A few summers ago, I conducted my graduate-school research at a health clinic in a batey, or rural community, about an hour north of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Punta Cana’s high-end resorts and all-you-can-eat buffets are a stark contrast to the impoverished former sugarcane plantations that make up the bateys in the island’s interior. Electricity is rare and subject to apagaones (blackouts) that can last an entire day, which has serious consequences for rural health clinics trying to operate blood labs and store vaccines—and severely limits the menu dished up for clinic staff.
During my 10-week stay, I slept on the floor of an empty clinic room with a handful of Canadian medical students doing internships. Meals were served family style; food was brought in at the beginning of each week from the capital. Fruit and vegetables were nonexistent, and the “meat” option was an overly processed bologna that was dubious on Monday mornings and scary by Wednesday.
Despite being on an island, our fish selection was limited to canned sardines. For breakfast we had white bread dipped in sugary coffee; a typical lunch was fried plantains with spaghetti and rice. Yes, spaghetti and rice. Everything was flavored with Maggi bouillon cubes, which left us parched and thirsty. Dinner was often boiled plantains with hot sauce, or fried eggs and dumplings. (Dumplings were usually served at the end of the week, when pickings were slim. A mixture of water and flour, they were hard to choke down even with copious amounts of rum and Presidente.)
The clinic closed on weekends, so we’d all catch a bus out of town on Fridays toward one of the gorgeous playas lining the island’s north coast. These places were like culinary meccas to us with their beachside shacks serving fresh fish, beans, even the occasional leaf of lettuce. However, nothing hit the spot quite like the piña coladas served at every beach bar. After days of bland starches, something about the sweet richness of the coconut milk and the tangy bite of the prized pineapples was mouthwatering. My friends and I used to suck those babies down like water, stocking up in preparation for another week of tastebud-numbing cuisine.
Flash forward five years: Back in New York City, I’m on maternity leave in the dead of winter. It was a brutal time for me; I felt isolated and lonely, cut off from friends and my usual calendar of travel and fun. In many ways, it wasn’t so different from those long weeks living at the clinic! Back then I couldn’t sleep because of the stifling heat and mosquitoes; now it was because of a colicky baby. Maybe that’s what inspired me to host a piña colada party for the other moms in my son’s playgroup. I remembered how those piña coladas had cheered me up, and, while my fifth-floor walk-up was a far cry from the beaches of my favorite island, I thought a tropical cocktail with other frazzled moms might just do the trick.
And so, on a cold February afternoon, we all gathered in my apartment to sample one of the Caribbean’s most famous exports. I had spent the day searching for cream of coconut only to be shown coconut milk time and time again by the staff of Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and other neighborhood groceries. Don’t make that mistake! I finally found the real stuff in a local bodega. Then I got some ripe pineapples, ice, and the DR’s most famous local rum: El Brugal. Some recipes call for heavy cream or ice cream, but even nursing moms can’t handle that many calories with their booze!
The whirring blender, sticky pineapple, and stories from our pre-baby lives brought us new moms together that day. For a few hours, we escaped from our constant talk of sleep training, nursing, and baby weight to sip our piña coladas and relax. I think the babies felt it too.
The Perfect Piña Colada
Mix 1 cup cream of coconut (like that from Coco Lopez), 1 cup fresh pineapple, and about a half-cup rum. Add them all to a blender with ice. It will be thick, so keep some pineapple juice on hand if you want to thin it out. Serve with a wedge of pineapple.