We stand before a book that can well be defined as an encyclopedia containing the most characteristic information regarding the creole gastronomy of the Dominican Republic. This is so, because the moment we start reading the first page, all the way until reaching the last chapter, its content describes the most emblematic delicacies of our cuisine, each of them referring to our historical lineage, the crops used for their elaboration, and the procedures involved, all of them combined into a successful outcome.
When talking about gastronomy, referring specifically to an original and vast array of dishes within a single culinary style, that shapes and identifies the cuisine of a specific country, we must remain aware that within the cultural fabric supporting this style, there are not few, but several arts and sciences therein combined.
It goes without saying that gastronomy is a field of study of its own, and in recent times, asides the art and sciences therein involved, has been subject of functional, structural and developmental interpretation, as well as psychoanalysis. Late in the twentieth century, and during this current century, publications concerning the Dominican diet, render testimony to an approach made on a topic that surpasses simple narrative. For example, in this publication, we encounter a positive and grandiloquent response to that great concern once expressed by renowned French sociologist, Roger Bastide when he stated that: “To cook is an art; to prepare a dish, bestow it with a personalized touch or special aroma, and make it so alluring to the common eye at the same that it is appealing to the palate, tends to be neglected by anthropologists with much frequency”.
However, and speaking of history, our gastronomy, like any other in the universe, has its inception on the stove and the family cauldron. It was these utensils that first embraced, paired and merged need, possibilities, and gifts from nature, together with the palate’s demands alongside the creativity to produce the generous legacy of the Dominican table. The start was thereby marked by our indigenous heritage, which despite the untimely disappearance of our island’s first inhabitants has continued living on in dishes made from cassava, mapuey, and other edible tubers. The stories so told by the chronicles of Indies, render evidence that the famine experienced during the first years after the colonization were mitigated in part thanks to the Taino food regime. Many Spaniards used the native women as their concubines, well aware that these women were the ones responsible for their survival, thanks to their culinary wisdom. The native cooks from the early sixteenth century were soon joined by the Spaniards and Africans. To them we owe the inaugural moment of the training process of all timely and recurrent habits of Dominican dining. The permanence of native flavors is undeniable, as is also the succulence of the Spanish palate and the ever-present African influence in some dishes. As time went by and the ebb-and-flow of multiple social key moments left their mark, the colony of Santo Domingo focused its life and gastronomy on a new path to self-discovery. The cooks – both male and female – had to make a huge effort and put all their heart and might into creating and developing a gastronomy that would fulfill the demand for flavor of its inhabitants and abroad, and at the same time, be a valid source of nourishment.
In 1606, the vain attempts by Governor Osorio, whom decimated the population of Santo Domingo to avoid the practice of contraband led by the Dutch, French and British, showed, by way of an official census, that the island barely featured a total population of 15,433 residents, among which, the Spaniards totaled at 5,785 and slaves were the majority at 9,648. The historical data attained through said census does not explain if among the slaves were also included the freedmen and mulattos, for had they been included, the total number would have been significantly different, especially considering the intensity by then reached in the blend of cultures. The fact of the matter is that this nucleus of townsmen and their descendants would live under circumstances of abandon that would prolong two centuries and beyond.
Poverty and neglect moderated the various social and racial differences, and at the same time, they favored cohabitation among the different groups. This reality not only permeated but also influenced the cultural expression of all colony residents.
This eventuality intervened in such a way in their sustenance, that cooks, urged by the need, and fostered in their creativity, multiplied the gastronomic recipe book, to make life more easygoing and pleasant. However, it is not entirely true that like in past times, today the food intake of all of Santo Domingo’s dwellers was and continues to be completely equal.
There are levels of wealth, which condition and influence over the quality of products, their variety, the measure and flavor of all foods. Despite this dissimilarity, generality prevails in the diet and is thus shared with identical enjoyment.
The process of creation of creole Dominican cuisine continued to blossom at the pace of times, of its own demands, of its possibilities, and in favor of the imagination of its scullions. A mission well accomplished throughout the centuries, in a belief and reflection concerning every native or foreign product, to seize, rework, reassess and own. Evolution without rest, given how obvious it is that our gastronomy is currently experiencing a stellar moment of protagonism given the various publications as is this work, which unveil Dominican pride in the capacity and creativity of its chefs and the complacence of the national stewing pot. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to state that Dominican gastronomy excels alongside the great cuisines of America.
We will allow ourselves to repeat that, all gastronomies are the cultural outcome of its population and communities. Consequently, the quality of our creole cuisine reaffirms its active permanence, and openly embraces the future of a world that is ever closer and more conducive to exchanges among all peoples.
It remains true that the influence of powerful nations tends to impose its views and cultural patterns, making use of more sophisticated means each time. The effects of that reality can be either positive or adverse. Gastronomy must not avoid nor run from these consequences. It is essential that the efforts aimed to preserving our identity be made without underestimating the influences adopted from abroad.
Hugo Tolentino Dipp