Dulce de Coco
One of the chapters in my memoir was a particular pleasure to write; it brought back memories as a child riding my trusty bicycle through rutted streets to find the lady who made dulce de coco, coconut candy.
Drawn by the enticing aroma rising up from the large cauldron on the outdoor fire pit near the beach, I would sit at her feet, mesmerized by sweet smells in the salt-sea air. As I work my way along the path to publication, I find I want to take a break from all the details that beg for attention, and romp awhile in those fragrant memories. Here is a taste:
“Buenos días,” I say too loudly, not that she can hear me. Maria la Sorda opens her mouth in a toothless grin and her gray hair shakes in its unruly bun. She gives me a kiss and motions me to sit down on the log next to her. She is deaf, and here on the island it’s common for people to get nicknames to identify them from, for example, other Marias. So she is known to all as “Deaf Mary.”
I watch as she grates coconut meat into cheesecloth and squeezes a stream of the white liquid into a simmering stew of milk and sugar. As the candy thickens, she tosses in a bunch of twigs tied into a small bundle, and the salt-sea air fills with the bite of cinnamon sticks blending with the softer perfume of vanilla beans. After pulling the heavy cauldron off the fire, she ladles a layer of dulce onto a large sheet where it hardens before she cuts it into squares for sale. I buy ten pieces to take home. María la Sorda gives me a coconut embrace that feels warm and smoky and good and makes me wish Mama would hug me like that sometimes.
Fast forward a few decades. I’m now hunting online for Dominican dulce recipes I may attempt to make for upcoming book readings. Following a recipe reminds me of the publishing process. Attention must be paid, and steps need to be taken to achieve both a delicious treat and a finished book. You have to start with the right ingredients and use the right pot. In getting a book published, working with the most effective tools is also essential.Although Maria la Sorda never followed an exact formula for her sweets, she knew if she had it right by smell and feel as she twisted her ladle in the bubbling mixture. Proportions in recipes –whether written or imprinted into the senses—suggest the balance writers must achieve in the new world of publishing and platform-building. And there’s always a dance with heat; it it’s too high the candy begins to burn and is ruined. As writers we too have to stir up our priorities and check our temperatures constantly along the way. Are we melting down? Burning out?
The final instruction for perfect dulce is to know the exact moment it’s time to pull it off the fire. Maria la Sorda couldn’t hear, but that never stopped her from doing what she knew best—and loved—to do. As we “cook up” books, we also need to learn when our literary dishes are, finally, ready to be served. Buén apetito!