Introduction: Savoring is the way to Cook
Since the beginnings of Puerto Rico as a “nation”, two factors characterize the relationship between the food and people of this island. The first one can be explained with one phrase: “what the ship brought”. The second factor, more complex and difficult to evaluate, is attached to two aspects of the Puerto Rican character; on the one hand, the tendency to exaggerate all types of socio-cultural manifestations, including food; and on the other hand, the ability of locals to take over the origin of any food that pleases their palate and, “in a shake of a lamb’s tail”, make it their own and call it “traditional”.
We know it is impossible to specify the exact date in which a nation started to exist, but ours, by virtue of so many that deny its existence, has built a fantasy that includes various millenniums, since it is firm in tracing its national origins back to the first wave of inhabitants on the island. To be fair with all theories, let us say that Puerto Rico was established during a period dating between 4000 B.C. and the day before yesterday. Based on the assumption that the formation of Puerto Rico the county is a continuous process, a work in progress, an eternal montage, a collage of nationalistic affirmation, we need to see the development of the Puerto Rican cuisine, and its intrusion in our social and cultural lives, in light of this process.
Our food habits identify and put us on the map, they take us to the past and bring us forward to a present; but most of all, they’re embedded in the way we speak, which probably not a day goes by that we don’t use food terminology to describe some situation in our daily lives.
And speaking of politics, all radio commentators say: arrimó la brasa a su sardina “the flame came near its sardine”; older people say: “we traveled like a can of sardines” to complain about how squashed together they were in the car, while the younger generation corrects them and say: “we traveled like a can of sausages” (each group embracing the reality of what they used to eat during their times); and when entering the corporate world, we “lovingly” refer to the not so bright executives as ñames (a starchy root vegetable) / yams with ties “.
In Puerto Rico, what we eat is one of the most important elements, if not the most, that characterize our people; but it has progressively shaped throughout time, it is not static and will never be, because tasting is the way to cook.
1. From the Taino Indian in a canoe to a plantain canoe
It is thought that in 4,000 B.C., some Amerindian tribes settled on the west coast, perhaps on the beaches of Cabo Rojo, while others, who came from the southeast, maybe arrived on the beaches of Ceiba. Going deep into the island from all cardinal points, they all decided to stay (as it always happens when new comers arrive and see the wonders of the island), and celebrated their own welcoming party with feasts of probably small crabs and turtledoves, since they didn’t know how to sow yet.
Many centuries later, the island was inhabited by the Taino Indians, those legendary indigenous people, founders of the Puerto Rican heritage, whose traditions, names, vocabulary, toponymy and DNA supposedly flow and run through the atavistic memory and veins of every true Puerto Rican. From elementary school, we are taught what historians have been able to discover, or fabricate for that matter, about the Taino Indians. We learned that 500 years ago, they (as other inhabitants of the Caribbean) ate whatever they could cultivate or pick from trees and bushes; and, by the way, gobbled up practically every living non-poisonous animal that moved.
As the first ethnic layer of our “Puerto Ricanism” and culinary identity, these indigenous people left us a culinary legacy, and for many years the inhabitants of the island ate like them: snapper, sea bass, manatees yes (worms no), oysters, chilies, sweet potatoes yes (iguanas no). But most of all, they left us cassava, described and incorrectly illustrated in pages and pages of children’s books: Taino women planting cassava, Taino girls harvesting cassava, Taino man eating cassava, the smarter ones fermenting cassava, and the Taino warriors converting cassava into venom. However, our Amerindian ancestors, traveling the seas of America in their canoes, had already brought and sown foods that the Spaniards thought were autochthonous when they arrived to the island. Today we know they’re not native, like pineapple, corn and quenepas or Spanish lime.
Since the prehistoric beginnings of our culinary work, we have imported food products. Should History be considered a discipline that starts with the chronicles of the more or less literate, then, we have documents of our “historic” origins (when two worlds met) that show the first European inhabitants in Puerto Rico were not the audacious Spaniards nor the timid Andalusians, but the edible pigs and goats brought in and released on the island by Vicente Yañez Pinzón in 1505 to reproduce while the Spaniards settled.
Waste of time. Those first pigs, whose young piglets (locally called “lechones”) are the icon par excellence of Puerto Rico’s traditional cuisine, and those first goats, which compete with the pigs for the palate of many islanders, surely disembarked with great happiness after their long captivity in the open seas, but didn’t live long; all were gone when the Spaniards came back. And the chronicles don’t record oral testimonies of any Taino Indian that testified if his tribe roasted the pigs, with cassava on the side, or if simply they were wiped out.
However, the Spaniards came back with more pigs and goats… and cows and calves and chickens and roosters and all the edible fauna that, at the present time, is embedded in Puerto Rican traditional cooking.
But maybe the most important thing they brought, what makes us closer to ethnic group because it stains us, is the muse of paradise, which in Puerto Rican Spanish looses its poetic name and is called plantain; not banana, not Dominican male plantain, simply plantain, the one that stains, the one we eat until full either roasted or fried like the tostón (fried plantain patties), and like mofongo (mashed baked or fried plantain) when green; the one we savor boiled and fried chips, or in syrup when it is ripe. Supposedly the emblematic plantain arrived from Africa in 1516, followed by many other food products of that continent, which today are fundamental in our kitchens: the banana, root vegetables like ñame (starchy tuberous root) and malanga (type of starchy corm), okra, guinea, peas and our legume of honor: the pigeon pea, known as wandú or gandul, a side to the quintessential rice and roasted pig dish of every Christmas.
During the first centuries of the Spanish conquest, the palate of the inhabitants of San Juan Bautista’s island were willing to savor anything the Crown would allow them to officially import, plus everything brought via the black market, which doubled the volume of legal shipments.
In this manner, the Puerto Rican menu expanded with the arrival of coconut palm trees from the Canary Islands; tomato, chayote or prickly pear, avocado and medlar from Mexico; mango and tamarind from India; potato form Peru; ginger from Oceania via Mexico; breadfruit from the Pacific; and coffee, which made its entrance in the 18th century, and is now a staple on our tables and gain us worldwide recognition.
Nowadays, a cooked sweet plantain, split down the middle and stuffed with stewed chicken or beef, is called a canoe at cafeterias and restaurants, involuntarily preserving its vegetable memory of the other side of the sea. Puerto Ricans still say “that’s what the ship brought” when referring to what is real instead of what we desire, a state of mind we’ve always maintained since, as an island, we receive food products from all over the world. Our culinary identity originated from a combination of edible flora and fauna, whatever there was (that arrived throughout centuries in canoes, caravels, sailing boats, frigates) and it expanded with foods that we all made our own, out of savoring necessity.
2. “I don’t care and for Madame some coconut pudding” (literal translation of: A mí plin y a la Madama dulce ’e coco)
“Puerto Rican soup”, “Spanish soup”, “French soup”, “Turkish soup”, “German soup”, “Russian soup”; chicken soup from the mountains or from Cartagena; fish or turtle soup from Mona Island.” El Cocinero Puerto-Riqueño (The Puerto Rican Cook), a book published for the first time in mid-19th century, is witness to the ample diversity found in Puerto Rican cuisine.
During this century packed with waves of immigration and persecution, of formations of municipalities and cities, and of so many enforced exiles, a recipe book emerged in 1849, which like other first ones published in other countries, attempted to gather the basics of our cuisine. With such a book, can you imagine Spanish businessmen, conservatives and supporters, wanting to eat “an intricate Spanish stew”, “Catalan-style pigeons”, “Valencian-style rice” and “Alicante nougat” after a long day of controversial political discussions? And have autonomists, nationalists, liberals and anti-monarchy supporters, feasting on “Puerto Rican green lamb”, “Cow tongue Puerto Rican-style”, “Rice pastel (the Puerto Rican tamale)” and “Soursop pudding in syrup”, after finishing that same meeting? Or vice-versa?
The truth is that throughout our history, Puerto Ricans have developed a menu as extensive as the world we live in, and this book ends up being irreplaceable to identify the wide variety of dishes that used to be cooked in the houses of our great-grandparents, because it includes everything from simple dishes (which certainly were daily staples at the Puerto Rican table) to complex delicacies (which were food for the rich).
With eagerness, the western world of the 19th century embraced modernity so as to organize the world in order to live better, this recipe book, which states in the subtitle that it is made “pursuant to the rules of chemistry, and the hygiene and special circumstances of the weather and traditions of Puerto Rico”, establishes, among other rules, the shelf life of meat during summer or winter during that pre-global warming and pre-refrigerator era, in three states as “fresh, fried and salty.” Avoiding contact with “air, heat, humidity and the fly”, its author warns that a salty rabbit in Puerto Rican winter weather can last 12 days without spoiling; fried beef 15 days; and fried chicken for 16 days.
But this Cookbook, in addition to showing us the vast range of very trendy recipes, points out some of the island’s customary dishes, as it includes foods and dishes that after a 100 years we still recognized as Puerto Rican: chicken and rice, cassava soup, mofongo Puerto Rican-style, blood sausages, fried sweet potatoes, white rice, cod omelet, veal and potatoes, tripe and stomach Puerto Rican-style, and local spicy pork sausage.
It also draws attention to a great loss: the delightful Puerto Rican desserts, most of which have disappeared not only from the table, but also from the memory of many of those who cook. Almost a quarter of the book is devoted to puddings and sweet fritters, a sweets and punches, creams, cakes, buns and fruits in syrup; coconut sponge cake, yam bean pudding, corn treats and almond meringue”.
But some survived. It is common knowledge that black women, both slaves and free, were the great creators of the popular Puerto Rican desserts; and, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, sold them at farmer’s markets or by vociferating “desserts, desserts!” on the streets. Many were made using local fruits, but most of all, coconut- a fruit so close to our hearts it has forever invaded the image we have of our island’s coastal lines, as we cannot picture a beach without a coconut palm tree. Still in some coastal areas, people who know how to prepare these types of desserts make and sell – without permit or licenses- coconut and cinnamon puddings, coconut cakes and coconut kisses.
Still, when we make the decision to do something and don’t care if we get punished for it afterwards, we say, while motioning the shoulders upward and pouting the mouth: “I don’t care and for Madame some coconut pudding” (a mí plin y a la madama dulce ‘e coco), unconsciously reminiscing about that space that women occupied as dessert makers in Puerto Rico.
3. Add corn to the turkey, that I will flavor my hen turkey with sugar, cinnamon and clove
Contrary to popular belief, the turkey didn’t become a popular dish at the Puerto Rican table with the arrival of American officials and their Thanksgiving celebration. Many Spaniards, as other European groups, used to eat stuffed turkey, or roasted goose, on Christmas Eve; and a version of Puerto Rican style stuffed turkey appeared in recipe books of 19th century Puerto Rico. In addition, in coastal cities such as Ponce and Mayagüez, where many foreigners arrived during the 19th century, the inhabitants got used to a plurality of dishes that consuls, businessmen and landowners from Holland, France, the United States, Venezuela, English and Denmark, who lived there, cooked and gave to neighbors and colleagues.
The sovereignty exchange in 1898 didn’t change the Puerto Rican menu at a moment’s notice. For many decades, the Spaniards continued to import their products to the island, allowing Puerto Rico’s fine cuisine continued use of its staples. Until recently, olive oil for frying and dressing; dates and nougat candy for dessert; brandy and wine for parties; and sardines and cod for daily use, continued entering the island mainly from Spain. However, with time, American foods began to creep into our menu, and we adapted them to our liking.
What did change form the beginning, due to cultural factors, was the eating style, the concept of snacking, the duration of lunch and its digestion, and dinnertime. “After dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile” was the Mediterranean motto embraced by Spaniards in the tropics, to overcome the noon heat and take advantage of the cool evenings. But this has nothing to do with the strict American system, perhaps a Calvinist trait, maybe southern, of possessing an entrepreneurial spirit to be successful in life, making the most out of daylight and going to bed early in the evening. Little by little, the languid 4-hour lunch and siesta period shrank to exactly 60 minutes at noon, not more. Many employees nowadays go out, see the sun, eat lunch, and hastily return to their desks at work.
The U.S. concept of the world and its colonization project at the beginning of the 20th century was connected to the dictum “healthy mind in healthy body”. And nothing better healed the sons of the Antilles, afflicted with tropical illnesses, than a healthy nutrition, according to the scientific discoveries that evidenced the beneficial qualities of food, its caloric value, the minerals and vitamins present in each fruit, each cut of meat, each fish, each legume and each egg.
After Great Depression’s famine, in addition to the political aspect of our close relation with the U.S., some economic and social aspects would bring about fundamental changes in the eating habits of Puerto Ricans. Among them, newspapers with their recipes, now accessible to the whole world; the launch of massive advertising around brands and specific food products that would serve as an incentive and would define what fine dining is today; and, most of all, the gradual development of the Home Economics Department of the University of Puerto Rico, which would be decisive in the course of Puerto Rican nutrition during the second half of the 20th century.
In particular, three professors from the Home Economics program would publish in 1950, an emblematic Puerto Rican recipes cookbook titled Cocine a gusto. Berta Cabanillas, Carmen Ginorio and Carmen Quirós are the authors but everyone knows it as Berta Cabanillas’s Book.
Faithful to the vocation and education of its authors, the book starts with a general reflection of the kitchen as “the home’s laboratory where food is prepared for the family”, establishing immediately the importance of hygiene and the concept of cooking as a chemical process. We could say that since then, any woman who methodically followed the book’s instructions and measurements, cutting pork, beef or veal as specified, and roasting potatoes, chicken or turkey at the correct temperature, could feed her family and be the perfect homemaker.
Interestingly, the democratization of culinary secrets comes with a warning that insists on the dimensions of the kitchen, its architecture and arrangement. To ensure a healthy environment in the kitchen, everything has to be squeaky-clean and thus, the furniture must be “made of easy-to-clean material, of simple design, without dark or unreachable corners that could act as a hiding place” to creepy-crawlies. To eat well means to prepare food correctly, and this implies getting rid of heavy, wooden, dark, ornate furniture, and fully embrace modernity by using light Danish wood or those versatile pieces of kitchen furniture lined with that new wonder, the shiny and seductive Formica, named after its brand.
As in the Cocinero cookbook, this book includes chapters dedicated to soups, poultry, fish and legumes, but omits what’s not in cooked anymore, like thrush, and adds elements unknown in the 19th century, like sandwiches, which have to be prepared with “special bread” and if served as appetizers at a party, must be cut in squares or triangles for better presentation.
If indeed all aspects of a culture are intertwined, Puerto Rico’s culinary identity in the complex post-war world revealed an array of factors that determined how and what to eat, as well as new ways to socialize and even where to live.
One of the most important aspects of the economic development of the new Puerto Rico, that would leave a trace in the Puerto Rican kitchen, will be the relocation of residents from the Metro area to outlying suburbs. In the home, for the fast-growing middle-class, this means that families no longer eat lunch together since parents will no longer work close to home. At the same time, for working-class families whose parents hadn’t moved abroad, working at manufacturing plants means being a long way from home. As a result, hundreds of small cafeterias open near work areas which, in time, become mobile cafeterias, set up in vans that cater to construction sites and manufacturing plants, providing employees and administrators the food that used to be prepared by their wives, mothers or sisters.
In the meantime, lunches at home become more frugal and, for the horror of people with good appetites and the joy of young people, frozen foods which, placed in the oven for half an hour, provide an entire meal of American-style mashed potatoes, fried breaded chicken and tasteless peas for hungry, middle class students, arrive at the newly inaugurated supermarkets. And to drink, kids will no longer have to squeeze oranges because instant powder juices and frozen juices will quench their thirst: add water and voilá!
Moving to the single-unit house in the suburbs triggers the habit of using open terraces and backyards to entertain friends, an innovative concept seen in English movies in Africa or French movies in the Nations of former Indochine, but not followed by many Puerto Ricans. Another innovative and liberating idea originating from the U.S. would be the BBQ, loved by husbands who will fire it up with excitement. They will also have to learn how to cook meats, sausages, hot dogs and hamburgers. American food is here to stay…
Massive media conglomerates explode during the 1950’s. Publications and magazines offered pages and pages of recipes revealing the degree of sophistication we’ve reached in (belated) modern times: an issue of Alma Latina in 1956 recommended “flavored chicken over waffles”; a 1959 edition of El Mundo newspaper suggested “crazy cake with pink icing” for Father’s Day.
Advertising, also used to reach massive audiences, is pervasive not only in daily life through newspapers and radio, but also through the TV and gigantic outdoor signs along highways which market, for example, that Puerto Ricans should enjoy Kresto, the instant fortified chocolate with minerals, that combined with Denia powdered milk, will turn your skinny kid into Tarzan. Canned fruits, sauces and grains also be available for your convenience. Mayonnaise now comes in jars, and thousands of other food products are pre-cooked and pre-made so you never have to make them again, so you can rest, so you can forget…
As a result, cooking time is cut in half and you are able to use that extra time for other things, let’s say to go to night school so you can get your high-school diploma, or watch TV programs that will change your way of dressing, washing, decorating and even eating, although you will not be able to get rid of Puerto Rican-style cooking; not yet. Still, on special occasions, turkey is stuffed with ground beef and, as shown on the cookbook the Cocinero, seasoned with oil, garlic, almonds, safflower, cloves and cinnamon. The annihilation of traditional cooking is not possible.
4. Grandma’s seasoning, a seasoning style nowhere to be found in the world
In 1964, two young women traveled to New York alone, each one on their own. One was meeting with her Puerto Rican relatives to visit the World Fair; the other was sent by her parents to spend the summer with her grandparents, who moved there 20 years ago.
The airline seated them together in a three-seat row. The girl visiting her grandparents sat in the window seat; the other one in the isle seat. However, since the plane was rather empty, the seat between them was “taken” by a bulky paper bag, more than 3 feet in length (the kind used to pack the cement with which the island built its way towards “progress”), in which the window seat girl, a little Puerto Rican Red-Riding Hood, carried three dozen stuffed crabs with blue hard shells to give to her relatives.
The “subtle” crab shipment can be explained by referring to the chronicles of Puerto Rican jaws. For many centuries, sailors and travelers sentenced, “don’t travel without crackers”, when they went on board boats to go the Islands. Crackers lasted more than any other food product, because even salted meat would embitter a person after navigating for several days. So, they just had to make do with crabs…
Faithful to this tradition, we got used to embarking on whichever mode of transportation with something to eat, and when we started boarding “modern planes”, the tradition didn’t die. We carried food even in the air, mostly to bring to those who moved to the north what they didn’t have: pasteles (the Puerto Rican tamale) and pitorro or moonshine rum for Christmas; seasonal fruits; sweet plantains in syrup for the godmother’s birthday; always coffee flour; and, why not smelly crabs for a summer party?
Nevertheless, the fortunate ones who traveled first class during the 1960’s did not have to carry food (or perhaps there was no space) because their tickets allowed them to board a small elegant jet, where little sandwiches and drinks were served en route to New York. Once in the Big Apple, connecting flights to other places were available, like a Pan American Airways connection to Paris. Food was from Maxim’s and it was offered a la carte from a beautiful menu printed for the occasion, without leaving out the delicate little Bavarian porcelain vase at the mini dining table. The hors d’oeuvres included canapés and caviar, and main dishes offered lobster thermidor and Himalayan partridges. Thirty years before, passengers on board the “Coamo“, traveling on either first or second class, would also eat international dishes that weren’t served in Puerto Rico’s restaurants, simply because there were very few international restaurants present on the island.
But the arrival of industrialization made tourism from the U.S. a priority, and American tourists then, different from today’s, traveled to change their identity and experience other cultures, other smells, other flavors; international was equal to exotic and folkloric, and we had to offer that.
During the 1950’s, there were some Spanish restaurants scattered around the island that served authentic Spanish food. “La Mallorquina,” established in Old San Juan during the mid-19th century, stands out. It is still open today and figures as the Dean of the Spanish Restaurants Department of the New World in gastronomical publications. On the west and south regions, there were plenty of bakeries that, until a decade ago, made French desserts; and the east had cafeterias and inns with cooks in their golden years who maybe still cooked like their grandmothers. There was only one Chinese restaurant in San Juan, whose clients were mainly wealthy Puerto Ricans and American executives that had learned about oriental delicacies; and a Swiss patisserie that eventually expanded operations and became a restaurant.
Today we enjoy everywhere in Puerto Rico a variety of foods stemming from all parts of the world. This influx became apparent with the political changes altering the world during the decolonization era. Suddenly, bakeries and candy stores, which had previously reduced, multiplied with the arrival of Spanish-Cubans after Cuba’s 1959 revolution. For the first time, Puerto Ricans tasted sandwiches made with local bread or pan de agua (which later became pan criollo), consisting of a tasty not-cholesterol- friendly meat repetition: ham with roast pork, mayonnaise, pickles and Swiss cheese; as of today, and depending on the cheese color we choose, we hear the person taking the order shouting “Cuban with American!” or “Cuban with Swiss!”, proclaiming the internationality of our daily eating habits.
Towards the end of the 1960’s and beginning of the 1970’s, we had incorporated dishes from all over the world into our menu, from Alaskan salmon served in American restaurants, to kidney beans Brazilian-style found at hotels. However, South American presence was scarce, since very few emigrated. We had only one Argentinean restaurant; until former President of Chile Salvador Allende was killed on September 11, 1973. As a result of the repressions in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – combined with numerous socioeconomic processes – many left their countries. Some came to Puerto Rico and opened small “eat-and-go” kiosks, where they sold stuffed turnovers or “empanadas” (stuffed pastries similar to the Puerto Rican pastelillos). Immediately, Puerto Ricans embraced the concept of turnovers, stuffed them with a gelatin-like blob of cheese and sauce, which became the well-known pizza turnovers – the perfect breakfast for people in a hurry. Other immigrants from Southern Cone used their entrepreneurial spirit to set up formal restaurants that made the skirt steak the prince and the “parrillada” (mixed grill) the queen (indisputably the sovereign of the meat kingdom). In addition, the expression “chimichurri sauce” penetrated the Puerto Rican culinary dictionary with the same ease as corn flakes.
Also during the 1970’s, in a hidden street of that unknown city with no political representation called Río Piedras, a small restaurant opened its door, because it only had one, where a man and his sons served the food, while his wife and daughters stared from the kitchen. With posters that alluded to the Palestinian liberation as wallpaper, and limping waiters who disappeared after serving 10 tables and were replaced by other similar ones, the first Arabic restaurant located in the university town introduced us to lamb, hummus and baklava. Back then, the everyday menu of many Dominicans who had immigrated during that decade included dishes such as rice with noodles (since Lebanese and Turkish presence was very common in the Caribbean), but the opening of Middle Eastern restaurants in Puerto Rico ended up being a fine novelty.
Complementarily, the international culinary world, very focused on tourism, needed beverages (liquid) in addition to solids (food); it was necessary to present refreshing and alcoholic drinks not only in fine crystal glasses, but also disguised as exotic drinks. When our tourism industry took the world by storm, the world seemed new, and young and hip people wanted to drink modern drinks. Bartenders had to learn how to make highballs and cocktails. Still then, there were a dozen rum manufacturers on the island that won medals of excellence at 19th century world fairs; but today it was crucial to reinvent and redesign brand labels in order to sell to the tourists. Rum sour, rum old-fashioned, rum julep and rum collins were some of the Puerto Rican mixed drinks that resulted from the American influence. To mix – because those kinds of drinks were mixed – sodas and club soda were used. So the horchatas (sweet rice-based drinks) and fruit drinks became a thing of the past, and faded away from our traditional table while the soda empire invaded it with a passion: Coca Cola, and running behind it were Pepsi Cola, Royal Crown Cola, PAL orange drink, Old Colony grape drink and a perfect and sweet local drink, which was manufactured by the Santurce Soda Water or Arecibo Soda Water, and held a French-like last name: cola champagne.
Beers, particularly India and Corona, didn’t lag behind on competitiveness; these local beer brands aggressively competed in the local and tourist markets against imported beers like Miller, Pabst Blue Ribbon and others.
But tourism promoters kept insisting on having drinks served with exotic style, Chinese little paper umbrellas and plastic stirrers with the hotel brand, no matter if they were made here or came from other countries. And entertaining tourists was a must-do to lead them to consumption! That’s how we came up with “typical” dresses for folk dancing, the same men and women leaving the island by the thousands, and didn’t want to know anything about ordinary white cotton shirts, or multicolor skirts and blouses with sad laces, so unconnected to the modern clothes used by people in New York or Chicago.
Moreover, in the effort of searching for additional folkloric depth, dance groups that revived the white skirts and headscarf used by black slave women were formed, and adopted the Puerto Rico tradition to the rhythm of bomba and plena. Sure enough, the show caused a lot of distress among middle-class individuals who wanted to disregard their black heritage by making themselves as white as possible and blow-drying their hairs to get rid of their curls.
Things were kind of backwards. While almost all Puerto Ricans tried to look like film stars (Ava Gardner, Maria Felix or our Puerto Rican version Marta Romero), tourism promotion pushed for the stereotype of a Central American woman, right when we were opening the window of progress and about to forget our poor and agricultural past! Actually not so much, because when it came time to sit down and eat real food, for most Puerto Ricans, both men and women, here or in New York, at the family house, grandma’s seasoning was unbeatable. No roast beef could be compared to a savory stewed beef; no apple pie competed against a coconut pudding; and no turkey with gravy and cranberry could be compared to the breast of another stuffing, made with ground beef, nuts, raisins and cloves…
5. Let’s talk frankly…
In Puerto Rico, not only does food invite us to quench our hunger, but also to communicate with one another and entertain each other. There’s no situation, story, exchange of ideas, surprise, fright or critic which doesn’t include even the slightest reference to food. Sello Rojo sailed into our ports during the 1960’s on ships full of containers that carried the little rice grain. Rice traveled so much that it became part of our language: “you’re everywhere, like white rice”. Along those same lines, people killed with a knife ended up being “cut like pasteles (Puerto Rican tamales)”, and naturally the romantic and chauvinistic touch was added for women who had to tolerate one of the most commonplace compliments: “such candy and I’m diabetic” (although it explains our high consumption of starchy foods and sugars)!
The best of our culinary taste is still shifts between having come from the archaic first years of colonization under the Spanish rule, or under U.S. rule. About the favorite one we say al que nace para mofongo, del cielo le caen los plátanos (those born for mofongo, from heaven will receive plantains”. In the same way, when referring to a person who thinks he’s/she’s better than the rest, we say: “he/she thinks he’s/she’s the last Coke in the desert.”
And, like the rest of the world but even more than the rest of the world, the Puerto Rican palate got used to the massive infiltration of fast foods, which during the 80’s and 90’s got forever rid of the need to cook on a daily basis. There were so many fast foods all over the island, and they spread so fast, that street signs and metric signs on rural roads became obsolete. Why you ask? Because today the following references are used when giving driving directions to someone: “you’re on the road, you go through a light on a little hill and right there you’ll see a McDonald’s, you turn there, then count 3 streets and on the next one, not the one on the Burger King side, but the Taco Maker one, there you continue going straight…”
For better or worse, pre-cooked food in disposable packages served with toys to calm down hungry kids is the solution for wage-earning families. In Puerto Rican households, most women work and thanks to the arrival of fried chicken á la Kentucky, Chinese rice, super sized combos of whatever contains fat and is packaged, one can buy breakfast or dinner for the family from the car. Feed them? Well, I know it was said that the estrogen given to chickens is causing premature development in girls but… oh no! All the girls in my family were early, early bloomers. The boy? Yes, he’s a little chubby; he just loves pizza, but at least eats it with pepperoni, which is protein. And the little one? That one only eats chicken tenders, well… what can you do? When you see those very skinny kids in far away countries…!
What is there at the beginning of the new millennium? An industry of restaurants, hotels, state-run hotels and inns that has developed massively and has changed profoundly our relationship with food, offering consumers an ample selection of foods in an extraordinary manner and creeping in a particular way into the Puerto Rican palate. With no sense of decency, the new Puerto Rican cuisine incorporates menus from all over the world, and simultaneously reinvents the local traditional dishes.
As a result, hundreds of young people, both males and females, now study the occupation of chef, and walk around in the streets pompously dressed in their white shirt uniform and black and white checkered pants. Quite right, since never before in Puerto Rico (like other international markets) the act of processing food had opened so many job opportunities.
And we also have a gigantic wholesale industry of liquor, wine and beer, which sponsors all types of events (from classical music events at cultural centers to alternative music events at beach festivals) urging us to consume. And we, as obedient Puerto Ricans, consume because “we’ve come here to drink, drink, drink and be merry”.
As if it were an identity imperative and an initiation rite, youngsters aspire the arrival of their 18th birthday, not to be able to vote for their leaders, but in order to go to pubs and celebrate with the “gang”. At home, everyone who’s able to do so installs wine coolers or builds a small cellar, while newspapers dedicate pages and pages to informing and educating Puerto Ricans about wine; obviously, there are many wine tasters or sommeliers (lots of them self-proclaimed) that, for a fee, offer seminars to learn how to uncork a wine bottle, about wine breathing, how to appreciate the bouquet, move, contemplate the after effects and savor the best of what the ship brought.
As we come close to the end of this essay, we should ask ourselves what perhaps has no answer: what makes the Puerto Rican cuisine unique nowadays?
For many centuries we have danced like sausages, to the rhythm of the tin can in which we’re packed; then, what is the unequivocal sign of eating in Puerto Rican? The new trend of Puerto Rican gourmet dishes served in restaurants where an order of fried plantains (tostones) costs $15 simply because there’s a hint of caviar? Going to the cafeteria that added smoothies with yogurt to its menu because that’s truly healthy, not like sodas, which can be use to clean the car’s battery poles? Eat at chinchorros (a Puerto Rican hole-in-the-wall where soul food is served), in front of a mangrove swamp, where the great-grandparents of the current cooks probably cooked, who have the oldest and blackest frying pot ever seen and over which codfish fritters, our most emblematic fritters since yesteryear, are placed to dry out? Could the turkey-pig (pavochón) be our emblem – a recently created hybrid now a part of our dinner tables, choosing to eat a stuffed turkey but seasoned like a pig, when finally, 80 years after the arrival of Americans, we adopted Thanksgiving Day as a custom? And wouldn’t it be the ritual dinner of the night before Christmas the most representative of the contemporary Puerto Rican dinner table, when every pig gets its comeuppance?; when we still serve blood sausages and cuajito (pig’s belly) as hors d’œuvres?; with that roasted pig escorted by rice and pigeon peas with bacon bits for our offended relatives who are now vegetarians? Or none of the above?
If we truly analyze it with academic objectivity, with a clinical eye, with semantic notion and with the heart in hand, there’s only one culinary factor that identify us as a people. I’m referring to the “perfect marriage” of those 1960’s commercials, the Sello Rojo (Red Stamp, a local rice brand) ones, when the white rice used to marry the red bean. Let’s be honest. To be clear, very clear, we Puerto Ricans no longer speak in mofongo, cod, moonshine rum (pitorro), mabi (local fermented tea) or sapote (mamey, a tropical fruit)… Anyone who’s really Puerto Rican has to speak in rice and beans”. Bon appetite!
Author: Magali García Ramis
Published: September 28, 2010.
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