My first meal at a Costa Rican restaurant was Mexican. When a bunch of us ISA students sat ourselves at the cozy, open air Las Leñitas, I admit I was skeptical. Back in my NorCal hometown, we live off tacos from the Mexican grocery chain Mi Pueblo. I ordered the “synchronizada” in search of the new and different.
If memory serves correctly, the menu described some kind of cake made of maize and stuffed with jamon y queso. Mind you, we’ll probably go back – we learned the place is a popular lunch spot for students from Universidad Veritas – so I can check for you. Turns out, synchronizadas are basically what we’d think of as quesadillas in the States. Crisp half circles of tortilla with some melted ham and cheese inside. In truth, I loved it. Granted, I do love all food (except asparagus). Yet, the cuisine here is so fresh, light, and tasty, every scoop of ruby cubes of tomate and creamy aguacate of my pico de gallo and guacamole was a taste of paradise. Indeed, the word applies well here.
That being said, my mama tica’s cooking is an entirely different ballgame. We’re talking powerful stuff. You know that scene in Disney’s Ratatouille where the critic Ego sits down to a special meal of…ratatouille? Of a crotchety temperament, this food critic boasts unrivaled fastidiousness among the Paris culinary crowd and can readily ruin a restaurant with one bad review. Nevertheless, one bite of that vegetable stew leaves him awash in pleasant nostalgia, takes him back to his own mother’s remedy for a tumble off one’s bicycle, a scraped knee and some tears…
Way too early on Saturday morning, I arrived in San José feeling just fine. The dreaded 3 or so hour wait at the airport passed more swiftly in the company of three other girls, ISA students, in the same boat. I even remembered my toothbrush. It wasn’t until I settled into my familia tica’s house, finishing last minute stuff for my summer internship, that I started feeling weird. Alone. And this in a house with 7 other students. This, in the home of a family of five with whom I truly felt comfortable with almost immediately. I just couldn’t shake it though. So as usual, I tried to work through my feelings— which worked, somewhat.
That first night in San José, my mama tica handed me a plate and invited me to serve myself some nourishing chicken and chickpea stew and rice for dinner. Pouring us some agua fresco, freshly blended from the cancer-fighting guyabana fruit, my mama tica Beatriz explained to us the nutritive powerhouse that is the garbanzo bean, as we watched Baby Isaac watch Baby Einsteins’.
Good food has a knack for taking you home. Whether that’s to an honest to goodness childhood memory or simply the integration that comes with being in touch with all of one’s self, it can remind us what love feels like, what being human feels like. Up against a plate of stew and friendly conversation, nerves and self-consciousness don’t stand a chance.
I want to say that somewhere in between our discussion of hummus and the partaking of Jelly Bellies, a gift from me to my host family, I became certain of something. I had woken up that morning in my own bed. Boarded a plane in San Francisco, traveled to Los Angeles to San Jose, Costa Rica. But this? This was home.