For thousands of Dominicans in New York’s Washington Heights, the shores of Lake Welch in Harriman State Park are for family, friends, and giant pots of empaguetadas
Before sunrise on summer weekends across the Bronx and Washington Heights, Dominican families pack vans with folding chairs, coolers, and canopies in preparation for a day at New York’s second-largest state park, Harriman, or Los Siete Lagos (the Seven Lakes), as it is often called. When the last lingering cousin is dragged from bed and stuffed in the van, an aunt runs up to the apartment for a final crucial item: an olla (pot) of spaghetti in a homemade criollo red sauce — a dish known as empaguetadas. She grabs it from the stovetop, hops in the passenger seat, slams the door, and off they go, 45 minutes north into the woods.
Twenty years ago Ronald Zorrilla was making a similar trip to the beach, but over dirt roads in the Dominican Republic while seated in the bed of his uncle’s pickup truck. “There would be like 15 of us cousins back there, just holding on to whatever we could,” says Zorrilla, who grew up in New York but spent each summer with family in the Dominican Republic. “One would be telling stories, some were mousy and quiet, one would be holding on to the big aluminum olla of spaghetti. Once, my cousin was goofing off and flew out the back when my uncle hit the gas.”
“Those roads are paved now,” Zorrilla laments. Not just that — roughly 70 percent of the Dominican Republic’s once-public beaches are now owned by resorts with restricted access and more formal food vendors, a hindrance to the throngs of working-class families who traditionally used the beaches for low-cost gatherings over pots of homemade spaghetti. A 2017 article in Remezcla reports that the Dominican tradition of empaguetadas now mostly survives at house parties and other indoor gatherings. But for the hundreds of thousands of Dominican immigrants who’ve settled in the United States, the beach-going ritual of empaguetadas has found a new home. For many, that’s the summertime shores of New York’s Los Siete Lagos.
On a particularly hot day this past June at Lake Welch — one of Harriman State Park’s Siete Lagos — Zorrilla sat under a tent next to an unopened bottle of rum, talking on the phone with family. “We’re at Welch, doing an empaguetada!” he shouted into the receiver. Around him, several-hundred families were set up under canopies across a clearing and up a rocky incline under shade trees, all with a view of the shimmering 216-acre lake surrounded by green hills. There were Honduran flags, Colombian soccer jerseys, lots of dancing, and laughing. In front of Zorrilla’s tent a man heaved a massive red snapper out of a cooler by the tail and slapped it on a grill. A woman walked by selling aguas frescas in small jugs; Mexican cumbias and Puerto Rican reggaeton from competing PA systems bled together, but Dominican music styles — dembow, perico ripiao (a folk style of merengue), classic merengue, and bachata — dominated the soundscape. And almost everywhere there were giant steel pots of spaghetti.
Spaghetti arrived in the Dominican Republic with a wave of Italian migration in the late 19th century, but became ubiquitous in the national diet in the ’50s, after the dictator Rafael Trujillo started the first domestic pasta factory, Molinos Dominicanos, which produced the Milano brand of pasta. “At that time spaghetti became cheaper than rice, plantains, beans, bacalao, herring, meat, everything,” says Ivan Dominguez, director of Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center in Washington Heights. “My whole neighborhood would go on Sundays, maybe 45 of us, in a two-story guagua (bus) from Santo Domingo to Boca Chica and everyone would have their pot of spaghetti.” These gatherings, and the spaghetti itself, both came to be known as empaguetadas.
Dominicans from the Bronx and Washington Heights started coming to Los Siete Lagos in the 1970s, at first on a Hudson River Day Liner from midtown Manhattan. Their presence grew in tandem with their migration to New York, which began in 1961 — after the assassination of Trujillo and subsequent political unrest — and grew exponentially under Joaquín Balaguer, a U.S.-backed authoritarian who ruled for three nonconsecutive terms from 1966 to 1996. The Dominican Republic was undergoing a societal transformation from rural to urban, though urban wages were not always better than farm wages. But, said historian Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof in a 2009 New York Times Q&A, “it was easy to imagine that it would be easier to achieve a life of modern urban comforts by moving to New York.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the New York Metropolitan area is now home to 641,000 foreign-born Dominicans (about seven times more than the next biggest population center, the Boston area), and far more second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Dominican-Americans. Zorrilla’s parents grew up in La Romana, DR, a coastal province with beautiful beaches in the island’s southeast, now a popular resort destination. They came to New York in 1982, opened an automotive carburetor repair shop, and started a family. Of Zorrilla’s 13 maternal aunts and uncles, 11 moved to the U.S., mostly to the Dominican-heavy neighborhood of Washington Heights (the same one depicted in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning — and recently HBO Max-streaming — In the Heights).
Regardless of changing trends in the Dominican Republic, for the New York branch of the Zorrillas, empaguetadas remain a key part of any beachside family picnic, and gatherings can include between 60 and 100 extended family members. Related or not, though, all are welcome. “Look, these guys took our chairs without asking and we don’t care,” Zorrilla said, pointing to a party of about 30 strangers who had settled nearby. “People just share.”
While Zorrilla waited for more members of his own family to arrive, the neighboring group began digging into aluminum containers of spaghetti tossed in a creamy sofrito and studded with smoked pork chunks and olives. “We came up here with eight cars today,” said one. “We’re big into spaghetti.” A few steps to his right, younger members of another large family were sharing a hookah while an older woman dished out plates of spaghetti on Styrofoam. Some of them had been in New York for 20 years, they explained, and some just two months. One woman recounted a time in the DR when the whole pot of spaghetti fell in the sand. Everyone tried to pick out the clean noodles before most finally gave up. On the other side of the park, a group of three were gathered around a smaller pot of spaghetti. “Every time we’d go on a day trip with a lot of people to a lake, a beach, or a river,” one of them said of their life back home, “we’d bring spaghetti with bread.”
While the exact contents of each pot varied, most had a few things in common: The pasta itself was broken into small pieces and purposely cooked until soft, not al dente, and tossed in a tomato-based sauce made with garlic, onion, peppers, annatto (achiote), and butter. Some finished their sauce with a can of Carnation evaporated milk; others added a few extra ingredients like olives, smoked pork chops, or chicken. Pan sobao or pan de agua (soft, chewy loaves of bread, about the size of a hoagie roll) accompanied just about every pot, which most families made some attempt to keep warm (though lukewarm empaguetadas is not a deal breaker).
How, exactly, did a pot of hot pasta become de rigueur beach fare for thousands of Dominicans? The phrase I heard repeatedly was, “Es lo que más rinde” (it goes the furthest): spaghetti is the type of meal that can be stretched to feed a crowd on a budget, and for Dominicans at home and abroad, the beach was where crowds came together.
Today, empaguetadas at Lake Welch are just as vital a tradition as they were at Boca Chica. Lidia Marte, an Afro-Dominican cultural anthropologist teaching at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, says these kinds of cultural touchstones are important. “If we do not have certain landmarks that we can invest with memories and new experiences, then we don’t create a sense of belonging and a sense of place. Food is always central,” she goes on. “It is a way to mark your presence in public. Saying, ‘We are here, we are human, we have our dignity, and we have our traditions,’ people can tell and retell their stories of who they are through their food narratives and reinvent the story of who they are becoming in the new place.”
Zorrilla couldn’t agree more. In 2015 he founded the organization Outdoor Promise to confront the issue of American public parks feeling unwelcoming and unsafe for Black and Latinx communities. He encourages youth of color to become stewards of the environment and “outdoor leaders,” by helping them feel as comfortable on hiking trails and in state parks and preserves as they are in their neighborhood. The programming includes a summer trip to Los Siete Lagos for Dominican middle schoolers from Washington Heights, to show that spending time in nature is part of the Dominican experience in New York, too. Last time, Zorrilla brought a Greka percolator and dominoes to help them feel at home, plus a menu of burgers and hot dogs. “But,” says Zorrilla, “we should have done empaguetadas. They would have loved that. Next time.”
Mike Diago is a social worker, writer, and cook based in New York’s Hudson Valley. Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based photographer.