The group was formed nearly 10 years ago when Rusiñol and three other men from Argentina started meeting up to make dishes from their home country. Over the years, their group has grown in size and diversity to include as many as 17 men from over a dozen countries, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia and Spain.
The cenas are typically held outdoors, as the men meet at a preset location away from their homes.
In many ways, the dishes found at the cenas represent the cuisine of Latin America. Since most of the early members were born in Argentina, the majority of the dishes are based on popular foods from this mother country.
“Seems like it was yesterday but also a long time.”
– Marcos Pavlovich
Meat is one of the most consistent items at the cenas. Instead of purchasing packs of deli meat, the men often cook whole animals. These animals include goats, fish and especially piglets, a favorite of Rusiñol and the others. Piglets have become so popular that the men have started naming them.
“They all have proper names,” Rusiñol said. “[One was named] Camillo IV. I guess that was the fourth pig we made.”
Aside from being part-time cooks, several of the men also hold positions in the fields of education and industry.
Rusiñol has worked as a college professor at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine for nearly two decades. He conducts research in biochemistry, focusing on proteins and how mutation in their production can lead to progeria, a disease that causes rapid aging in children.
Marcos Pavlovich, a financial analyst, is one of several members who originally came to ETSU to play tennis. He arrived in the United States in 1999 and later played in Europe on the international circuit.
“Seems like it was yesterday but also a long time,” said Pavlovich.
Other members include a surgeon, bankers and engineers. The men represent a small minority of paid professionals in Tennessee who have received a college degree, for less than a fourth of the state’s adult population has an associate’s degree or higher, according to U.S. Census Bureau.
The U.S. census also states that Tennessee is only 5 percent Latino, so men who attend the cenas have often been drawn to the few others at their workplaces who speak Spanish or have similar cultural upbringings.
As new members join, the menu has grown to include a variety of Latin American dishes. The men have introduced foods such as the tamale, a popular Mexican dough wrap, and arepas, Colombian flatbreads.
In the winter, they have cooked lentil soup from Argentina and in summer they have cooled their throats with sangria, a popular drink throughout Latin America.
Other recipes include Spanish paella, a rice dish with seafood; Ecuadorian ceviche, seafood basked in lemon juice; Peruvian humita, ground corn baked into cakes; feijoadas, a bean stew from Brazil; and empanadas, a stuffed pastry dish that has versions in nearly every Latin American country.
The men have experimented with a diverse list of dishes, even trying out uncustomary foods like the rare delicacy “black spaghetti.”
“It’s made from squid ink,” Rusiñol said, laughing. “Yeah, it’s kind of weird.”
Getting the right food for the cenas is only one part of the equation; another important detail is how these dishes are cooked. Rusiñol says that traditional preparation helps the meals feel authentic.
“We start from scratch,” said Rusiñol. “We don’t buy the dough at the supermarket. We start with the flour and the lard and things like that. The filling is not ground beef. It’s beef we cut with a knife, which really makes a difference.”
Cooking meat is a complex process at the cenas. The men use indirect heat to roast lambs or piglets, mounting the animals on a wooden cooking cross and placing the fire away from the meat. Piglets in particular can take up to six hours to cook, and careful consideration must be given to how they are served.
“I remember the first time, we weren’t very well prepared,” said Rusiñol. “We served the pig on a door…one of my friends was remodeling and we didn’t have another place…we just set it on the door.”
Their wives have similar meetings, although they happen less often and take on a different form.
“When we do it, we go out [to restaurants] because we cook all week—we don’t want to cook anymore,” said Veronica Paz, who is married to one of the men. “For them it's a regular thing; for us it's more on a needs basis.”
The cenas have helped the men form a bond that has extended past their monthly meetings and has led to many other activities.
“One time we went kayaking,” Rusiñol said. “Four or five of us went kayaking without knowing the route. And we started really late and it got dark…it was so stupid, we almost died.”
Other than that one near-death experience, the cenas have been a way for the men to revitalize their roots with the land in which they were born. And the cenas do not conclude when the men finish eating.
“One of the best things about it is there is no constraint of time.”
– Antonio Rusiñol
"After dinner we have Sobre Mesa," said Diego Iglesias, one of the earliest members of the cenas. "It's like an 'after dinner' where we spend time chatting, telling jokes for hours."
These moments make the cenas last well into the night, with the men hardly ever in a rush to leave.
“One of the best things about it,"Rusiñol said, "is there is no constraint of time."
“The main thing we do is we start talking about our countries,” Pavlovich said. “[We do it] to get together with people from the old culture...to go and try to be in your own country for a while.”
Above, left: Angel Jimenez cooks paella, a dish with origins in Spain, over an open fire. Photos: Antonio Rusiñol