It’s Christmas Day, and Marianela Barnett isn’t at home.
Well, she is. But she also isn’t. These days, a small house nestled at the base of a bucolic valley in Tremont is where she lives with her husband, Lonnie. It’s remote and quiet and she absolutely loves it there, despite it being nothing like her bustling, raucous home in Colombia.
“It’s difficult to be away from your things. Your family. Your people,” she said. This is especially true during the holidays. Christmas in Colombia is a time of intense celebration. Family members gather to dance, to drink, to eat. Especially to eat.
“Everything is about family and food,” she said. “It’s like a party.”
Although she’s lived in the U.S. for decades, cooking traditional Colombian food, Barnett said, helps her feel connected to home. When she cooks at Christmas, she loves to play villaneico, an upbeat Latin American holiday music. She’ll dance around her small galley kitchen and sing loudly in Spanish as she prepares canon de cerdo or torta negra Colombiana or chocolate caliente.
“We Colombians are the happiest people,” she said.
From a seat at the small dining room table just off the kitchen, her husband snorted.
“That’s debatable,” he said. She rolled her eyes at him and muttered something in Spanish as she placed three bowls of steaming ajiaco, a rich Colombian chicken and potato stew, on the table. The house is filled with the scent of onions and cilantro.
She set several slices of avacado at the center of the table. The flesh of the fruit, she said, should be dropped into the stew for additional flavor. It adds richness to an already rich dish.
“Some people say this soup can bring people back from the dead,” she said.
“I believe it,” Lonnie Barnett said. She rolled her eyes again, muttered in Spanish again. He just laughed and blew across the top of a spoonful of stew, sending plumes of steam across the table. He said, “I’m absolutely surprised Colombian food hasn’t taken off here.”
There’s a familiarity to Colombian food, he said, that people in the southern U.S. would love. It’s all hearty, pure comfort food.
Take, for example, chocolate caliente … or hot chocolate. The Colombians have a traditional way of making it. Barnett demonstrated. She broke apart bars of dark chocolate and dropped them into an aluminum pot called a chocolatera. As the chocolate melted over heat, she spun the handle of a bolinillo – a kind of grooved wooden mallet – between her hands, as if trying to start a fire. This both stirs the chocolate as it cooks and creates a frothy foam.
Once the chocolate was melted and poured into mugs, she cut thick wedges of queso blanco and dropped them into the chocolate.
“This is something that we have all the time,” she said, spooning chocolate and softened cheese from the mug. The taste was sweet and salty and unbelievably rich.
Food like this, she said, doesn’t just remind her of Colombia. It keeps her family’s connection her home tangible. Real. A former flight attendant (she’s now a nurse), Barnett said she’s learned how a culture’s food is often a key to understanding.
“When you learn from another culture … about what they eat, what they do, their language … you learn about them. And you learn to be tolerant,” she said.
It’s why she’s never stopped making Colombian food, even after decades away.
“I think it’s important for [my children] to know where I came from. Why I am the way I am and why I eat the things I eat,” she said.
Food is more than just something to eat. It’s passion and history. It’s comfort. And for Marianela Barnett on a Christmas morning thousands of miles away, it’s home.