Hogar Ruth, a non-profit organization in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, is committed to saving lives by sheltering women experiencing domestic abuse. They welcome anyone seeking a safe haven into their 90-day facility, and their efforts help reduce the rising mortality rate of women who die at the hands of someone they love. Often, the women and their children arrive at Hogar Ruth with only the clothes they are wearing, with no one to turn to except the kindness of people they do not know. When CulinaryCorps organizers first touched base with Hogar Ruth last year, we asked if there was any way we could help further their noble mission.
As it turned out, a team of chefs was exactly what they needed.
As so many of us cooks dream to do one day, Hogar Ruth wanted to create a cookbook of beloved recipes. They hoped to draw from the knowledge and experience of their in-house kitchen, the repertoires of the women they serve, and the board members who support the organization. Beyond a mere collection of recipes, the final product is intended to serve as a handbook for these women when they move out of the facility. Amidst the recipes will be emergency numbers, steps to break the cycle of violence, and advice for putting a family in a safer space, both mentally and physically. Every woman who leaves Hogar Ruth will receive a copy.
The CulinaryCorps volunteers were up for the challenge. Shortly after arriving in the morning and unpacking two vans full of groceries, our volunteer chefs paired up with the women of Hogar Ruth to embark on a day of recipe capturing, testing, and eating.
Many of these women are struggling with ongoing violence in their lives, and we were prepared for them to be uncommunicative, even disengaged, with a group of strangers waltzing into their temporary home. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Food has a way of connecting people like no other medium can — within minutes we were listening to shared stories about one woman’s sorely missed comfort food from her hometown overseas, and another woman’s favorite holiday treat from her grandmother.
As the CulinaryCorps co-leaders headed out to shop for the necessary ingredients, the teams began to re-create several recipes submitted by board members of Hogar Ruth. Our mission was to test these recipes — and tweak them if necessary — until they were cookbook-ready.
After a few hours of cooking, we had a spectacular lunch on our hands in the aptly named “Café Ruth”:
- Ensalada de Atun
- Ensalada de Chayote
- Beef Marinara
- Arroz con Cebolla
- Pollo al Mango
- Budin de Pan
- Quesadilla Saladorena
Steady work began again promptly at 2pm as the teams set out to test and refine the women’s own recipes so they too could find a home in the cookbook. Meanwhile, the children in the facility donned paper chef hats, rolled up their sleeves, and started cooking as well. Their first creation was a sweet dessert called a Quesadilla Saladorena, using a surprising ingredient, pancake mix. Then they moved on to homemade play-doh, sculpting, and shaping all sorts of wonderfully artistic sculptures that graced our buffet table that afternoon.
Finally, in the cool breeze of the outdoor gazebo, the children learned to make pizza dough from scratch. Mixing and kneading, they turned their hard work into individual pizzas topped with fresh vegetables, cheese, and the class favorite, pepperoni. Since oven space was at a premium, we grilled the pizzas outside. The hands-down winner was the “Puerto Rican Pizza” that boasted a layer of sofrito, queso blanco, and fresh cilantro. Pizza joints of the world, take note!
After a couple of hours in the kitchen, we wrapped up with another beautiful meal full of very traditional Puerto Rican foods:
- Ensalada con Aderezo de Mojo
- Mofongo con Camarones y Carne Frita
- Alcapuria de Carne
- Pastelon de Yuca y Calabaza
- Macarones con Pollo
- Tacos de Churrasco
- Bolitas de Chocolate y Coco
- Frescas Son Chocolate
Midway through the day, we were chatting over the cutting boards, and one chef mentioned that the CulinaryCorps chefs volunteering this week in Puerto Rico “are all so different but the same.” This truism could be extended to the women and children we worked with at Hogar Ruth as well. We all come from different backgrounds, and our views on the world may not necessarily coincide. But food? Food brings us one and all to the table: smiling, joyous, and hopeful.