Vegan Dominican: A Culinary Perspective, Part Two
My background hails from the rural beginnings of her family in Quisqueya. It was in my mother’s kitchen I avidly watched as food was prepared and cooked. Women of all generations would gather a preparar la comida del dia. Those early memories of the fogon’s intense fire, the smell of the Dominican spices, and the work collaboration of the women would stay ingrained within my whole life. Later in life, these memories became factual when my learning about foods and the Diaspora intensified. The early civilizations of our original ancestors in Africa, Latin America and Asia recognized and honored the land for the medicine and foods it provided through its plants. The secrets to tending the land, via multi-cropping so vividly described by Vandana Shiva and Rigoberta Menchu continues to allow for the nurturing and cultivation of foods that serve as both medicine and nutrition to the human body. Women as the embodiment of Mother Earth were the earliest farmers who cultivated and preserved the seed. It was around this time I pondered on whether meat was natural to our biochemistry.
For me, this early exposure to the idea of a plant-based diet, I came to later revisit only to realize that there is a true culture revolving around this dietary lifestyle. My studies and experiences further solidified what would become the basis of my philosophical outlook and lifestyle on health. This would mean breaking cultural norms, ideas and traits which made you a “true” Dominican. To me, however, deconstructing these notions is what brought me closer to my Dominicaness. In order to do this, I studied the science of food and its traditions and how we qualify what stays as part of our customs for generations.
When we are consuming meat, we are putting another living being’s cellular system inside of our bodies. We ingest their ideas (the mind really does make the body), as well as whatever that animal ingested itself. For example, if we ingest the flesh of an animal that eats other animal’s feces, clothing, etc, we also ingest those things, for what the animal eats is found and processed in their cells. Meat is also carcinogenic beyond the hormones many animals are artificially pumped with. Once an animal is dead, it enters the process of rigomortis. As expressed in the book “Why We Should Go Vegan,” consuming meat is essentially decayed energy and nutrients in a very long digestive process (1). Meat, primarily composed of protein, is useful in its immediate benefits of providing energy to the body. The immediate effects of strength and vitality will eventually lead to diabetes, high bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, pancreas cancer, heart disease, etc. We think these conditions are solely inherited or are externally exerted on us by plain old age. We have conformed to thinking old age is supposed to be a debilitating and weakening experience. In reality we have been working up to these diseases of years in ingesting foods that are not living. The saying “we are what we eat” is literal as it applies to the consumption of dead flesh and its derivatives (dairy).
Upon learning this science, I decided that I wanted to consume living foods. Fruits and vegetables (cooked and raw), as well as protein from legumes, greens, grains, and complex carbohydrates is part of a rich living foods diet. So, I’m not a vegan because I’m only appalled at the mistreatment and gross mechanization/industrialization of animals through the meat and dairy industry. I am not just protesting the fact that these animals live in horrid conditions and because they are living beings that are indeed suffering. Their maintenance, reproduction, and slaughter are very much animal slavery. This is just a part of the problem.
I am a vegan because I have proven to myself that this is the natural diet of humanity. It allows us for full development of the self and in doing so it becomes a revolutionary act.. It is revolutionary for the person practicing this diet because it goes against the status quo of meat and dairy consumption. Most important it is revolutionary because it is a process that starts in the inner (the individual who becomes vegan) which affects the outer (no longer buying from big corporations that sell meat and dairy and now supporting small farmers). Its revolutionary potential must be looked at in context, and oftentimes we just look at the individual disconnected from the actual society he/she belongs to. The revolutionary is not merely at the protest or community center. The revolutionary belongs to a family, enjoys and/or makes art, speaks a language, and eats food. This disconnection between the person and their lifestyle provides an incomplete picture of the whole being. Simply, one cannot be a revolutionary of the community and world, if one doesn’t start applying those ideals within the self first. This means that the lifestyle and culture we live must be in accordance to the actions we take in our communities and the contributions we make to it. In order to make change, we must first apply those changes to one self.
“¡Lo que no mata, engorda!”?
The idea that a certain food has been part of a cultural tradition for X number of years does not make its consumption correct. Our culture is our way of life and a part of that way of life is applying the knowledge that one understands to propel and enrich that path powerfully and righteously. In this we must question traditions, customs and diets. Are we just blindly following along because our “great-grandparents did it?” One that is able to add on and break the self-inflicted oppressive forces within our culture for newer generations is an epigenetic move that will indeed improve and move us more towards living right and happy. Within this, diet must be examined thoroughly. How is food related to aging? Why do Quisqueyanos and other Black folk tend to get sick in the 40s, 50s and 60s? We must examine, question and test the validity of the foods that are traditionally eaten and figure out how they advance our culture and society. This requires that Quisqueyanos and other marginalized groups have accessibility and education in topics like foods, farming and agriculture.
With education we can reexamine the traditional foods and agricultural practices passed down in our culture. We can start to ask questions. For example, is raising your own cows, chickens in the campo (in the manner of our ancestors) with hormone-free and solely plant foods a better option for our health? If so, how? Some of us grow up with the notion that being Dominican or Puerto Rican and were raised on “leche de vaca,” “pernil” or “lechon” and haven’t died from it, that it’s correct. We must again ask ourselves , if we make it to our 50s, 60s, and maybe even 70s, how is diet related to the ailments suffered throughout our lifetime? (ulcers, diabetes, cholesterol, high blood pressure, kidney stones, cancer, asthma, eczema, thyroid disorders, arthritis, etc.). We must look at all things of which diet is a key component.
Izayaa’s Kitchen/El Fogon de Izayaa
Having developed a revolutionary consciousness (revolutionary because plant-based diets within the Dominican community is not yet the norm and is the cause of much uproar amongst its members) in regards to my diet, I established Izayaa’s Kitchen as a medium to show we can continue to create and consume authentic Dominican food all via plant-based options. You can still continue to receive all the nutrition and protein you need in a vegan diet. People, in an attempt to defend the idea that meat-based protein is essential in one’s diet, miss the idea that “Nature simply cannot make a soybean, potato, or grain of wheat without using all the same amino acids (the “building blocks” of protein) required by the metabolism of humans”(2). Making Dominican dishes like “La Bandera,” pastelon, Sancocho, Asopao, and others in vegan format with organic produce and cooking techniques that preserve the active minerals and nutrients of the food, is what drives my work. Cooking traditional dishes, passed down through generations of women in my family watching, without meat, dairy and/or artificial condiments with foods that are not processed, irrigated, sprayed with pesticides and of a genetically modified organism is what I work on creating.
These past years have been a journey of renovation, of deconstructing notions of foods (i.e. there must be a meat item in the dish in order for it to be complete) and creativity. The kitchen can become a zone where the unknown is manifested to provide further insight in our relationship with nature. Through cooking, our equality is reflected with how we use the elements we made and found on the planet. We truly discover that what makes our food authentically Dominican is precisely the local elements that grow on our land. This process provides a space to navigate through the potentiality of “what is” and of “what can become.” By doing this we are tapping into our own selves and a deeper aspect of our Dominican culture.
Thus, I live my culture as a Quisqueyana cooking in this way.
(1)Vinding, Magnus. Why We Should Go Vegan. Magnus Vinding, 2014. Web.
(2)Null, Gary. The Vegetarian Handbook: Eating Right for Total Health. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996. Print.
This is part two of a two-part series. For part one, click here.