Gallo Pinto is a ubiquitous Costa Rican dish that I have never wavered in loving. In many ways it’s a mirror for me. I was raised eating food that signified the diaspora from Jamaica to Costa Rica to Queens. Gallo Pinto’s origins are debated but I confidently assume Black people played a major role as is the case in several Latin American food cultures. It’s commonly eaten at breakfast.
❦ This recipe has no measurements because when you know you know.
Get a pan on the stove and set it to medium heat. Maybe it’s not so early or late, but we’re zooming conversations that could be emails and there are apparently 7 new strains of the virus keeping us inside, so it takes more than being on two feet and doing your skin and hair routine to realize you’re not having an apocalypse dream. You could be standing there in a daze, thinking the white overhead light on the stove is a headlight from a vehicle in one of Octavia’s parables, and you’re meant to duck and cover. The sharp mist coming up from the onions and habanero you chop is the tear gas you’ll swear was real when you wake at 3 or 4 am in June. But when you throw in the onions the oil in the pan should already be hot so that your alarm clock is the crackle of cooking onions and the hot oil that flicks you on the shoulder. You’re up and that’s fine because you have a rewarding task in your hands. ❦
As far as I can remember I’ve been an ornery person when I wake, bothered deeply. The most effective antidote for me has always been the whir produced by my parents on Saturday mornings. The scent of my dad’s cooking, (and, as I got older, the promise of coffee) the sound of the TV set to a channel playing r&b or soul or salsa, my dad belting along with most likely Celia Cruz, and the vacuum joining the chorus. I could never stop malaise from starting fights with me in the morning, but I could count on the music and the scent of habanero and garlic to pull the swinging feeling off of me and carry me to a table where I would be immersed in flavor and conversation that lasted for hours.
❦ Sweat the onions, meaning, cook them until they remind you of the light bouncing off your mother’s cheek, glowing from the Miami heat and the gratitude she has for the memories she’s making with her kids.
Add the chopped bell peppers and habanero if you haven’t already. ❦
Until the pandemic hit LA my primary income source was from my job as a barista. It has been an education in taste, terroir, scent, and food science that I straight up did not expect to get when I first started. Now coffee of almost any kind (as long as it’s black) is my favorite thing to motivate me out of bed in the morning. Ideally it’s made by me at home, or by a friend that let’s you leave without paying, or a hot barista with good music taste who starts to flirt after you ask about the coffee’s origin. Despite all the shit I can talk (righteously) about working in a food & beverage service industry that sometimes requires me to ride the bus before dawn and do small talk with strangers who need me but aren’t sure I deserve $15 an hour, the dial-in is one of my favorite ways to wake up.
The sound of the grinder and the scent of coffee grounds. The sound of whatever music feels right for 5am ― doo wop or ambient house or old school soul or anything keeps me calm and entertained and motivated enough to get through six hours of hard work, creating an experience that people are often more desperate than they realize to get to.
❦ Let things cook a beat or two then add chopped fresh garlic and stir just to incorporate. Add black beans that maybe you pull from the can (juice and all) or from a pot you made the night or two before. Use a fork to mash up the beans slightly, so they can grab hold of the rice and maintain their influence on everything. Season with salt and pepper. Depending on your history with the dish, and whether or not you have a store nearby that carries it ― you could add some Salsa Lizano too. ❦
In 2020 a certain type of fatigue came through to make it harder for me to wake truly up — one that I can assume is widely felt and understood because a common theme in the tweets I have screenshots of in my phone is an utter inability to process the entropy of right now. People confessing their struggle to find the time or energy to make art or respond to emails or text back or eat. People losing their favorite and/or primary sources of getting pulled from their beds.
In an essay from her book Intimations (2020) called Something to Do, even someone who seemingly never stops in her tracks / her ability to do her thing, Zadie Smith, surprised by what was happening to her, wrote:
“Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it.” She was plucked from her routine way of being in the world, and that is universally difficult to cope with.
❦ Mix thoroughly and find yourself remembering who you are off the scent of the beans, seasoning, and all becoming one. It’s ready when it smells like the Saturday mornings that woke you growing up. Watch it all bubble together and as I said, when you know you know.
Put your prepared white rice, whether it’s leftovers or a quick and necessary pot you just whipped up, into the pan with the beans. Reduce the heat a bit to avoiding drying out. Stir it, moving in around and through the mixture ― coating everything with one another. ❦
It’s no permanent solution, but making some Gallo Pinto and coffee is an energizing something to do. It reconnects me to my body in a way that feels kind of akin to what Black Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens talks about in an essay called The Dharma of Trauma:
“So much of what I understand to be liberatory is really about remembering my body and remembering that my body is the result of many people, decisions, and acts that have come before me.”
❦ Serve underneath one or two fried eggs, maybe some kielbasa sautéed in tomato and onion and thyme. Garnish with fresh cilantro and slices of aguacate and queso fresco and tostones or johnny cake or those layered pillsbury biscuits or French bread or tortillas. ❦
Because of where this dish and drink come from and the memories of my family that they’re connected to, these simple rituals can help me reach into my lineage and my reservoir of happy feelings. It’s the kind of start that brings me back to my body, and reveals the special impact of an ordinary thing.
❦ Wash it down with a glass of water and a coffee that complements the savory, spicy, and comfortable dish– ideally Costa Rican, that carries notes of citrus and honey and shortbread cookies. ❦
Cara Elise Taylor is an Artist/Storyteller working with film photography and writing as mediums. She’s also the Digital Content Manager @womanlymag, a platform covering art and health for women & non-binary folks. My other other job is coordinating social media content for @theirthapp, an app in development that will be like Yelp for Black people giving birth (if you don’t know about the maternal death disparities by race, you should go find out and support them!). You can follow and support Cara’s work on her Instagram.