chillo con coco, which is a snapper with a kind of coconut sauce that borders on a salt curry. This is a dish that was brought to the Dominican Republic from the Anglophone Caribbean. A lot of folks from Barbados and St. Thomas were brought to the Dominican Republic to work in the cane fields, so they brought their cuisine as well.
LRK: Since we’re talking about this time of year, what food for you right now means the holidays or Christmas?
JD: When my mom and her sisters cook their large holiday meals, it's something to behold. They cook such a wide spread of dishes, so it's almost as if they are afraid to miss a food group or that someone might miss something. I think of my mom's pernil (pork shoulder), which is something she'd take days preparing. This was an essential product.
I think of the way that my mom will roast three or four chickens, on top of a turkey, and then stuff both will all sorts of things, including pork. My mom will take shredded pork and stuff a damned chicken with it. There’s got to be at least two or three rice dishes, at least three forms of plantain. My mom, if she doesn't prepare two kinds of yucca, something is wrong. She prepares pasteles.
LRK: Little pies? Like empanadas?
JD: Exactly. They're boiled. These are really a great holiday tradition. Your mom will prepare like 200 of them. Depending on the way you're making them. My mom would make kind of a mashed plantain in the center that would be wrapped in leaves, tied and then boiled.
They are a basic staple of the holidays and everyone claims that their recipe for pasteles is the best. But what's awesome is you will take 10, 15, 20, pass them on to your neighbors, then your neighbors will pass on 10. It is really the most extraordinary culinary currency in the Caribbean. It’s something you just look forward to, and everyone family has their trademark. You could put one of my mom’s in the middle of 5,000 and have me sample all of them, and I could pick out hers, my aunt's, my neighbor's, my ex-girlfriend's, because they’re really, really individual.
Then there's a grain product called chen chen. If you would think of sort of a rural Dominican form of a polenta, it’s chen chen. And that is served up with goat; as you can tell, goat and I have a special relationship. Not everyone can eat it. I can tell you, if you don't grow up with goat, it might be a little rough.
LRK: I don't know. It's getting to be pretty popular. When you think about the holidays, it's always about what you grew up with, isn't it?
JD: Yeah. I think part of sitting down and sharing a meal with family and with the community is that food is a remarkable bonding force. When I think of that state that we loved to achieve. That state where you're together with people you love, that you care about, who are your relatives.
For a shining evening, or for a shining day, you are able to achieve communion. It's kind of a peace with each other. It's kind of sharing. It's kind of communication. It's kind of, just, being in each other's presence. And I think what helps us to achieve that is the dishes that we grew up with, the dishes that are familiar, the dishes that have always meant solidarity and family.
And let me tell you, after a tough, tough year, nothing lifts the spirit -- nothing lifts the soul -- like attempting to achieve communion. What better way than to eat a whole bunch of awesome food that says family, says community, says home, says love?
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.