Foodways in everyday phrases: the case of the “cajitas”

Cogiste cajita.” “Bregaste cajita de pollo.” These are colloquial expressions from Cuba and Puerto Rico, respectively. Both talk about a life event through a “cajita”, a small box. The two boxes have some commonalities. Both are small, made out of cardboard and used to hold food. Yet, more interesting are the differences…

I grew up listening to the phrase, “bregaste cajita ‘e pollo”. Luckily, the phrase was never directed at me, nor I’ve had to say that to anyone. To bregar, or deal with, a lo cajita de pollo refers to making a cheap move on someone, or to behave in a low and untrustworthy manner. The expression comes from the 99 cent box of fried chicken that used to be sold at local fast food establishment [1], or sometimes by Chinese restaurants. The meal was cheap at 0.99, but also of low quality, given the chicken’s low grade [1].

Cajita de Pollo

Not the actual cajita, but close. Photo source: https://yumfood.wordpress.com/tag/fried-chicken/

I learned about the Cuban cajitas recently, during a conversation with a research collaborator over and about Cuban food. He recalled these small cardboard boxes at family celebrations. Inside: croquetas, ensalada de coditos (macaroni salad) and a piece of cake. To “coger cajita”, or to get a cajita, is a symbol of reaching an opportunity or good fortune. 

The cajitas were used as a way to serve the buffet at birthdays, quinceañeros, and other celebrations. If you arrived early, you would usually get your cajita. Alas, if you were late, or not early enough, the cajitas would run out. Such unfortunate circumstance inspired another phrase, “llegaste tarde a la reparticion de cajitas” (you arrived late to the cajita distribution), symbolizing the loss of an opportunity. In the beginning, the cajitas would come with a plastic spoon taped to the lid. Later, the spoon disappeared and, instead, you would use a piece of cardboard. The cajitas, and later the cardboard “spoons”, were one of the many inventions that came with the Revolution [2,3]. I don’t think they are still used. Just like the also extinct 99 cent fried chicken box in Puerto Rico, the presence of the cajitas live in the collective memory and is expressed in the everyday lexicon of the population.

These two contrasting expressions, “Cojiste cajita” and “Bregaste cajita de pollo”, serve as an example of how quotidian phrases can say so much about people’s everyday relationship with food. Placing them side by side, a complete thesis can be written about the sharp differences in foodscapes that existed and continued to exists in these two sister islands. Like these phrases, there are many others that can be unpacked, analyzed and situated in the contexts of changing times, taste and foodways.

What is your favorite food-related expression? 

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[1] Source: http://www.wikiwalo.com/?p=88
[2] Source: http://cubamaterial.com/blog/sin-categoria/la-institucionalizacion-del-invento-las-cajitas/
[3] See more on the Cuban cajitas here: http://www.juventudrebelde.cu/columnas/lectura/2013-11-02/cogi-cajita/?page=2

The Hot Dog … Reforza’o

A few months ago, one of my field interviews stirred to the topic of hot dogs. The informant, an elderly Puerto Rican woman, was recounting a recent occasion she was craving a hot dog. This was no ordinary craving. This informant is under a very strict prescribed diet regimen, with dire consequences for not adhering to the regimen. Given her circumstances, such craving had to be satisfied by a great hot dog! Her daughter, aiming to please, asked around for hot dog recommendations. They were directed to a guy that served the “best hot dog” in their area, a long drive away…

 “¡El señor tan aguajero! Me planta el hot dog en el pan, con los sobrecitos de ketchup… ¡La peor calidad! Y él dice, ¡los mejores hot dogs! Si viera como nosotros hacemos los hot dogs: Le ponen la carnecita, las papitas…”
[The man was a fake. He puts the hot dog in the bread, with the bags of ketchup…the worse quality! And he says, the best hot dogs! If he sees how we make hot dogs: they put the meat, the potatoes…”]

Such was the reaction of this lovely woman, as she compared the Spartan, “low quality” New York hot dog, to the elaborated criollo version in Puerto Rico, referred by some as the “hot dogs del reforza’o.

As a sanjuanera, I never had the reforza’o. I first heard of this legendary hot dog from my husband, a cagueño, graciously sharing his experience as follows:

“As I remember it from childhood, El Reforza’o de Don Mike is a delicious layered take on a hot dog. It starts with a regular bun that is smothered with mash potatoes in a guiso criollo. On top of that, the hot dog (or hamburger) is added. Then, stewed ground beef and shredded chicken. To finish the delicious confection the usual condiments are available: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, and others. The final delicious touch: hot sauce. As a child el Reforza’o de Don Mike was our go-to place for lunch after my mom’s bank errands. For me it meant more than that. It was my payoff for behaving while my mom took care of her errands. Don Mike’s hot dog cart, to me, looked like a small kitchen mounted on a truck, always clean and shiny. I remember being so mesmerized by the sound of the various compartments containing the ingredients opening and closing, as well as with the skill and grace with which Don Mike mastered the confection. So much so, that I remember thinking this could be something that I can do for a living when I grow up.”

Image from El Nuevo Dia

Image from El Nuevo Dia

Clearly, these hot dogs were more than a processed sausage inside a bun. They were an experience, one that he remembers to this day and lights up talking about.

“I always had these with cold lemonade” – He adds.

Hot dogs were first invented in Germany back in the late 1600s, and brought to the US, as many other iconic “American” foods, by immigrants selling food in street pushcarts (Read more here). Today, hot dogs are part of the street-foodscape, becoming an important part of “American cuisine”, eaten as part of US Independence Day celebrations, including the traditional hot dog eating contest.

In El Reforza’o’s rendition of this all-American food, we find an otherwise simple food “reinforced” with extra meat and flavor. These additions add much more than extra calories, protein, fat and sodium. They add puertorriqueñidad, making this food our own. Just like the pavochón, the hot dog reforza’o is a local adaptation of a foreign food, introduced to Puerto Rico along with foreign holidays, such as san-guivin (Thanksgiving) and today’s celebration, the fourth of July.  Could these adapted foods be interpreted as a (un)conscious assertion of a Puerto Rican identity through the palate, in light of the imposition of “another”? Perhaps. More likely, the Reforza’o is a reinvention of a simple street food, with an added extra flavor, just as these other examples below:

19 otros hot dogs

Have YOU experienced el reforza’o?

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Thanks to my partner, Omar A. Dauhajre, for sharing his delicious memories of hot dogs from El Original Reforza’o de Don Mike in Caguas.  

Convenience, Modernity and Beans

Convenience is a constant topic of discussion regarding modern eating habits. It is blamed for fast food consumption, and the widening of waistlines worldwide. Food habits have changed. The time spent cooking has decreased, along with the know-how. Yet, we seek to come back to simpler times, seen, for example, in the rise of Slow Food and the rediscovery of cookbooks from a recent past, among other trends.

Researching and writing about these changes in food habits, I often catch myself often lamenting about the loss of traditional cooking practices in our cultures. I stop and ponder on my own culinary practices. These introspections often take me to beans. I have never cooked beans, that is, as habichuelas guisadas. My husband has been the one in charge of cocina criolla in our home (with delectable results, thanks to my mother-in-law). Most of the beans I have eaten have been from a can, with some delicious exceptions from my mom’s kitchen. The centrality of canned (and not dried) beans in many of my plates sit as a contradiction in my mind as I write of changing food habits in the plates of others.  Recently I decided to tackle this contradiction experimentally, by cooking my first beans – dried – taken “by the hand” of Valldejuli’s recipe, Habichuelas Rosadas Secas...

Recipe & Notes Cocina Criolla 2001

It was a spur of the moment decision. I was not deterred by the need to think ahead, implied by the recipe’s first step: soaking the beans overnight. How to convert “overnight” to hours? No idea. I traded overnight for the 7 hours to be spent at the office that day. But first, how much will I’ll be making? The recipe omits the yield, and I am certain Valldejuli was not cooking for two. On the safe side and hoping for left-overs, I cut the recipe in two, relying on the internet to convert pounds to cups: 1/2 pound of dried beans=2 cups dried=2 cups (cooked).

And off I went to the office, returning around seven in the evening, to realize that I had 2 more hours of cooking time for these beans. The idea of a heavy, late dinner did not deter me either. So on to the first hour of cooking: Beans boiling along with a number of guess-timated pieces of calabaza

Next step: the sofrito! Again, no guidance on quantity. I was directed to her recipe which also had no directions on yield. The hope to use the already made sofrito in my kitchen was crushed. I had to make my own, and I improvised using a combination of fresh and frozen ingredients, forgoing the canned tomato sauce for fresh grape tomatoes, and skipping the ham and bacon. For comfort, I added about a tablespoon of the stored sofrito to the mix.

About forty minutes later, we eat! While my improvisation and guess-timates yielded good beans, they were no competition to my husband’s flavoring built and improved through experience, unconstrained by a decades-old recipe.

beans cooked

Forgoing the convenience of canned for dried beans had the added value of an improved bite, as well as no sodium, nor preservatives. Yet, the cans sit in my kitchen, conveniently waiting for a last minute decision to quench the craving for home in the plate.  As both sit side by side in my kitchen shelf, their coexistence in this space represents a decision between convenience and tradition.

Such decision, while in small proportions in my kitchen, represents, in my mind, in a small way, the struggles and complications of the continuing changing food system. We are lured by the convenience of modern foods, as we long for the traditionalism of slow cooking. Will it continue to be a struggle between the quickness of industrial modern foods and the longing for the slow authenticity of the past? Perhaps we will continue to negotiate the coexistence of these foods in our kitchens and plates, ideally in a world of food at “moderate speeds”, as coined by Sidney Mintz*.

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*See Mintz, S. W. “Food at Moderate Speeds.” Fast Food / Slow Food: The Cultural Economy of the Global Food System. Ed. Wilk, R. R. New York: Altamira Press, 2006. 3-11

Julie and Julia, a lo Caribeño

“When I read Julie and Julia, I remembered the unopened book, as well as the [copy of the] book my grandmother brought from Cuba. My grandmother sent her sons ahead to Miami with Pedro Pan and she still had to bring that book from Cuba.  So I had to see what was in that book.”
- Cristina Gomez Pina, interviewed for WLRN, Miami, FL.

Memories of my grandmother in her kitchen, peeling yucca in her flip-flops with her hair in rollers, came flooding back as I held the book in my hands, charmed by its ugly front cover with bad drawings of tropical fruit,
- Von Diaz, quoted by Newsweek, New York, NY

The Cuban in Miami, the Puerto Rican in New York. Like Julie, of Julie & Julia, they are set to cook their way through emblematic cookery books of a recent past: Cristina cooks from Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto, and Von cooks through Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla. Von and Cristina cook from these books, perhaps at the same time, more than 1,000 miles away. They are both far from their Caribbean homelands where the first editions of the books they hold in their hands were printed. They might or might not know each other for what I know. Yet they are joined by a yearning to revisit those kitchens of the past inspired by these “Julias caribeñas.” Like Von and Cristina, I have also been inspired by these Caribbean cookery icons, although not to jump into the kitchen.

Since moving to New York City almost a year ago, I have been spending more time researching cookbooks and (frankly) less time cooking. I have been fascinated by the lives and work of Valldejuli and Villapol, as contemporaries, and highly influential women in shaping kitchens (and palates) in their countries as well as their respective Diasporas. Their writing spans across almost five decades of great changes in Cuba and Puerto Rico. They lived parallel lives, both writing and publishing cookery books since the 1950s up until the end of their lives.

The social and personal lives of these Caribbean culinary icons reflect on the historical and cultural realities the islands from which they cooked and wrote. Through their books, you can read about idealized kitchens and tables of the times. Through this, you can also notice the social and economic changes in Cuban society, in contrast with the virtual immutability of the situation in Puerto Rico. While Valldejuli was a married woman of the elite society, Villapol remained single and endured the many scarcities of post-revolution Cuba. While Valldejuli’s side project was children’s books (one of which entitled Cucuyé en la Cocina), Villapol took on teacher’s role striving to improve the eating habits of the Cuban population, writing about Cuban food and collaborating with policy makers to address food and nutrition issues in the country. These and other differences in their life stories contrast sharply with the almost identical effect they have in our minds and our kitchens, beautifully exemplified by the analogous projects of Von and Cristina. The efforts of these home-based cooks underscore the importance of these books in our culinary imagination and (I also argue) in our histories. Cocina Criolla and Cocina al Minuto are still windows into a not so distant past. The authors take us by the hand to delicious moments, real or imagined, through a journey built by their recipes, sometimes leaving us hungry in a desk, or, as it is meant to be, enjoying a wonderful meal…

beans cooked

More on this soon…

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Related Posts: 

A Delicious Super Hero

Oh!, y ahora,  ¿Quien podra defenderme?
¡Yo! ¡El Chapulin Colorado!

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado.

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado

With these words, a new adventure of El Chapulin Colorado started each morning. This Mexican television series evokes memories of childhood to many of us who grew up in Latin American homes. I remember sitting down eating breakfast in front of the TV waiting to see the next conundrum this superhero was about to “solve”.

As a child in Puerto Rico little did I know that Chapulín was more than the name of the superhero. The term is derived from the náhuatl chapōlin, used to refer to jumping insects, such as grasshoppers. In the island we call them esperanzas which occasionally found their way to our home, seen as a sign of good fortunes to come, according to popular lore.

I still watch the show but not as often. Nowadays I enjoy the chapulín alongside a glass of mezcal

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano (Bar in Condesa, Mexico City)

These tiny critters are crunchy, with a salty and spicy taste, and light hints of lemon. And yes, their little legs may get stuck in your teeth, just as with any other food. Before reaching its place alongside a smoky and delightful glass of mezcal, they are washed, cooked in a comal, toasted and seasoned. They are also served in guacamole, tacos, or simply as a snack sold by street vendors in Mexico. Chapulines are sold alongside other insects like worms and tiny little fish similar to the ones you might find in a fishbowl.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

The idea of eating insects may evoke feelings of disgust in many of us. Insects are viewed as dangerous and dirty. Eating them, outside of their cultural context may be seen as a dare (remember Fear Factor?), or as a sign of being an adventuresome, cosmopolitan, culturally sensitive eater. Chapulines have fallen in the realm of the exotic and a “must try” alongside with Oaxaca as the foodie tourist destination identified with the traditional consumption of this insect.

Chapulines are more than a snack. They can be plagues, greatly harming food production. Eating them can be a coping mechanism to deal with their overabundance, while also bringing dietary variety and protein to rural areas (See for example, this initiative in Querétaro, Mexico). Nutritionally, chapulines are a wonderful and sustainable source of protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B.

International nutrition organisms are promoting the consumption of insects as an excellent source of protein, as they are a sustainable source of protein, compared with cattle and other common animal flesh sources. Just last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put out a report promoting the worldwide consumption of insects leading to a recent conference in the Netherlands promoting their potential to feed the world, along with a cookbook.  This new push has even generated the peer-reviewed Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, to start publication in 2015.

Could the chapulín move from an exotic accompaniment to my mezcal to the central piece of my dinner? Perhaps, with some guacamole and freshly made tortillas. Could I move beyond the toasted chapulín to stewed worms? That is another story…

Despite my current hesitation, insects are indeed part of the conversation for the future of food and for combating food insecurity. With population growth and worldwide increase in incomes, the demand for animal protein is ever increasing. The often quoted estimate of 9 billion people by 2030 along with increasing concerns over livestock production and the pollution of natural resources that comes with it calls to alternatives to our current dietary habits, and notions of what is “good” to eat. Insects can be part of the answer. Perhaps the Chapulín Colorado is a real-life hero after all.

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado – Enjoy!

Puerto Rican Hopes to Create Island’s 1st Hub of Eco-Friendly Food

M. Fuster:

Very interesting and necessary initiative in Puerto Rico. Thanks, Repeating Islands, for underscoring the work of the Departamento de la Comida!

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

Departamento_de_la_Comida

What started four years ago as a meeting place for small farmers and consumers looking for local products is fast becoming the first hub of environmentally friendly eats in Puerto Rico, an island that imports more than 80 percent of its food–Hispanically Speaking News reports.
“It’s something that society is crying out for. A lot of us normal people are tired of going to the supermarket and buying fruit and vegetables that don’t taste of anything. We want to eat better without damaging the environment or promoting price wars that hurt farmers,” Tara Rodriguez, the Puerto Rican leader of the project, told Efe.
After seven years in New York, where she studied architecture, the 30-year-old entrepreneur returned to Puerto Rico and four years ago established this organic farmers market and mini-grocery called the Departamento de la Comida (Department of Food).
“Ecological agriculture is simply the kind that doesn’t rely…

View original 300 more words

Thinking about Breakfast

A big part of what I do often is talk with others about food. Lately, these conversations have been related to my ongoing interest in how we distinguish our national cuisines in the Spanish Caribbean. On the surface, when diets are seen as just a collection of foods eaten throughout the day, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican diets are quite similar. However, when foods are organized by meals, differences start to emerge, especially when talking about breakfast…

Dominicans eat mangú for breakfast!
In Costa Rica, I ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

 Mangu breakfastRemarks like the ones above were made by fellow Puerto Ricans when talking about differences in national cuisines around Latin America and the Caribbean. A common comment was on mangú. This mashed plantain dish was seen as too heavy, or too much, for breakfast, compared with the common Puerto Rican breakfast of toast and coffee. And yes – this statement comes with the qualifier that breakfast varies by person and by day of the week. The toast in the Puerto Rican breakfast table is often slathered in butter and accompanied by fried eggs and ham – not exactly “light”. Yet, they are what we consider “breakfast foods”. Mangú, plantains, and beans are seen as lunch or dinner foods, not breakfast.

The distinction between “breakfast” and “lunch”/”dinner” foods may be something relatively new in Puerto Rico. Decades ago, viandas may have been a part of the Puerto Rican breakfast table, especially those in the country side, as part of a hearty early meal in preparation for a full day in the field.

This takes me to my second Cuban meal: breakfast at the Old Havana hotel a few weeks ago. The breakfast was served in a big, spacious room, surrounded by a rooftop terraza. Three walls with different buffet stations and an omelet station in the corner. In the center of the room, a table full of breads of all kinds, including decorative pieces. One such bread: a reptile like the one below. No pictures, but imagine this one, green.

cocodrile bread

Source: Pinterest

The offerings included various cold cuts, sausages, a few fruits…and pasta? Macarroni salad? Meatballs? This seemed odd. And I pondered on that every morning, as I cross the “lunch-breakfast” station (and no- I would not call this “brunch”). Was anybody eating this for breakfast? Not from what I saw. Yet – they were there every morning, for the four breakfasts we “enjoyed” there.

The last breakfast: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

The last breakfast in Havana: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, and perhaps the most interesting as well. How we talk about breakfast, more interestingly, about what “others” eat in the morning, manifests our own social norms surrounding food and eating. What we choose to eat may be affected by what we expect to do the rest of the day, and at the same time, what we eat first thing in the morning can have an effect on the rest of our day.

Interested in seeing breakfast tables around the world? Click below for a quick view:

Source: Huffington Post (Click on picture to watch)

Health married Design in Guatemala

Health married design.
They built a small house for children to grow healthy and tall.

Chronic malnutrition is a big problem in Guatemala, resulting in impaired physical and cognitive development. We know the solution to this issue, including simple solutions such as growth monitoring, vitamin supplementation, or just improving food access. Yet, in places like Guatemala, where the “haves” coexist in a parallel universe to the “have-nots”, hunger often goes unseen, and public unawareness (or disinterest) inevitably leads to inaction.

Along comes Despertemos Guatemala, the organization behind the public awareness campaign “Tengo Algo que Dar” (I have something to give). The campaign uses clean, simple and modern design to catch the attention of a wider audience – for example: The Story of Valerio (click on the image to watch, in Spanish):

Valerio

This differs sharply from other campaigns that present very real and uncomfortable images of hungry children. And it worked. The public awareness campaign brought urban dwellers to rural, poor areas, for a weekend stay that later resulted in more exchanges between the two realities living in the same country, as seen in this second video.

IMG_20140407_101240598This successful union between health and design resulted in a second offspring: The Casita, a portable, inexpensive structure. The materials can be easily transported where needed in two pick-up trucks and assembled by community volunteers.

The design came from the minds of architects, seeking to translate health sector solutions to a practical design, addressing maternal and child health needs in the community, based on the 1000 days window of opportunity framework

The Casita is different from your typical neighborhood clinic: Smaller, open, and promises no wait. The house is built with sustainability in mind, featuring solar panels, compost bins, and eco-stoves.

Casita in Markala, Honduras.  Image from Despertemos Guatemala.

Casita in Markala, Honduras. Image from Despertemos Guatemala.

The Casita serves not only as a place for the promotion of better nutrition and health. It is a successful example of multisectorial cooperation and civic engagement. The design focuses on sustainability, underscoring the link between environment and nutrition. Through its open design, the Casitas also promote transparency and allows for a wider reach of the nutrition and health benefits to the surrounding community. It also brings food and cooking to the conversation, with the opportunity to have community gardens nearby and the showcase of eco-stoves as part of the design.

Casita in Ahuachapan, El Salvador. Image from Despertemos Guatemala.

The Casitas featured above are not in Guatemala. Despite the wonderful popular movement in the country that inspired the Casita, not a single one has been built in this country yet. Thanks to a collaboration with PRESANCA (Regional Program for Food and Nutrition Security in Central America), Casitas are being built in neighboring countries. Could this be a case of politics getting in the way?

The story continues to unfold… Interested in learning more? Follow the continued effort of Despertemos Guatemala.

 

Posting in commemoration of World Health Day 2014 from celebratory events at Tufts University (Boston, MA)

A “First” Cuban Meal

After many months of planning an educational trip to Cuba, there we were. Enjoying the warmth and sea breeze under a clear Habana sky, taking part of our first programmed activity in the land of Marti.

The tour guide built up the group’s enthusiasm about our “first encounter with Cuban food.” First, drinks. It started with a refreshing mojito, enjoyed over conversations about the evolving Cuban society under Raul. Next, a cold Bucanero.

bucanero

The meal officially started with a bread basket and butter. This was followed by the appetizer, a sampling of different bite-sized foods: Taro croquetas, eggplant wrapped in smoked salmon, peppers stuffed with tuna, brie cheese with honey, shrimp over lentils, and chopped romaine lettuce.

Next, the main course, served family style. Out came the lobster, followed by ropa vieja, then boneless chicken pieces in a mushroom sauce. The quantity was enough for individual generous servings. The large side dishes: a creamy taro mash, white rice, black beans, and grilled vegetables.

We shared the meal with our travel companions, enjoying the stars and distant sounds of urban Habana on the rooftop terraza dining space of the restaurant overlooking a residential street in El Vedado neighborhood. No great meal goes without dessert. Three different kinds, and all crowd favorites. Flan, chocolate and cheesecake. This concluded the first of many meals we had in Cuba this past week.

Nine years after my first visit to the island, I was pleasantly surprised to find Habana revitalized by small, private food establishments (locally known as paladares). They range from high-end restaurants (mostly targeting tourists, but increasingly accessible by some Cubans as well), to home-based pizzerias in people’s front yards and garages.

The coming weeks will be an ongoing “digestion” of more than 400 pictures, field notes and recordings.

Stay tuned for more…

Memories of Acerola

Source: Morton, J. 1987. Barbados Cherry. p. 204–207. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.

My maternal grandmother Mamía had an acerola tree in her backyard. It was planted by my grandfather in the 1950s, along with a lemon tree and other plants.  I have a few memories of eating fruit from this tree and still after many years acerolas continue to be one of my favorite fruits.

Recently, Elisa Gonzalez, who is a fellow Puerto Rican scholar had her article, “Feeding the Colonial Subject: Nutrition and Public Health in Puerto Rico, 1926-1952”, published in El Centro journal. This wonderfully researched piece opens with the following quote,

“We believe there should be an extensive campaign promoting the cultivation of acerola trees and encouraging Puerto Rican families to consume the fruit frequently. This would be a low cost alternative to ameliorate the vitamin C deficiency suffered by most of our fellow citizens.”

Conrado Asenjo Standing Behind Bottles of Juice

Original caption (1954): The richest source of vitamin C known to man now can be added to the human diet on a mass scale and comes from a tree which has been, until recently, growing wild in Puerto Rico. It is the Acerola, somewhat like a wild cherry, which yields a juice that has measured to be 80 times more potent in vitamin C than orange juice. Discovery of the extraordinary vitamin C content was made by Dr. Conrado F. Asenjo, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition of Puerto Rico’s School of Medicine. Dr. Asenjo is shown holding a six ounce glass of acerola juice that is equal in vitamin C content to the fifteen quarts of orange juice on the table. The juice can be blended with many fruit juices as a natural protective food for infants and children.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

This quote is from Dr. Conrado Ansejo in 1947. Dr. Ansenjo, a Puerto Rican chemical engineer, is widely recognized for his role in discovering the high content of vitamin C in acerola. This among many other accomplishments resulted in the library of the University of Puerto Rico Medical Science Campus being named after him.

Scientifically known as Malpighia emarginata and also commonly known as West Indian Cherry, the fruit contains about 1000-3000 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams. This concentration is quite  high compared to oranges’  50mg per 100 grams. Why the emphasis on vitamin C? At the time, Puerto Rico was suffering from a high incidence of scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency causing overall weakness, skin hemorrhages, gum disease and anemia.  Scurvy along with other vitamin deficiencies has been eradicated in Puerto Rico thanks to advances in food science and technology along with public health campaigns.

Was the tree planted in Mamía’s backyard the result of a public health campaign? Still, having acerola trees is commonplace in Puerto Rico along with having lemon and avocado trees, among others. Additionally, my grandfather was an agricultural engineer who might even have known or worked with Dr. Asenjo at the time.

There are a few things I make an effort to take back with me during visits to Puerto Rico: A “six pack” (at least) of mallorcas from Pepín, a bottle of Ron Barrilito, and a jar of locally produced acerola jam. More than for its nutritional value, acerola is a source of childhood memories from my grandmother’s home who passed away more than a decade ago. It has been wonderful to be reminded of her home through a piece of scholarly work, which has led me to learn more about my own family history, through this remembrance of the acerola tree.

Acerola jam +  toast

Acerola jam + toast