From oxtails and yuca, to bitter orange and cinnamon, home cook and author Yaffa S. Santos understands that the right ingredients, when prepared with care, become a force that unites and grounds people. Her debut novel, A Taste of Sage, exposes this wisdom and should only be read after meals.
The novel’s protagonist, an up-and-coming, NYC-based chef, Lumi Santana, perceives other peoples’ emotions when she samples their cooking. The book covers not only superpowers of the tongue, but also matters of the heart. Lumi winds up working with, and eventually having her heart drawn toward, her rival Julien, the stuffy owner of a prominent French establishment. Things get complicated when she tastes food he prepares for her.
Centering Domincan cuisine, Yaffa provides insight into a world where tradition is challenged, fusion is welcomed and flavor is king. Many of Lumi’s recipes are shared, so readers can continue the story in their own kitchens.
Yaffa lives in Florida, grew up in New Jersey, and has also called New York City, Philadelphia, and Santo Domingo home. She completed her undergraduate studies in writing and visual art at Sarah Lawrence College.
Over Zoom, Yaffa talked with me about writing Dominican culture and cuisine, food as relief, writing as coping, and why it was important to write a piece that explores life beyond the five senses.
The Rumpus: After a serious disappointment, your protagonist Lumi comforts herself with a bowl of sancocho. Later, when she finds herself in even greater despair, she doesn’t want to eat—or taste. Her sadness first leads to indulgence in food, later towards deprivation. Could you talk about food as a source of relief?
Yaffa S. Santos: It’s okay for food to be comforting. If anything, this is more in the collective conscious and unconscious now than it was before the pandemic. So many of us are home; it’s unavoidable. Food is one of our only options. We can’t go to the gym, or the spa, or do much else. But we still have to eat.
It’s probably not ideal for food to be our only source of comfort. But it’s okay to know we’ll find comfort there. We need to be forgiving of ourselves. It’s just these four walls. We have nowhere to hide.
Rumpus: Lumi seeks comfort in a gross powdered milk concoction. The accompanying preparation instructions get to the point and advise readers not to try this at home. The recipe, or lack thereof, tells us how just bad things are for her. I’m curious about how you approached this part of the novel.
Santos: When Lumi’s at the hospital, she doesn’t really know where she is. Mentally she’s between her memory and her waking mind. Physically she’s just burning. She has something to overcome. That said, as I did research and began to understand what the realistic residual impact of her situation would look like, things for her became progressively less severe. I didn’t want the story to be tragic.
Rumpus: Was it difficult to write a character that you’re rooting for but who is simultaneously unable to do what she wants to do?
Santos: Yes. I lived in Manhattan and witnessed restaurants with creative concepts and excellent food opening only to quickly go out of business. It’s a heartbreaking cycle. It doesn’t always matter how good the restaurants are; too often they just can’t survive. Seeing that people who have well-thought-out plans don’t necessarily go on to succeed has stuck with me.
This is my tribute to those restaurant and business owners. When my favorite tea shop was closing, I wished I could buy enough tea to single-handedly keep them in business. I absolutely could not actually do that. When things work out, we’re grateful. But how do we cope when they don’t? Everyone has different ways of dealing with that. My way of dealing is to write about it.
Rumpus: Why did you choose to place Dominican food in particular at the center of this book?
Santos: I wanted to create a universe where foods are not put on a hierarchy that deems French dishes classy and elegant and Dominican cuisine simple and unrefined. That way of thinking bothers me. So, I created a space where both of these cuisines have cultish followings, and people who enjoy them and are willing to dedicate their lives to recreating them for others.
In college, I worked in an office that had an in-house chef. When he wasn’t available, the housekeepers, who were Latinx women, would cook. On days when the chef cooked, the staff would remark how incredible the food was. But on days when the housekeepers cooked, people would make comments like, “Oh, did we have a bad quarter?” or, “Rice and beans? Is the office in trouble?”
This was around fifteen years ago and it still bugs me. For me, rice and beans are the food that give people life. For people to see it as a sign of trouble or failure got to me. I had to set it straight, in my own way. This is it.
Rumpus: Sometimes authors from underrepresented backgrounds get treated as authorities on their cultures and mistaken for some sort of voice of the people. Do you feel that pressure? Are there times you feel responsible for portraying your roots in a certain way?
Santos: I think that pressure is there, and that’s why good representation is important, and at the same time it needs to be clear that no group is a monolith. My work is not a representation of all Dominicans. First of all, that would be impossible for me to do because I was born and raised in this country. Lumi is a Dominican American living in Inwood. I relate to this because I’m a Dominican American, and I’ve lived in Inwood. But that’s just one narrow experience. I would never presume to speak for all of any group.
Right now, there’s a big boom of Dominican literature. Dominican American authors are publishing more and more. If anything, one response could be to point somebody to that growing body of work. Just because people don’t know about something doesn’t mean it’s not out there.
Rumpus: What do you hope people who are unfamiliar with Dominican cuisine or culture take away from your book?
Santos: When I first started writing the book, a food blogger asked what it was about. Once I told her, she said, “Cool. That will be good because nobody knows what Dominican food is.” I was taken aback. It made me think: This is necessary, more people need to know how good Dominican food is.
I hope readers gain an awareness of what Dominican cuisine is. Since most of the book’s recipes are for fusion dishes, I have a note nudging those who are interested in traditional Dominican cuisine to do separate research. I don’t want people who are unfamiliar with Dominican cuisine to read my book and think they suddenly know everything, or anything, about it.
As far as culture goes, one Dominican characteristic Lumi has is her ability to bounce back. Dominicans can’t just sit around when things get tough. We keep moving. We’re resilient.
Rumpus: Your book was released in the middle of a global pandemic that has been accompanied by uprisings against racial injustice. Has this impacted the expectations readers have of you? Or made space for readers and event attendees to bring up things they wouldn’t have otherwise?
Santos: It’s true, the world isn’t the same and that has taken me time to process. I go back and forth between writing about race and asking myself why I am doing this now of all times. Race has always been an issue. What’s different now? At the same time, now is a time that the conversation is taking place more widely than before, and maybe that makes it the right time.
One of my fears when I was publishing the book was how my contemporaries would react to this independent, strong Afro-Latinx woman beginning a relationship with a white man. That said, I have nothing negative to say about interracial relationships. I’m the product of an interracial relationship.
Still, I realize that a lot of women, especially Black and Afro-Latinx women, could be sort of disappointed. In general, there are a lot of stories where women of color are given a white romantic hero. I didn’t set out to do that; it so happens that I had been writing two separate stories and decided to combine them.
I had written about Julien in a separate short story. At first, I thought, Oh God, no. I don’t think they would get along. They would hate each other. That amplified the tension and created the potential for an enemies-to-lovers storyline. So far, nobody has complained to me. Because of the pandemic, I’ve only had virtual events, so no one has been able to grab me by the shoulder and ask why I’ve written the story this way.
Rumpus: Were there other things that came up as you tried to combine those two separate worlds?
Santos: There were parts of the story that I really loved but had to cut because they didn’t contribute enough to the plot. When most people think about romance, they don’t imagine a three-person relationship. That said, there is a character whose point of view I had to take out entirely, so that the novel would better fit into expectations of the genre. It was a reality check; you have to make some changes if you want your work to be accepted. I plan to use some of the material I cut to write another story.
Had I kept that third voice, the book wouldn’t fall into the romance genre. I made the cuts because I did want to write a romance that had Afro-Dominican representation and an emphasis on food. While I knew of a few romance titles with Dominican protagonists, I didn’t know of any that highlighted Dominican food. I accepted that if I wanted to contribute to this genre, I was going to have to conform to certain expectations, unless I wanted to publish it myself, which could have been fun, but isn’t what I ended up deciding to do.
This also made me realize that if I was going to publish, I was going to have to make other concessions. Unless you’re a well-known author, you won’t get everything you demand. It’s a compromise. I had to be thoughtful about what I was willing to fight for. For example, the publisher wanted to italicize all of the Spanish words, to indicate that they were foreign words. I let them know I wasn’t into that, and they conceded. If I’m reading a book and there are words in a language I don’t know, I’ll try to figure out the meaning from the context clues and I think my readers will do likewise. The publisher wanted to have the words italicized so people would know they weren’t English, but if you read English, I would think you’d already know those words aren’t English.
Rumpus: Lumi has a flashback to the time her mother takes her to see Doña Elia, a florist and healer. Here we learn of Lumi’s ability to detect flavors someone with even the most discerning palate might not recognize, including emotions. In her own words, she is “some kind of food clairvoyant.” Why was it important for you to include this element that extends beyond the senses we usually utilize when and associate with eating?
Santos: I think that it became important to include that because that’s something I’ve always been interested in. While I can’t say I have any answers on what the supernatural is, or what’s beyond the five senses, it’s something I’m curious about. I’m generally captivated by unsolved mysteries, like synesthesia and how people can hear colors or taste music.
Pretty early on, when I started writing the book, I knew I wanted to write about a Dominican woman chef working in upper Manhattan. And I wanted it to be something I could and would finish, because I had started previous projects that I hadn’t completed. I realized that, in order for me to be invested enough to get to the end, there had to be some sort of aspect beyond the five senses. It was important for me to incorporate that, no matter what shape it took. I wondered what sort of element I could add that would keep me focused from start to finish.
Rumpus: How did you develop Doña Elia and why is it through her that we learn of Lumi’s ability? Is there a Doña Elia in your own life?
Santos: Doña Elia’s scene was actually the first I wrote for the book. I lived in Dominican Republic for a few years and think that meeting that type of healing figure made a big impression on me. I met people who were so different from the American gurus who proclaim to have spiritual insights and then proceed to write a bunch of books, speak at huge conferences, and profit from it. [In the Dominican Republic] healers don’t think more of themselves; they’re very grounded and hold the intention to help, heal, and offer healing advice to other people.
Yes, I did have somebody like that in my life, someone who would prepare herbal remedies for people with physical ailments. I’ve met several people who know how to make remedies that are good for things regular allopathic doctors can’t always easily cure, like reproductive, skin, and liver issues. This statement is not supported by the FDA, but I was impressed by the type of people who would prepare these very effective remedies and also give heartfelt advice. Without ever proclaiming to be gurus or spiritual warriors or whatever.
Rumpus: Midnight espresso that’s best served after dark; mini guava cheesecakes best served without juju. The recipes you included provide a poetic subtext to the story, in their own voice. How did you write the recipes? Are there any that didn’t make it into the book?
Santos: Doing the recipes was hard because I don’t have a formal culinary training and I didn’t learn to cook with recipes. I learned from watching family members, who’d just say, “You put a little of this, then this much of that.” For the Dominican fusion recipes in the book, I had to cook everything and write down what I did, because I didn’t know what the measurements were.
I considered including a recipe for habichuelas con dulce, but decided not to; I didn’t make a fusion recipe for it because its flavor is so specific. Adding the wrong thing could have an adverse effect. Plus, it’s easy for people to find it on their own if they’re interested. I didn’t add extra recipes because I wanted to keep it simple and stick to things that were a part of the story.
Rumpus: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received, and do you follow it?
Santos: The best writing advice I ever received was from a high school English teacher who said the only good writing is rewriting. I believe that. You have to give yourself the space to have a really bad first draft. Otherwise it’s easy to get stuck and never finish. Know that no matter how good you think it is, if you even think it’s good, you’re going to be rewriting it a minimum of sixty-seven times.
I went into this thinking I’d make three rounds of edits and be done. That’s not the case. You do revisions by yourself, then if you decide to go with a traditional publishing route, you connect with an agent and do several with them. And then more with the publisher. You gotta really like your subject material.
Photograph of Yaffa S. Santos by Justina Newman.