In many Costa Rican homes, food and love are synonymous.
Mary Clay Kline
Every evening, a San Luis sunset ushers in cafesito, the afternoon coffee break.
Elvia Leitón is familiar with this meal. In fact, she is familiar with every meal. The 25-year-old mother of three has cooked in this dimly lit kitchen for more than 11 years.
She often makes arepas batidas, her son, Santiago’s, favorite. Arepas are a snack commonly eaten for cafecito and are similar to American pancakes. Instead of dousing them with maple syrup, however, Costa Ricans eat arepas plain and unadulterated, or with jam or natilla, sour cream.
Leitón started the recipe with room-temperature butter, and stirred in sugar and flour. She cracked in one egg effortlessly, and then folded a few handfuls of granola and chocolate chips into the mixture.
Martha Garro Cruz, head naturalist at The University of Georgia Costa Rica Campus in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and Leitón’s sister-in-law, watched Leitón’s marked swfitness in awe.
“That is so typical Costa Rican,” Garro said. “People who already know how to cook don’t measure anything. They just add things and they mix. I cannot do that. I need a recipe.”
Leitón’s son Ariel toddled at her feet, and her daughter Mariana peered over her shoulder as she drizzled vanilla extract into the dense batter, then spooned a few dollops onto an ungreased griddle. There was enough butter in the mixture to keep the arepas from sticking.
Left: Creaming together butter and sugar ensures for a light and fluffy arepa. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
Center: When Leitón sees bubbles forming in the arepas, she knows it is time to flip them. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
Right: Garro, a novice cook, loves learning new recipes from Leitón. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
In Costa Rica, learning to cook is an essential part of growing up. Both boys and girls learn to cook in school, and at home, it is almost as if parents expect children to absorb the ability to cook.
“In Costa Rica, we don’t teach the kids. We ask for help when we are cooking, and also, sometimes we cannot cook, so we have to tell them, ‘You have to cook for yourself,’” Garro translated for Leitón.
Leitón is not just a home cook. For a few years, she worked in the kitchen at UGA Costa Rica. She stopped working there after her youngest child was born so she could take care of him.
“I can tell you she’s very good at creating things and making things,” Garro said. “We [had] the best postres (desserts) in UGA when she was there.”
Luz Morales is an agriculture education student at the University of Georgia. Morales visited San Luis on a service-learning trip and did a homestay with Leitón. Morales said that while her mother’s cooking will always be her favorite, the meals Leitón cooked came close.
Morales also noted the community food has created in San Luis.
“All of these families here, all of the families that grow food, they grow food for each other,” she said. “[Leitón’s] father has a potato farm, and they grow potatoes, and they give potatoes to UGA. So a lot of the food that’s grown here is used to feed the community and also at UGA.”
“Invention” is what Leitón said she enjoys most about cooking. The joy that food and her family brings her was palpable. She poured cupfuls of coffee with one hand while she smilingly skirted around Ariel and handed him an arepa.
It will keep him satisfied for a few hours, until Leitón begins to cook once more.