[The Owl] ¡Buen Provecho!

A pinch of Latin culture in the kitchen


Just off the plane, some 8,181 kilometers from home in São Paulo, I arrived at Massey College late on a September night last fall. Almost as soon as the sun was up, I found breakfast in Ondaatje Hall. When I walked in, the first thing I noticed was the inspirational calligraphy engraved in stone, running high around the perimeter of the room — a quotation from the Spanish-American poet and philosopher George Santayana:
Happiness is impossible, and even inconceivable, to a mind without scope…
To be happy, you must be wise.
The high cavernous ceilings, the long tables, the gothic style — it all reminded me of a medieval castle in the tradition of Harry Potter or Oxbridge — it seemed like an unfamiliar time and place. But soon enough, going there every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the dining hall began to remind me a little bit of home…
“Hola Silvia, ¿Cómo estás?”
I heard this friendly greeting almost every day from my new friends David Landaverde, from El Salvador, and Abigail Cribillero, from Peru, both members of the kitchen crew. (In Brazil we speak Portuguese, but Spanish is very familiar since it is the official language of most countries in Latin America.) “Bien, ¿y tú?”
Not too much later, moving down the lunch line one day, I heard Latin music playing on the radio. “I like what I do, and I like the music that we play while we work,” says Abigail. Her favourite are salsa songs; David’s favorite singer at the moment is Juan Luis Guerra, from the Dominican Republic, who is famous for bachata songs, like slow and romantic Caribbean boleros. And then before long, I also noticed a Latin American influence evident in the flavours of the college cuisine. This was explained by the fact that Massey’s former chef, Silvana Valdes, was from Ecuador.


As an inheritance, of sorts, to those who followed in her footsteps in the kitchen, Silvana left her recipes, many with a pinch of Latin spices, such as coriander, oregano, and hot peppers. It was through Silvana that David learned that Massey College was hiring kitchen staff. “I applied for this job out of necessity. I did not have any experience with cooking,” says David. “But I ended up liking my job, and I decided to stay.”
Always smiling, David has worked at Massey for 25 years, and has lived in Canada for 27 years. Born in Santa Ana, in El Salvador, he left home when he was 17 years old, fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War. The conflict between the military-led government and several left-wing groups headed by Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front lasted more than twelve years between 1980 and 1992. The UN estimates that more than 75,000 people were killed during the war. “It was a terrible period in my country,” David says. “The area where my family lived and where I grew up was a combat territory between military and guerrilla. There was too much violence in the street.” At the time, Canada was one of the few countries that offered permanent residence to Salvadoran refugees. For this reason, David decided to move to here, alone. Three of his brothers immigrated to Texas, and the rest of the family (two brothers, three sisters, and David’s parents) stayed in El Salvador. For David, the best thing about living in Canada is the peace and security that the country offers. “We work and we have peace — peace of mind,” he says. Similarly for Abigail, Canada offered an opportunity to have a better life. Born in Peru, Abigail came to Toronto with her mother 18 years ago. She has been working at Massey since 2002, helping to serve the breakfast and collaborating with the catering service. Others with Latin American roots include Jennie Mendieta from Nicaragua, Carmen Ramirez from Mexico, and Massey’s incomparable bartender Rueben Morales, also from Nicaragua, as well as some part-time staff such as Carlos Rueda from Colombia. “Here I have everything that I want,” Abigail says. “There are nice people, lots of opportunity to work, and there is tranquility.” The only downside to Canada for Abigail is the cold weather (especially in the winter). The difficulty with Canada for David is that he misses his family. Once a year, he travels to El Salvador, to visit brothers, sisters and nephews. “The day after I retire, I want to return to El Salvador and the comfort of my family,” he says. Since he does not have any relatives in Canada, he spends good times having fun with his Massey friends. “We are like a family. We always feel good about life. And this is the part that I most enjoy working here,” David says. He also is grateful for the opportunity to live with and meet people from different countries and exchange knowledge about different cultures at the college. “I have made many friends from different parts of the world,” he says. “This is the best thing about working at Massey College.” And it somewhat makes up for missing his family and friends in El Salvador, and longing for the beaches and the food. David’s favorite Salvadoran dishes are “mariscada,” a seafood soup, and “pupusa,” a thick corn tortilla stuffed with a savory filling and served with tomato salsa — sometimes he makes his recipes for the students, and sometimes he prepares special meals for the kitchen family.
David is perhaps best known for preparing delicious sauces. My favourites were his salad dressings, boasting harmonious combinations of textures and flavors with a pitch of Latin spices, which—along with his company, and Abigail’s and Jennie’s and everyone’s — always made me feel not quite so far away from home. As Santayana suggested, we are all forever finding our place in the world.