Nelly’s Kitchen

I earned one of my many childhood nicknames at Georgia diner next to Queens Center Mall, the one with the tacky light-up peach sign hoisted overhead. My immediate family and closest cousins were breaking bread after some church-related activity I can’t recall.

They named me the mini-vacuum cleaner.

The mini had nothing to do with my actual stature (I’m relatively tall at 5”8’) and everything to do with my look-alike father having already been awarded the title of vacuum cleaner for the way he cleaned off his plates and the plates of anyone around him who dared leave scraps.

Between the two of us, no leftovers were safe.

Mami would always watch us with disgust, wrinkling her forehead and the corners of her eyes, “Pero señores, uds. no tienen fondo?”

Papi would respond unbothered, with a big smile plastered on his face, “Lo que tiene hoyo no explota.”

I inherited my love for eating from my father.
______

In the Fall of 2013 we went apple picking at Apple Hill Farm across the road from the south entrance of the SUNY New Paltz campus. I was in my first year out of school working as a school-based speech language pathologist and Chiquita was in her junior year of undergrad working towards a career in Music Therapy.

My parents and I drove up for the weekend to spend some quality time with Chiquita and restock her fridge. Mami was constantly worried that she wasn’t eating enough.

The four of us were sitting in the back of a small, white pickup truck with some bales of hay stacked along the sides, a bit of a ghetto hay-ride. The truck was transporting us to the other side of the fields where there were massive wooden crates of apples already sorted and labeled. It was October, late in the season, so most of the apples had already fallen off of the trees.

I had reverted back to my kid self, as I often do when I’m with these three, so I was thinking out loud. “I love eating. It’s seriously my favorite time of the day. Why can’t we eat all the time? I hate getting full.”

Chiquita, who was sitting across from me and Mami, next to dad, responds with care in each word, as though she is putting together the cure for world hunger, “You know” she pauses for effect, something I believe she’s gotten from Mami, “I think you would really enjoy the life of a hobbit.”

I was bewildered, but also intrigued by my fantasy geek sister. “What are you talking about?” I asked her.

“They eat breakfast and then a second breakfast. Also they have a meal called Elevenses, which is very similar to a third breakfast… They eat a lot.” Her eyes were twinkling with excitement.

Quen ta comiendo tanto? They must be fat” Mami interrupted and we had to control our laughter. I didn’t think she was listening and we were both amused by her thinking we were referring to real-life people.

“They’re actually not mom. They’re very small” Chiquita responds in a textbook manner.

I think I was meant to live the life of a hobbit.
_____

The smell of my favorite food being prepared makes me feel like a little kid on Christmas eve asking if they really have to wait till morning to open up the presents. I be like, “Is it ready yet?” as I sneak my hand into the plate of freshly fried yuca arepas, sneaking off a few pieces and practically burning both my fingers and mouth in the process.

I love Dominican food, especially tres golpes with a side of golden tostones or creamy mangu. And I’m always in a rush to eat it. I don’t chew slowly and savor the taste in each bite. I devour, I chomp and I swallow reaching for seconds and thirds. I have never been patient with what I love.
____

A few years ago, one of my highschool friends called me from the train station of my childhood home and asked me for a good place to pick up food on the way over. I was clueless and she was confused. “Didn’t you grow up in this neighborhood?” she asked me.

Yes – I was born and raised in Corona, Queens but takeout was not a thing in my household. We ate home-cooked meals every. single. damn. day.

I say it as though it was a bad thing. In reality, Mami’s food was ten times better than any takeout food we could have ordered.

My mom worked full-time but she was an expert at planning ahead. We had a hot breakfast (even if it was just hot-pockets or Ramen noodles) a packed lunch and freshly made dinner more days than not.

Papi tells me that we were poor growing up. American poor, not Carribean poor, because there is an explicit difference. He often tells me the story of how he would take us to do laundry and he didn’t even have a spare quarter to give us for the candy dispenser. This must have been difficult for a man who finds joy in giving his daughters everything. I have very little recollection of our poverty. I never went hungry.

I remember eating a lot of rice growing up. It was a staple that came out of, what we have come to call, Nelly’s kitchen.

White rice and fried eggs with red beans. White rice and lenteja with lemon chicken. White rice and fried salami. White rice and spaghetti. White rice and baked chicken. White rice that I liked to steep in sancocho.

Moro with pollo guisao. Locrio de pollo. Locrio de salami. Yellow rice and vegetables.

Trinidad James – all rice everything.

Mami makes the perfect rice in Nelly’s kitchen. It is moist and just the right amount of salty. It is fluffy and feels like a little piece of sky bouncing around in your mouth.

Anyone who has ever had my mother’s food can testify to tasting the love that is infused in each bite. When I was going to school upstate, she would bring me catering sized containers of mangu, chicken, pastelon and rice.

My mom didn’t receive a lot of love growing up and she didn’t have a lot to eat either. She knew what it was to go hungry. She still sucks on the bones for flavor when she’s done eating, a habit she picked up when all she had as a meal were the bones. She made sure my sister and I never had to live that reality. She showed us love through the meals that she made.

I don’t cook rice in my kitchen. I tell myself it’s too heavy and a carb overload. The few times I have cooked it, the results have been too wet, too bland or too salty. I just can’t get the ratios right.

As a general rule, I tend to avoid rice in most dining experiences. Maybe I had too much of it growing up. Maybe I just can’t make it the same way I remember having it.

When I go to my mom’s house and she makes rice, I unbutton my pants and gulp down firsts, seconds and thirds soaked in the sauces of whatever meat she has prepared.

When it comes to Mami’s rice, and pretty much anything else made in Nelly’s kitchen, I don’t think about calories. I forget about the dietary reference intakes outlined by the food pyramid and I consume the love my mother is serving.

Her food is love and love conquers all.

________

I’ve become familiar with food comas, it is a common side effect of my overeating.

When you eat your weight in food, cells in your pancreas produce the hormone insulin, which also leads to an increase in melatonin, dopamine and serotonin, three hormones that trigger drowsiness and happiness.

Love has similar side effects on the body.

Love can temporarily shut down the circuits in your brain that result in logic and rationale in order to compensate for the overload of hormones. The hormones that trigger drowsiness likely placate your ability to reason and use common sense. And dopamine, which keeps you happy and engaged, is further triggered every time you touch someone you love.

It is no wonder people argue that love is a drug.

My love for eating was definitely the root of my freshmen twenty at college and my fluctuating weight throughout the years. It is also the birthplace of my most cherished memories with friends and family. There is nothing like sharing a good meal.

My inclination to love hard and look for love in return has resulted in both intimate, life-changing relationships and indescribable heartache.

I’m learning to manage my eating so that I don’t gain five pounds in three days (as I just did in my recent trip to D.R…. listen it’s a work in progress.) Not because I am body obsessed, but because it’s not healthy. I’m also learning to slow down and take my time when I eat. I am learning to savor the spices and the care, get acquainted with my meal as I enjoy it.

I’m learning to do the same with love.

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6 thoughts on “Nelly’s Kitchen

  1. Another great essay, but I just wanted to shout out Georgia Diner! Lord, the things I could write about late nights spent there, ha! In fact, I just might. Are you still in Queens or have you moved on to a different borough? I love that this essay challenge has introduced me to other Queens (and especially Latina) writers 🙂

  2. (Leading with your heart…)
    You also forgot to mention that Dominican mothers take offense if you don’t eat everything they serve you. LOL #whatwouldwedowithoutthem?

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