Tamales and Tropical Fruit: A Juventud Menu by Vanessa Blakeslee
At some point during the writing process, the novelist is faced with a sub-facet of craft left largely untouched in workshop discussions, but one that is enormously integral—food, and the role it plays in the fiction taking shape. In Juventud, I was writing from within the cultures of Central and South America, particularly Colombia and Costa Rica, and tasked with accurately building a world that I’d only known during a brief stint as an American expat. Early on I knew that food would not only be integral for establishing verisimilitude and subtext, but also that key dramatic scenes would occur over meals and dinner parties. Browser windows remained open as I typed, displaying recipes of staple Colombian dishes: ajiaco, lechona, obleas and other street snacks; empanadas and arepas sizzled in my toaster on work breaks. Some stories revolve more around food and dining than others (just try to imagine an Edith Wharton novel absent of dinner parties), and I think of Juventud as a foodie book. To what degree its writing coincided with the surfacing of my apparent inborn talents as a cook and baker, I’m not sure, but it’s difficult for me to believe these two processes had nothing to do with one another. By the time I’d turned in final edits, I’d mastered a flan that would make Julia Child envious.
When I initially imagine and draft a novel, I’m constantly thinking, “Where does my protagonist go next?” What’s so fascinating is how, about a third of the time, some kind of interaction with food takes place. This seems a fairly accurate percentage, when you consider how much of our waking lives revolves around eating, whether alone or with others. It’s a good rule of thumb, when you’re writing any fiction, to check in once in a while and ask yourself when your protagonist has last eaten—leaving out such practical life matters may not only cause readers to eventually raise their eyebrows, but can be missed opportunities for allowing setting and subtext to work their magic on your world. Here’s a food-centered sampling from Juventud, and for those who are so dexterous as to manage cooking while reading, a menu.
Juventud follows the story of Mercedes Martinez, who comes of age as the only daughter of a wealthy landowner in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, in 1999. When she falls in love with Manuel, a fiery young activist with a passion for his faith and his country, she begins to understand the suffering of the desplazados who share her land. A startling discovery about her father forces Mercedes to doubt everything she thought she knew about her life, and she and Manuel make plans to run away together. But before they can, tragedy strikes in a single violent night. Mercedes flees Colombia for the United States and a life she never could have imagined. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia seeking the truth, but discovers that only more questions await.
Breakfast with Papi:
Colombian coffee or espresso (“tinto”); grind whole beans
Eggs and gallo pinto, courtesy of Central America
Papaya, guava and/or carambola (star fruit)
Papi’s voice boomed as he headed for the house, chiding me for skipping breakfast. When I told him I’d grab an arepa outside school, he said, “You eat too many of those greasy things. Get inside.”
Sulking, I followed. At the dining table we sat in silence. The smell of coffee, eggs, and warm bread trailed Inez as she set our plates in front of us, and Papi his tinto. “Eat up,” he said, digging into his gallo pinto. “You’ll need a lot of energy if you’re going to wear that frown.”
Midday snack with Inez:
Tamales and tropical fruit smoothie
Why had I so recklessly cast aside his caution? Machines chugged in the fields; hawks circled. Someone knocked softly at my door—Inez with the tea tray. Homemade tamales, bland beans and rice. In my mouth the corn crumpled to sweet dust. The world was nothing but mad countries colliding blindly, like comets.
Lunch with Tia Leo:
Empanadas, pico de gallo and mango juice
We ate at the picnic table under the rancho, a jungle oasis tucked away: empanadas, pico de gallo, and fresh mango juice. Cats trotted along the railings, and a pack of neighborhood mongrels awaited slivers of pork to drop; Tía Leo shooed them off.
Afternoon snack with Manuel:
Arepa con queso and Fanta
On the precious few hours after school when I met Manuel, I discovered with the rains that Fidel tended to lose track of the time—I would often rush to the car only to find him drooling onto his shirt, asleep. And he would accept my lateness without question if I brought him a churro, his favorite snack. Manuel and I roamed the squares of the historic district, ducked under awnings to share arepas and Fantas. We held hands like good Catholic youth even though I did not consider myself one, baptized or not.
Cocktail hour with Uncle Charlie:
Rum & Coke; Ceviche
Cellophane and glittery ribbon crumpled upon the coffee table, a bottle of Flor de Cana, Papi’s favorite rum uncapped. Ice clinked. All three lowered their cocktail glasses, looked up. The raucous exchange ceased. Papi gestured for me to come and sit down, his eyes dancing over me as he chomped on ice. “Mercedes, I’d like you to meet Uncle Charlie,” he said.
Inez set down two crystal serving bowls of ceviche, one of scallops and other of shrimp. “Ah, the real Peruvian kind!” Uncle Charlie cried. “Soaking it overnight in lime, that’s the secret. Not like the slop they serve in these cheap places, with ketchup and mayonnaise.”
“I am Peruvian, remember?” Inez patted his shoulder and she passed by. “For you, only the best.”
Citrus and fresh cilantro wafted up, mixed with the honey aroma of dripping wax. Luis lifted his plate, Uncle Charlie the ladle. The clear juice and pale chunks of seafood pooled onto plates. Manuel said, “Shall we say grace?”
Dinner with Ana & friends:
Steak, yuca or cassava root with Malbec
Flan and coffee for dessert
Our plates arrived, steaming rice, yucca and inch-thick steaks, one portion enough to feed a family of four in the hovels at the end of our cane fields, and the talk turned to Gracia and Esteban’s talents as the two of them performed a flamenco number.
Cocktails at the club:
It was early, and the bar was thinned out enough for us to grab seats. We squeezed lime into our Flor de Canas and Coca-cola, clinked glasses. The juice stung my nail; I sucked my fingertip. I was just about to bring up the getaway, how I didn’t care anymore about driving or flying because I just wanted to leave Cali as fast as possible, when Manuel cupped my elbow. “That man who just walked in,” he said, nodding toward someone in a black motorcycle jacket and gloves weaving through the crowd. “I think he’s watching us.” The man sat down at the far end of the bar, alone, and ordered a drink.
“But would someone be following you? Unless he was waiting outside the party.” My teeth and chest ached, the Coca-Cola and rum ice cold.
Manuel drained his glass, then mine. “Come on, let’s dance,” he said.
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