A Taste of Life: Musings by Kailee and Shyanne
By Kailee Ortiz & Shyanne Figueroa Bennett
On culinary connections to our cultures.
Sometimes I think we get in the habit of wanting. We want and want and want some more because who truly is happy on their own with a blank mind. No dreams or aspirations one day with purpose then living blindly to the next moment. It’s scary how numb my body feels to the world sometimes. When you want a close-knit family like the ones you see on TV yet when you reach your hand out it feels as if you’re melting by the venom spitting out of their mouths. And they wonder why you bare your teeth at them when they are constantly dropping you to the point where you get nauseous. Like a porcelain doll whose head has cracked into 547 pieces and whose face is unrecognizable. Our wants become our needs and our needs become our obsessions, like a moth to a flame, we were made to chase the unreachable. No matter how hard they try to catch the light, it always escapes their grasp at the closest moment. Our minds fill with wonder and sweetness as we dream of the life we want for ourselves yet our lungs are filled with water as we slowly form in the nothingness that is our purpose. Does anything even matter? Why do you matter, what is your purpose, your reason for taking up the matter in the world. You and I are here and I watch as the film of everyone’s lives play out as my body slowly crumples turning to dust. Life’s a tough thing when you have nothing to struggle for. An empty struggle it is at times. When that moth stops chasing the flame it’s been looking for all its life, it realizes how colorless the rest of the world is without. The world has gone blank and has taken a yawn watching me. There’s not much that comes to mind when I dream of goals I could have, wishes I could write, all I can ask for is that the small acts and tasks I do give me enough purpose to dream outside the space of my eye sockets. And it’s given my eyes a little bit of color to see, a little purpose making this mangú that reminds me of long days spent with my grandma. Now it will fill my tummy and maybe I will smile a little more than yesterday.
With a full stomach,
A slightly sweetened biscuit-like dough, palm-flattened then fried to a deep golden brown. My abuelita calls it bakes; but she said “Back home in Panama we call it arepas, and where my mother is from in Jamaica they call it fried dumplings.” Growing up in Brooklyn, I never met a family who called it what we called it or made it how we made it, but in our home it was a delicacy—a morning treat we eagerly gathered to share and eat.
When I was 7 years old, I went to Jamaica with my dad. My other grandmother made me fried dumplings, and those “fried dumplings” were balls of dense dough, with a crunchy fried shell—not at all like the bakes I knew. And later on in my encounters with arepas at Columbian restaurants, I learned they were maiz-based, not flour-based like bakes.
It wasn’t till I went to Panama that I found something like bakes. To my surprise, they aren’t called arepas like my grandmother said. Instead, they are called “hojaldras,” a similarly shaped puffy-disk, fried to a deep golden brown. When I tried it, the first taste was familiar—vaguely bringing me back to my grandmother’s kitchen with the same consistency, but yanking me away when I didn’t detect the undertone of honey. Still, it was closer than anything else I had tasted.
Now, I think of bakes as an amalgamation, particular to my family and our tangled family—a history of Jamaican immigrants who migrated to build the Panama Canal, and later, migrated to Brooklyn for more opportunities, collecting bits and pieces of culture on the journey.
When I told my grandmother about the “hojaldras” I tried on my visit to her home, she responded with a flat out—“Nope, that’s not bakes.” Affirming in a way that that bakes, like our family, was our own special creation.
Chatting and eating,
Shyanne Figueroa Bennett
I hate most sweet things. It’s utterly annoying how one can spend hours upon hours on making something so cute and sparkly that’s supposed to bring a sweet cheerful taste to your mouth yet when you eat that dreadful spoonful there is only bitterness, and I’m practically choking on any cream it possesses it just never wants to go down. My brother could save my life from a murderous dog and I’d still find a way to point out how annoying he is, it’s truly at his core, but he really likes tres leches. I wouldn’t call myself a good person just because I know who I am deep down, selfishly doing kind acts for others to make myself feel a little more whole rather than spending the rest of my Sunday evening worrying about the color around me getting sucked into the vacuum of space, it would be much nicer to just bake. With baking it leaves my mind still, letting quietness diffuse through the space in my skull and my brain. I’m reminded of how nice life is when there is not a constant thought banging through your mind like a robber trying to steal your sanity. Kinda like a little brother I know. Who knows for sure though not me. For the past few days I’ve had a terrible blister on the tip of my tongue that hurts so badly it feels like my tongue has been made into a knot. I gave up even trying to talk let alone express my pain. The flour has spilled across the table and the eggs are sticky on my palms, the blister on my tongue burns, and my hand is starting to cramp from whisking the egg whites so fast. It seems like such a hassle, the mess I’m making, the pain in my mouth and hands, I was alone but how sweet does it feel to be on your own without the loneliness that often lingers on our backs. The fan on my face with a breeze my hair shifting across my cheeks, the recipe on the table, without the anxieties that have been ravishing my thoughts, I feel myself relax into the cake letting it take its form. The sink begins to leak, and the floors become wet, the dishes pile and I dirty my brother’s shirt. The cake takes form and cools for a good while before I put the milks into the holes I made at the top. I am hesitant to give it a chance as I said I hate sweets, I reach for a spoon and scoop a tiny piece for myself letting it melt slowly against my burning tongue. IT… IS…INCREDIBLE! Astounding, astonishing, how is this miracle even possible? I reward myself with a spoonful and then another and then another. Even with the pain in my mouth I eat the milky cake and speak with vibrance for the first time in days, it feels as if not loudly but tiny chords play as I finally talk with motivation with some drive.
A purposeful mouthful that one was, the tres leches making a home within my fridge, I allowed it to rest and to give me an unfamiliar sweetness, what I have been missing out on all my life. Now this was a reason to live but what I loved most was not feeling missing or lost but with a goal net and a ball I scored for my team, and when I woke up the next day, I didn’t realize that the blister on my tongue disappeared. What a fine dessert.
With a full stomach,
The key to making Jamaican oxtail stew is thyme and time.
“Thyme is to Jamaican cooking, what parsley is to Italian—it’s essential.” My aunt tells me with the fragrant sprig pinned between her fingers. She then hands it to me to add to the oxtail stewing in the pot.
Oxtail is just what it says it is—the tail of an ox or cattle. In Jamaica, oxtails were the scraps left for enslaved African people. But what was meant for trash, Afro-Jamaicans made into magic in the form of a savory, fall-off-the-bone stew with notes of savory and sweet.
Onions, garlic, potatoes, scallions, meat, carrots, scallions, and BROWN SUGAR. My eyes widened and glared at the internet recipe in front of me—That’s the slight sweetness I always taste in oxtail!
And then there’s the kick—Jamaican scotch bonnet pepper, a small pack-a-punch pepper, similar to a habanero. It gives Jamaican cooking its heat.
With all the ingredients in the pot, it must stew for at least two hours—the time.
Letting it stew,
Shyanne Figueroa Bennett
For our pair project, we were inspired by Teaching Artist Hannah Bae’s creative food reviews. We each made two dishes that had some cultural relevance to us, and contemplated the experience.
Kailee Ortiz is a young Latina from Brooklyn, currently in her junior year of art high school, where she explores not only her love for music and singing but for poetry and short story writing. She hopes to become more proficient in Spanish so she can better communicate and experience traveling abroad in the near future.
Shyanne Figueroa Bennett is a Brooklyn, NY, poet with roots in Panama, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. In her poetry, Shyanne explores the intersections of black womanhood, Latinidad, fragmentary oral and historical narratives, spirituality, and the metamorphosis of language across diaspora landscapes. Her work is published or forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Oversound, The Acentos Review and The New York Quarterly, among other places. She is a Girls Write Now mentor and mentee alumna. She earned her Master in Fine Arts in Poetry Writing from Columbia University, where she was a recipient of a Chair’s Fellowship and a Creative Writing Teaching Fellowship.