Some of my favorite memories of being a touring children’s theatre performer in Los Angeles revolve around food. The company itself was multi-cultural, and we often found ourselves in areas of town where transplants from other countries were starting their own restaurants and serving up the food of their homelands. After all, in LA, you can find nearly every kind of cuisine from Armenian to Yugoslavian (if not Zimbabwean.)
While visiting these restaurants with the other performers in the group, there were often people in the bunch who grew up eating that cuisine. And for that meal, it was as if they were the ambassador to traditions and foods that I was sometimes trying for the first time. We’d talk over meals of rice and beans about their parents, their families, or the best way to fry plantains… It gave the meals a richness and warmth that went further than whatever garnishes were planned by the restaurant. It also created a closeness in the group because it felt like we weren’t just bonding over shared time together but also shared memories.
Now whenever I cut open a mango, I can’t help but think of one of the company members who grew up in Hawaii. His family had a mango tree in their backyard. I imagined him running outside to pull a mango from the tree in the same way that I’d run down the hill in the yard of my childhood home to pluck mulberries. He’d often bring mangoes to shows, cut up in slices, to share with the rest of us. I’d purchased mango on my own many times, but I’d never been that impressed with the flavor. It was kind of dry and a little woody. That is, until I tasted the mango he’d brought. It was succulent and sweet, juicy and tender. I asked him about why our mangoes varied so much, and he said the key was in the ripeness. There should be a slight give when you press with the thumb, when you smell the end of the mango, it should be fragrant. Since then I’ve learned to be patient. I don’t refrigerate the fruit, so that it can continue to ripen. I leave it in the fruit bowl until it’s even starting to wrinkle just a bit. I take in a whiff of its floral aroma, press on it gently, and know that it’s ready.
In my continuing series on simple ways to use Spicy Black Beans, here’s a recipe for Mango Pineapple Salsa on Black Bean-Stuffed Potatoes. When people think of baked potatoes, their minds often jump to cheese or sour cream. In this case, the freshness of pineapple and mango lighten the dish and inform the spicy black beans in a way that is vibrant instead of heavy. The bright bite of the mango can almost transport you to Hawaii or at least to a grade school auditorium, wearing wigs and costumes, telling stories to children…