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Fine Dining and Traditional Food in Santo Domingo

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Carne & Co. is where gourmets can find good, local meat, great charcuterie, and all sorts of delicious stuff in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. It was the perfect place for me to give a talk about food in movies to a small group of food professionals, from producers to restaurant owners, including the publisher of the beautiful magazine Gastroteca. The talk soon turned into a very animated round table about Dominican food traditions, the Dominican Republic's future, and the cultural and social issues that influence (or limit) the country's development. As a visitor, the conversation gave me a better understanding of a culinary world that is rich, complex, and in transition. Of course, we just got to scratch the surface.

This was my second visit to Santo Domingo. With 34.4 percent of the population under the poverty line, I was stunned by the number of elegant and upscale restaurants. With a population of around three million people (a huge percentage of the over nine millions of Dominicans living in the country), the city has developed an interesting food scene, although many cannot afford its prices and, among those who can, few even consider the cultural aspects of the culinary scene.

The participants in the round table all agreed that most Dominicans of means have no interest in eating traditional Dominican food when they go out. They prefer imported ingredients, refined environments, and international dishes. Everybody at the table had a different opinion on why this is. Some hinted at provincialism within the local elites, who consider everything from abroad as better and more prestigious. A restaurateur even said that, at times, she needs to give English names to the dishes on her menu for patrons to be interested. Others blamed a lack of good ingredients on the local market.

Everybody was fast in underlining that the problem is not insufficient production, but rather the fact that the best fruits and produce are all exported, as the local buyers do not ensure enough volume of trade. Moreover, producers make more money by exporting. This is particularly true when it comes to organic food. For example, the Dominican Republic has become a major producer of organic bananas, but most of the crop is exported, mostly to the European Union and Japan.

The participants were well aware that they are catering to a minority of the population, and that their preferences and taste might be influenced by their exposure to the global trends in world cuisines. They all admitted to feeling an emotional bond with crops and dishes that constitute the core of Dominican culinary traditions. However, those dishes belong to the domestic sphere, and most people have easy access to them at home. So what would be the point to pay more in a restaurant for the same food you could have at home? Unless you play with it, make it sexier, more contemporary and, why not, ironic...

This kind of approach could be particularly interesting in restaurants, hotels, and resorts with large numbers of foreign customers. Many international visitors still prefer to stick to familiar food, which justifies the presence of global mainstays such as pizza and hamburgers -- at times quite bland and non-descript -- in tourist destinations all over the world, from Thailand to Tunisia. (The impact of tourism on food systems and the potential of food to develop forms of sustainable tourism, deserves its own discussion and will be addressed in a future course for the Food Studies program at The New School.) However, a growing segment of high-end tourism is showing interest in food and eating as an essential element of traveling, and more and more visitors want to enjoy local fare as part of their experience. Media has changed the perception of the role food now plays in establishing one's sense of cosmopolitanism and cultural capital.

Of course, revisited traditional food should also be presented in ways that respond to the expectations and standards of high-end travelers. This move would require a lot of rethinking and experimentation, and institutional investments would be necessary to sustain and promote such initiatives. At the same time, this new approach would imply deep changes in social relationships on the islands, so that the foods of the majority of the population -- and not its richest part -- are reevaluated and not just left aside as leftovers of an embarrassing and unglamorous past.

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