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It’s been a month after my dad passed away, a moment I didn’t think I was going to experience this early in my life. Especially after he survived a huge accident when he fell down 30 feet into the ground and stomach cancer a few years back. My wife used to call him Ironman. Indeed he was.
Every summer my wife and I used to go visit him in Utuado for a few days, we stayed with him and kept him company. He would keep us entertained and fed! Most of the times all our kids came with us, sometimes even my brother joined the trip.
On July 2017 we did that same visit for the last time without even knowing it.
Our kids were with their grandparents, four of them here in Puerto Rico in the city of Carolina, and the oldest one in Alabama. My wife and I took a week or so off from work and decided to just drive around and visit various places, including my dad’s house.
We arrived with coolers filled with water, beer and snacks, a few changes of clothes and a bottle of pitorro from one of our stops in Yabucoa.
My dad always showed his happiness when we showed up. Food was cooked, the beers were cold and we always had a party even if it was us three. Soon neighbors and friend would stop by with more drinks.
We spent the evening overlooking the beautiful mountains of Utuado while talking about the kids, work and what he had done in the last few days.
Every visit was fun. If he knew we were going, food would just be waiting for us.
That July 2017, a few months before hurricane María and almost a year before we knew he had Acute Myeloid Leukemia, was indeed a very fun July with him.
If Mariela, my wife, was with us, he always found a way to make her happy and welcomed, he always did, from the very beginning. He always would ask her what she wanted to eat, and usually, cook it or buy it for her.
When I was a kid my dad would cook Guinea Hen in rice, it became one of my favorite dishes. The last time I had it, he made it for me in another time, I can’t remember when, before July 2017. He’s red beans were so delicious, probably the best ones in the family, aside from my Abuelita’s. No surprise Mariela loved them also and if she asked, he would cook them.
A lot of my food memories from when I was a kid was with him
somewhere in the picture. Goat fricassée, guinea hen rice, whole roasted pig, garlic shrimp and the many, many trips we took to different places that always ended up in a restaurant or wherever we wanted to eat.
On our last day there he offered to take us wherever we wanted to eat. I had been thinking of this place where they made wood fired pizzas up in the mountains. We got in the car and started driving.
It always rains in Utuado, so the mountains are misty. The smell of vegetation perfumes the entire area. It gets cooler up in the mountains, sometimes we even wear a jacket, in mid-July. Cold for us in Puerto Rico is a good 69 degrees, so if you live in the north, don’t make fun of us.
We arrived at Pizza A Leña, it literally translates to pizza over wood, or cooking wood. Just the views of all the greenery and the blue sky made you feel cozy and happy. We had a meat pizza, very delicious and we accompanied it with Medalla, a Puerto Rican pale lager that is very refreshing when really, really cold. That day if I am not mistaken, Mariela was not drinking and she actually had a Coke, even though we don’t drink sodas (on the most part).
After feasting on a very large pizza, because my dad would always get and cook more than enough, “pa que falte que sobre”, he used to say, meaning better leftovers than not enough, we went on through many curves up the mountains. We had a great time that day visiting places we hadn’t visit in a very long time. After an hour or two we arrived at my cousin’s bar in Jayuya. We had a few more drinks.
The mornings were fun also. My dad used to sneak out very early so he could go out and buy fresh bread, milk, eggs right before we would wake up. That way he would have breakfast ready for us. My dad made me feel like a little kid, a feeling I don’t get with anybody else in the world. I felt protected, watched over, loved in a way that is really hard to replicate. He accepted my wife and new kids as soon as he met them, and he showed it, instantly. He made them feel comfortable, loved and one of the few people that made them feel like family right away. My dad.
Honey, I call my wife Honey, and I got together after we both had previous relationships. She had four kids, I had one. Together we are seven, #somos7. My dad was a grandpa to them and a father in law to Mariela. That feeling is the best feeling.
Now he’s gone. The person I thought was the strongest in the world, the person that beat stomach cancer and was able to stand up after falling three stories down, Ironman, my dad, is gone.
We had some great times together. They always had food and drinks, and as I said, he made sure there was more than enough.
Early memories with him involved the killing of a pig for Christmas time. It may sound horrible for some people, but down here it was a tradition. It is food and great food for that matter. After the entire pig was cleaned, most of it would not go to waste. We ate most everything. And then my dad would season it. My uncles would help. It was festive.
With my dad I learned to eat rabbit, guinea hen, goat, pigs brain (in garlic and with a beer), and many other things that I later learned that I liked.
A party could form at any moment. All that was needed was family, friends, food and a few cold beers and delicious pitorro. Pitorro is similar to what Moonshine is in the mainland US, I will write about it in a future blog since it is part of our history and traditions.
My dad would always visit me when I lived in New Orleans, and those time were a lot of fun also. It was my chance to show him places, take him out to eat, even though he always beat me at picking up the check. I had fun bringing him new beers for him to taste, new foods and new ways of eating. He was so opened to that. He would always say, “I have not tasted anything, that I don’t like.”
So next year come July, I am not sure how or what are we going to do. Hopefully, we do a route and stop in some of the places we would stop together. Maybe the ones I know he always stopped for a beer and to see his friends. Maybe remember him like he used to be out in the open, eating and drinking.
Even his funeral was designed like that. He chose a funeral home owned by his friend and it was across the street from a bar and restaurant. So as we said goodbye we also ate and drank.
And as I write this, I realize the fact that there are more great memories with him, that he is truly gone, and that I feel a little bit alone.
Who is going to cook the most delicious beans for Honey? Who is going to cook guinea hen for me? How am I going to feel protected and like a little kid?
July 2017 was almost like any other time we visited him. But it was the last time we had our food road trip with him.
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