Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
Scott, Angelica and I went to Puerto Rico to visit family in late August last year. It was a trip fraught with turmoil as my mother’s mental illness had become much more pronounced and balancing the needs of my grandparents and my mother was a loosing battle. This was supposed to be our vacation but really, it was an exercise in keeping it together. A running joke was that this vacation was Boot Camp: the Puerto Rico edition.
We spent countless hours in the scorching sun scraping the wrought iron fencing around my grandparents home. Even more hours into the night were spent painting the fence with oil-based enamels. Between these exercises we would go and visit my mom who lived in the fishing town of Santa Isabel about twenty minutes away from Ponce. We met her thug housekeeper, who despite his friendly and humble demeanor seemed like the kind of man that had a dark past. We listened to Mami’s theories about the grand conspiracy of the serpent people and how Angelica and I were destined to eradicate them. Despite her handicap and needing a wheelchair to get around, Mami even managed to teach Angelica how to dance flamenco – the great dance of serpent stomping.
This trip was devastating.
There was no way to even make a dent in my family’s need. Even though Angelica and Scott were patiently going along with all that this family visit required, I could see that they were being pushed. We rented a car and took an overnight trip to the eastern coast of the island just to take a deep breath. We drove until we found a little hotel beside the beach in the town of Patillas. As we walked beside the road toward the hotel I was delighted to see tamarind pods strewn under our feet, discovering the large trees growing wild by the side of the road overhead. What a happy and simple moment. Finding the tamarind grounded me that day. It reminded me of my roots: that I come from an island of proud but humble people where chaos and pleasure live side by side. It reminded me of childhood, when things were somewhat simpler and the sour and earthy taste of tamarind could shock the senses and provide a temporary reprieve.
I found some fresh tamarind at the Chelsea Market’s Manhattan Fruit Exchange this week, and I could not resist bringing some home. Today, I am making some fresh tamarind juice and remembering that day last summer when we sat and stared at the ocean and the horizon line, incredulous, speechless at what was happening around us.
Refresco de Tamarindo (Tamarind Juice)
1 pound fresh tamarind in the pod
4 cups of water
3/4 cup sugar or more, to taste
1. Peel the tamarind and place the flesh (with pits) it in a heavy sauce pan. Add the water and soak for an hour.
2. Use your hands to massage the tamarind and remove as much flesh from the seed as possible.
3. Bring the tamarind mixture to a boil and quickly remove from the heat. Pour through a colander to strain out the seeds and casings.
4. Add sugar to taste and cool the juice down. Enjoy served over ice.
Makes 6 – 8 servings.