Christmas in the New World

After months at sea, Columbus and his crew sighted land in October of 1492. Continuing the exploration, they landed in Haiti’s port, naming it the port of Saint Nicholas in honor of the date of the landing – St. Nicholas Day, December 6. Christmas Eve 1492 found Christopher Columbus and his crew in the New World, amid a ship wreck, after the Santa Maria got stuck in a sand bank. The men were left without a place to stay, among the natives in a very far away land – today’s Haiti.

Approximate location of the Navidad Fort, constructed by the Spaniards after the shipwreck, near the location of the first Christmas in the Americas (Today’s Haiti)

They were aided and saved by the Cacique Guacanagarix. He offered his town as refuge and provided shelter and a Christmas meal to the crew. Most likely, that first Christmas meal included cassava bread (shown below), along with indigenous animal protein, like river shrimps, lambi (conch), cotorras (parrots), or perhaps meat from a manatee.  

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Columbus meeting Guacanagarí. Image from the Fundación García Arévalo, Santo Domingo (Source: Florida Museum, “En Bas Saline”)

More than five centuries later, pork is now emblematic of Christmas in the Hispanic Caribbean, as lechon a la vara o puerco en pulla. The animal was brought by the Spaniards a year after that first Navidad, in 1493, cooked with the Taino culinary technique, the barabicú, which the Spanish then called barbacoa.

Christmas in the Americas has since evolved, with traditions from the Spaniards and the subsequent English settlers. The story of that first Navidad has been mostly lost to history.  Today, many migrants will be celebrating this important holiday without a home, much like the shipwrecked Spaniards in the coast of Haiti back then. However, they might not be as lucky to enjoy the same hospitality and generosity, as that provided by Cacique Guacanagarix centuries ago. 


This post was inspired by the article, “La primera Navidad en America” by Maria Acevedo for Fundacion Sabores Dominicanos, complemented with information on that first Christmas and the Cacique Guacanagarix.   


Remembering “La Guagua Aérea”

Imagine a plane ride from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport  in a 1960s December night.  The passengers are a mixed bag of travelers, including American tourists and business men, along Puerto Ricans returning to the city, or arriving for the very first time in search of a new life. Such flight is the premise to the tragic-comedy, “La Guagua Aérea” (Air Bus), a 1993 movie based on the book of the same title, written by Luis Rafael Sánchez, dubbed “A Flight of Hope.”

guagua aerea

The movie depicts what could have been one of the many flights transporting Puerto Ricans to the city during the Great Migration. Planes substituted steamships, and were starting to become akin to buses (guaguas) for many moving back and forth between the island and the city. Sanchez uses humor to explore the Puerto Rican experience as members of a nation “on the move,” including sentiments of hope mixed with nostalgia for the land and the people left behind, as well as the anxiety of the unknown.

My favorite scene is that of the cabin food service. Unlike today’s airplane experiences, cabin service back then included food. “Dinner” in this fictitious flight was a ham and cheese sandwich, with a pickle hidden inside. For most of the Puerto Rican passengers in the flight, this was the first encounter with such meal. While the American passengers enjoy the sandwich, Puerto Ricans start exploring the meal in front of them. Some take the sandwich apart, smelling the pickle with gestures of puzzlement and disgust.

Baja la caja. Baja la caja!” (take the box down) – A wife murmurs to her husband seating beside her, also struggling to comprehend the cold sandwich. He hesitates, but complies. He takes out a cardboard box from the overhead compartment. Inside – a caldero (cauldron) with arroz con gandules, topped with a plantain leaf (or “apastela’o“). The caldero traveled from the island’s countryside to satisfy a nostalgic craving of a family member already living in the city. Unfortunately for him, the caldero is shared among the passengers – happily accepted by Puerto Ricans, while being effusively rejected by the American passengers.

The generous act is contagious – starting an impromptu potluck celebration, as another passenger reveals a fiambrera filled with piononos (a sweet and savory dish, made from long slice of sweet plantain rolled with ground beef and fried).

Distributing food in La Guagua Aerea

Snapshot from food scene in La Guagua Aerea (Source: YouTube)

The feast grows. As it is Christmas, someone takes out a bottle of coquito, served alongside arroz con dulce (coconut rice pudding)- a classic dessert combination of the holiday season. The sharing of food quickly transitions to a full party. To the dismal of the American passengers (and the Puerto Ricans who wished to be like them), the meal is further “seasoned” with a parranda, as passengers unpack a variety of traditional instruments from their carry on bags.

December and January are prime travel times for those of us to travel back “home” to celebrate the holidays with family and loved ones.  Many of our bags will return full of our favorite foods. Most likely, I’ll bring back my beloved mallorcas, and a few culantro leaves from my in-laws’ backyard. I might try to sneak in some pitorro, and frozen home-made sofrito. Granted, these transports are becoming more difficult thanks to TSA rules, but we  all give it a try!

Packing food in La Guagua Aerea

Snapshot from La Guagua Aerea (Source: YouTube), an overflowing bag, including bags of rice and cooking equipment

In the end, times are not that different from those depicted in La Guagua Aerea. These days, Puerto Ricans are moving to the States in comparable or larger numbers as those seen in the Great Migration. The plane continues to serve as a guagua (bus), with many continuing to move back and forth, depending on life and personal circumstances. While the prime destination has changed from New York to a variety of other places (such as Orlando, FL), the sentiment might still be the same. The trek across the ocean continues to be a “flight of hope”


The movie is available in YouTube: See this link to enjoy.

The turkey, a vehicle for cultural exchange

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I associated eating turkey with Thanksgiving (AKA El Dia del Pavo or “Turkey Day”), a celebration that came to the island through the influence of the United States. Yet, as I carried out research in Mesoamerica, it quickly became evident that the turkey is “All American,” in the truest meaning of the demonym. This year’s “Sanguivin” post is dedicated to the star of the holiday: the Meleagris gallopavo – the bird at the center of this “All American” holiday celebration.

thanksgiving postcardMentions of guajolotes, chompipes, guanajos, and, of course, pavos, are present across different Latin American cookbooks and menus. These various Spanish translations for turkey denote the importance of the bird in the Americas, much beyond the United States. The Meleagris gallopavo was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, as an important source of protein. The Mexican term for the bird, the guajolote, comes from the Náhuatl “huexólotl,” refering to the bird as a big monster, for the male’s large size and feathers. The bird was even associated with the god Tezcatlipoca, and deities of  the sun and life.

UNAM_Guajolote representations

Guajolote representations from Mexico (Image from Jareni Ayala, in “Guajolote, símbolo milenario de nuestra cultura“)

Since its domestication in the Americas about 2000 years ago, turkeys have moved across continents. When the Spanish conquistadors met the guajolote, they took it back to Spain as the gallina de las Indias and later calling the bird pavo. The bird became a dish of nobility, spreading across Europe. The bird arrived to England via Turkey, resulting in the English name of the bird from its mistakenly identified country of procedence. A century after the Spanish took the bird across the pond, the English colonist brought the Europeanized bird back to its native continent, to Eastern North America – the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving meal.


‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914)

While the reality of the meal and the colonial times in which it took place is darker than its feel-good meaning today,  the traditional Thanksgiving feast is an important part of the United States’ origin story. For newcomers, the meal represents an opportunity to participate in the cultural festivities of the new home, as part of the journey of becoming “American.”


Source: Tenement Museum Instagram (11/22/2018), featured in a recent NYT piece on first Thanksgivings

The turkey serves as a vehicle for adaptation, being prepared with traditional flavor principles by the diversity of cultures that celebrate the holiday in the United States, flavored with extra garlic, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, or even mofongo stuffing, just to name a few. The bird may even be replaced by tofu, while still retaining its name and shape (almost)…


Photo: I Love Vegan blog (see post and tofurky recipe here)

The turkey’s circular journey across the globe has much to teach about the formation of food traditions, in spite of geographical borders. The bird served as a cultural ambassador of sorts from the New World to the Old World. Today, in some ways, the turkey continues to fulfill a similar role, serving as a vehicle for cultural exchange, but with its production at a large scale today, providing access to the masses – a far cry from the exclusive consumption during its early days as a European luxury bird.

Turkeys 2013

Photo: University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services (Commercial poultry)

Sources / Further reading:

Talking NAFTA, Food, Mexico and Beyond

This month I was honored to be part of two events* in celebration of Alyshia Gálvez’s new book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food policies and the destruction of Mexico (University of California Press). Gálvez is a cultural anthropologist and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Her book, Eating NAFTA, exposes how the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994 between Mexico, the United States and Canada, created fundamental changes in Mexico, specifically in the country’s sustenance and its related nutritional outcomes. NAFTA dramatically altered Mexico’s food system where notions of efficiency became preferred over the importance of sustenance, nutrition, and even taste. As a result, today Mexico imports 42% of its food, mostly from the United States. Furthermore, Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA reminds us how the rural sector has long been seen in Mexico (as in other countries) as backward, blamed for the nation’s lack of development, and in need of intervention – giving way to modernization and industrialization at the expense of sustenance and people’s wellbeing. The book also addresses the rise in obesity and chronic diseases in Mexico and its transnational immigrant communities, as a result of the dietary and population shifts created by NAFTA. In doing so, Galvez makes us think critically about many of Mexico’s public health initiatives. Interventions and policies, as the lauded soda tax, may obscure the structural causes of the problem, including the role of transnational food companies.

While focused in Mexico, it is important to note that the book provides insights that can be readily applied to other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Many of the transitions described in Eating NAFTA resonated with the work I have done in rural communities in Central America, including the shift in status and social norms around traditional dishes as a result of globalization.

A small store in rural El Salvador, featuring a diverse offering of ultra-processed snacks with a few locally produced goods.

Discussions about trade and NAFTA have recently been part of the news, with the President’s criticism of the agreement as a “bad deal” for the United States, and the recent signing of a new version – the USMCA – the unpronounceable acronym for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. A quick overview of the new deal by the Brookings Institute shows that the changes are mostly cosmetic and reminds us that the deal is yet to be ratified into law. While the three countries are on schedule for the December 1st signing, the next and most difficult step will be ratifying the agreement. The vote will be significantly influenced by the upcoming midterm elections:

There are reasons why both Republicans and Democrats may be reluctant to approve the deal. Republicans in Congress are wary of Trump’s protectionist instincts; Democrats, meanwhile, are unlikely to actively help Trump realize one of his key campaign promises. Thus, USMCA’s congressional path remains unclear. (Of course, for their part, neither Canada nor Mexico will likely protest too strenuously if the U.S. fails to ratify the new pact, so long as it allows them to keep the existing NAFTA.) – Gertz 2018, Brookings Institution

In the end, the USMCA may do little to change the lives of those most affected by these deals: the invisible rural poor, particularly in Mexico. While there is some excitement about the provisions to potentially improve labor conditions in Mexico, such provisions will not change the existing shifts in the national food environment and the transitions detailed by Gálvez and others.

Trade policies can be better at improving the overall wellbeing of the most vulnerable in the countries, but that will depend on the political will of the leaders in these countries. There is hope in the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his potential policies to make “rural Mexico great again.” During his political campaign, he endorsed a new version of the Plan de Ayala, based on the plan originally written by Mexican Revolution leader, Emiliano Zapata and his supporters in 1911. The Plan seeks to promote self-sufficiency in important crops, including corn, beans, and wheat. Most importantly, it may address many of the concerns of the rural poor, as summarized below:

The Plan de Ayala explicitly does away with policies that write off poor producers as worthy only of welfare, treating all small and medium-scale farmers as deserving of productive public investment. The Plan addresses chronic market failures in the Mexican countryside, with credit programs, crop insurance, and protection from anti-competitive practices by agribusiness buyers and sellers. It targets support to producers farming fewer than 50 acres. The Plan commits to a transition toward agro-ecology, bars transgenic crops, and creates a National System for the Protection and Improvement of Mesoamerican Agro-biodiversity, with a special program called Native Maize-Tortilla 2050 to promote the cultivation and consumption of native maize. This is just the sort of directed action that can revalue indigenous cultures and practices while actively supporting the production of native maize. – Wise 2018

Much remains to be seen.

Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA is a timely contribution with important lessons learned in these ongoing times of transition for Mexico and beyond.

See this link for upcoming book events and further information about Gálvez and her book.


* The first event was at NYU and the second at CUNY. Video links will be posted when available.

Summer Updates

It is already the end of August. The semester is starting again. The ten days spent is Spain in the early summer feel like an eternity away. The summer evaporated in a busy stream of travel, conferences, training and writing. Yet, this summer is different that others in recent past. It marks several transitions, starting by passing the three-year mark on the tenure track and submitting my first book manuscript for review…

I submitted my book manuscript for review in late June. The book, initially titled, “Eating in Movement,” took about five years to complete. It examines Hispanic Caribbean cuisine and migration in a transnational context. This blog has documented some of this work in progress. Upon submitting the manuscript, I felt a great sense of relief when I received confirmation that the book was out for review.  I now await further work on the next steps and future of this work in the coming months.

Soon after hitting “send” on my book manuscript submission email, I turned to the next task on my list: my first grant for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The seed for the grant was planted last summer. I applied and was accepted to the NIH Programs to Increase Diversity among Individuals Engaged in Health-related Research (PRIDE) Research in Implementation Science for Health Equity (RISE) training hosted by the University of California San Francisco. During the two intense and rewarding weeks of training, I started playing with the idea of designing an intervention to motivate Hispanic Caribbean restaurants to improve cardiovascular health in the community. This idea, while far fetched at first, has since become the seed of my research grant application and, hopefully, the basis for the next step in my research agenda in the coming years.  Since the summer of 2017, I have been advancing this work with the support of this amazing group peer and faculty mentors – seen here at the conclusion of the training this summer 2018:

RISE Fellows and Mentors (Source: Twitter/UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations)

I am now in the final stretch of this long process, with a goal of submitting the application by the end of September.

The project proposed in the grant is a shift in my research agenda, from focusing on individual cultural factors to addressing food environments and policy. Another project that has been key in this shift is my ongoing research examining soda tax policy implementation in Mexico and Chile. This project was funded through the Professional Staff Congress – City University of New York Research Award Program. A year into the project, we can finally see the end of the data collection in sight. The project will then move to analysis and write up through the fall (and most likely beyond). Of course, more on this soon!

I wrapped up the summer with one last conference – the World Universities symposium in Toronto, where I had the chance to present on Hispanic Caribbean migration.

Presenting at WC2 Toronto August 2018 (Thanks to R. Ilieva for the photo)

I did my best to consolidate my book project in 15 minutes. It was a tall order! Yet, the failed attempt resulted in fruitful conversations, comparing immigrant food experiences across global cities. I learned from colleagues in Mexico City, London, and Toronto. We also had the great opportunity to witness discussions around a new national children nutrition program in Canada.

CUNY Professor and community food advocate, Dr. Janet Poppendieck, sharing lessons learned from the US School Lunch Program with Canadian policymakers

I officially start classes tomorrow. My inbox is already populated by student emails and my calendar will soon include more meetings and committee work. There is much to look forward to these coming month: the faith of my first book and grant application, as well as the continued evolution of my research through writing and collaborations. I hope to share more of this work. Stay tuned!

Learning to eat in Spain

Travel allows experiencing alternate lives, even if for a short time. I was recently in Spain for a 10-day vacation. Much to write from this trip, but I will begin with some musings about the meal schedule in the country.

First, some basic information….

There are five main meals in Spain.

The day starts with desayuno (breakfast). It is a light meal, most often skipped, which may include a coffee and a toast upon waking up. The almuerzo takes place around 11am. It is a snack, such as a pincho or bocadillo, to keep you going until the main meal of the day: the comida! The comida is the heaviest meal, eaten between 2-4pm. During this time many restaurants offer the menú del dia – multicourse meals for a good price. It may include an appetizer, the main course and dessert. Some establishments offer a glass of wine or beer, and end with a coffee.

The comida may be followed by a snack or merienda, before the cena (dinner). The cena takes place traditionally after 8pm, as late as 10pm. That is, the time when most restaurants are winding down in the US are the peak hours in Spain. This is the time for tapas or raciones (learn more here).

I decided to research eating times after making the mistake of eating a fideua for dinner.

Fideua from La Tertulia (Barcelona). Photo from Google user, similar to the one we enjoyed.

It was delicious, but also quite heavy for 10pm. Even after a 20 minute walk back to the hotel, I could still feel the fideos digesting in my stomach as I tried to sleep.

The research led me to an unexpected finding explaining the late comidas and cenas in Spain. Spaniards have been living in the wrong time zone since 1940. As explained by this BBC article,

In 1940, General Francisco Franco changed Spain’s time zone, moving the clocks one hour forward in solidarity with Nazi Germany. For Spaniards, who at the time were utterly devastated by the Spanish Civil War, complaining about the change did not even cross their minds. They continued to eat at the same time, but because the clocks had changed, their 1pm lunches became 2pm lunches, and they were suddenly eating their 8pm dinners at 9pm. After World War II ended, the clocks were never changed back.

While tourists may enjoy late dinners and sunsets in Spain resulting from this change, there are consequences to perpetually living in the wrong time zone – sleep deprivation and loss of productivity.

There are ongoing discussions about changing the timezone. These include debates about the relevance of the siesta today. A 2017 study, cited in the above mentioned article, shows that more than half of those interviewed (57.9%) do not nap. Most of those who do nap reported not being bothered if unable to enjoy their midday sleep.

Spain is under pressure to change. Some argue that the siesta prevents earnings from midday commerce, as businesses close between 2-4pm, and the resulting odd restaurant hours may inconvenience tourists. Interestingly, tourism is, in fact, one of the arguments for the elimination of the siesta, but also, for keeping the existing time zone. I will continue to follow the debate over time zones and siestas in Spain. Such discussion provide many lessons learned on how sociocultural traditions survive (or not) amid a globalized and homogenizing world.

While it did require some planning (and research) to accommodate to Spain’s schedule, in the end, that is part of the beauty of travel. The eating experience in Spain led me to rethink my current eating patterns, particularly the heaviness of my usual dinners. On a typical weekday in the semester, I start with breakfast upon waking up. A lunch around noon. And dinner at some point between 6-8pm. Sometimes I skip lunch, especially on days when I teach. I try to have light lunches, to avoid the afternoon slump. These lunch habits result in overeating during dinner.

Being back in my normal schedule at home, I am still trying to figure out how to accommodate my eating pattern. No success yet. I realize how my eating pattern is not only constrained by work schedules, but also by the need to feel “productive” – a mindset that require rethinking naps not as acts of leisure, but as a quick midday recharge, resulting in more productive afternoons.

Comedores Sociales in Puerto Rico

This post is dedicated to the work of the Centro para el Desarrollo Politico, Educativo y Cultural (CDPEC). The CDPEC organizes the comedores sociales in Puerto Rico – “social dining rooms” or community kitchens that serve food through a grassroots approach. The work of the CDPEC demonstrates the use of food as a vehicle to sustain and promote social justice. Aside from the comedores, the CDPEC  engages in a variety of initiatives that seek to promote autogestion (self-management) to, in their own words, “break the distance that exists between the ideas that promote social change and the people through contact work and popular education” (my translation).

(Click photo for a Vimeo on their work)


I learned about this work through Giovanni Roberto, organizer at the CDPEC. We were part of the panel at Cocinando Justicia (Cooking Justice).  Loisaida, Inc hosted the event on April 30, 2018. The conversation was moderated by Huascar Robles, author/journalist/producer of Catatonia podcast.


The panel in action, with Huascar Robles (Left) and Giovanni Robert (Right). 

Huascar led the discussion with thought provoking questions about food security in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the deleterious effect of the political situation, and the importance of grassroots work to counteract government inaction. Giovanni shared stories of personal and political transformation of some of the people he has met through his work, showcasing the power of food to build bridges and inspire change. On the lighter side, we also learned new recipe ideas, such as quinoa con gandules, as a healthier alternative to rice.


 Serving food through donations (Photo from Comedores Sociales Facebook Page)

The work of people like Giovanni and his fellow corillo members at the CDPEC is often lost amidst the stream of bad news that continue to emanate from the island. The island has been in a recession for more than a decade. Many continue without electricity almost nine months after Maria. Austerity measures are tightening the conditions even more, in order to pay the $70 billion debt to Wall Street.  Just the day after our panel, the island had a national strike that ended with tear gas. The protest was in opposition to school closings, increases to university tuition and cuts to pensions. In the face of this continued economic pressure and frustration, many continue to leave the island. In short – good news are needed, as well as examples of successful models of autogestion. I will continue to follow the work of the CDPEC. I invite you to do the same and support them in any way you can.

For more information:

Supporting investment in Dominican gastronomy: An invited talk

Last week the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos hosted its third Foro Gastronómico, titled, “Emprende e Innova. The forum hosted APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, along  with local and international experts to discuss the culinary innovation in the country. I am honored to say I was among those experts, participating via video to share the talk titled “Importancia de la cultura alimentaria y políticas públicas relacionadas con la alimentación en la diáspora” [The importance of food culture and public policy in the diaspora].

The talk was a brief summary of the work I have been doing with the Dominican diaspora in New York City, focusing on the restaurant sector. During the spring 2017 semester, I worked with students to interview chefs, cooks, and restaurant owners serving Hispanic Caribbean food in the city. Most of the interviewees came from Dominican restaurants. During debriefing meetings with the students, the first thing they noticed was how these respondents were enthusiastic about their product, describing the food served as “de primera” (first class) or “la mejor” (the best). One of the most highlighted quality of the cuisine was its home made quality – that is, the interviewee’s claims that they were able to replicate the food made at home. My previous interviews and conversations with the Hispanic Caribbean community in NYC reveals that attempting to recreate mom’s or abuela’s cooking is a tall order to fullfill! As explained by one of my Dominican interviewees,

Si yo salgo a comer, nunca es a salir a comer comida dominicana, porque no sabe igual. Sabe como, I don’t know, no es el sabor…Yo prefiero salir a un restaurante puertorriqueño que a uno dominicano […] pero es porque yo no crecí comiendo la comida de sus países. Aunque sí son similares, pero no me sentiría como: “Ah, mi mamá pudo hacer esto mejor”. (Ríe). Para mí me siento más cómoda en un restaurante puertorriqueño o cubano.
[If I go out to eat, never is to eat Dominican cooking, because it does not taste the same. It tastes like, I don’t know, it is not the flavor. I prefer to go to a Puerto Rican restaurant over a Dominican one […] but it is because I did not grew up eating the food from those countries. While they are similar, but I would not feel like, ‘oh, my mom could have done this better (laughs). I feel more comftable in a Puerto Rican or Cuban restaurant]. 

Dominicans were certainly not alone in this feeling. Puerto Ricans and Cubans also disliked most of the restaurants serving their heritage cuisine, with a few exceptions.  

Seeking to keep the cuisine as a recreation of home-made dishes also prevents it from being elevated beyond inexpensive establishments, under the low status label of “ethnic food” (see more on this here). My culinary adventures (also known as “participant observation”) in many restaurants in Dominican Republic reveal the possibilities of this cuisine. Take, for example:

Canelones Tainos from Restaurante El Higuero:

Higuero_canelones de yuca

Cannelloni pasta made from yucca with vegetable, chicken or beef filling (Photo: Higuero Restaurant Facebook Page)

Quipe crudo de zanahoria asada from TIME Vegetarian Kitchen:

Time_Carrott quipe

Roasted carrot quipe (Photo: TIME Vegetarian Restaurant Facebook page)



Investing in the development and dissemination of the national cuisine can provide economic and cultural benefits beyond motivating culinary tourism. As the Peruvian case demonstrates, gastronomy can be used as a tool for economic and community development. The sector provides an excellent venue for social projects that can lift people out of poverty, and can also contribute to public health. One brief example is the initiative, PescaVentura, sponsored by APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, where kids learn about the benefits of eating fish,


Photo: APEGA, “PescaVentura”

My gratitude to the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos for the opportunity to be part of the Foro Gastronómico.

To learn more about the amazing work of these culinary associations, visit their web pages at and

The research presented in this post was made possible with the support of the City University of New York (CUNY) Diversity Projects Funds, which facilitated the interviews with Dominican restaurants in NYC, and the CUNY-Brooklyn College Tow Faculty Research Travel Fellowship, which supported my travel to Santo Domingo in May 2017. The research is part of my book project, Eating in Movement. Stay tuned and subscribe to this blog to learn more about this and other upcoming publications. 


It was a hot and humid August morning. Adela sat in the back of her restaurant, peeling potatoes, with only a small fan to appease the heat. The TV was tuned to Telemundo, with Elvis Crespo singing for Monica Puig, the Puerto Rican tennis player who days before had just won the first gold medal for the island at the Olympics in Rio. Pepe, a mutual friend and local community leader, introduced us. She smiled, turning back to her potatoes and television show. By the time we arrived, she had already been working for a couple of hours, making the necessary prepping for the day’s service. The smell of garlic, mixed with oregano and onion, forming the sofrito base, filled the air announcing to regulars and passersby that something delicious is being prepared. We sat at her table, and Pepe got the conversation started by asking Adela about her early days in the city.

Adela first came to New York City in 1971 for a visit. Back then, she worked as a seamstress in Puerto Rico, later transitioning to working with her mother, selling fiambreras (lunch boxes) to factory workers. She moved to New York City around 1975. When I asked why she moved, she replied with a smile, “Ese salto lo da todo el mundo que quiere progresar” [That leap is made by everyone who wants to progress in life]. Upon arrival, she worked as a cook, but quickly transitioned to establishing her own place. She rented her first restaurant, El Caribe, in the West Side, which she later bought from the Cuban owner. When the building was condemned, she moved her business to the Lower East Side, where she later established Casa Adela in 1976. While an exact timeline of life events and places was not specified, the one thing that was clear while talking with her was the entrepreneurial success. At one time, she recalled owning three establishments, with the goal of passing two of them to her children. However, she ended up selling two of them, with her children being actively involved in the running Casa Adela today.

Casa Adela is one of the few truly authentic Puerto Rican restaurants in the city, and an important community landmark in the Lower East Side. As she recounted, “he estado por 40 años aquí. He corrido las cuatro esquinas y acabe aquí”. In those early years, there were more Puerto Rican establishments in the area. The local restaurants, such as hers, served as places for late night meals after nights of drinking among the local artistic community. Some of them were starving artists, which Adela fed at little or no cost. Nuyorican AmeRícan poet Tato Laviera was among her faithful clients. His love for Adela’s mondongo (tripe soup) is recorded in his poem, “criollo story”:

i was drunk, sunday morning/ sitting at tompkins square park/ i was drummed-all-night […] i was so drunk i could not even laugh/ and then salvation time/ “for you, mira, mondongo”/ i thought tyrone was goofing on me/ “you look like a mondongo yourself”/ “no, no, not you, mira, i mean, HUMERA/ for HUMERA, mondongo, bro, adela,/ she opens at five o’clock, let’s / eat some of that tripe”
we walked into adela’s five-/ thirty morning mountain smell/ of madrugada simmering concrete/ puerto rican new york radio JIT/ cuatro-music, recordado a borinquen/ songs made famous by don santiago/ grevi, and the crushed plantains/ bollitos rounded boricua matzo all/ around cleaned vinaigrette tripe/ and patitas de cerdo pig feet, softened to a melted overblown/ delicacy, brother, and i tell you that/ down went the russian vodka/ the alcohol disappear with/ bites of calabaza-pumpkin pieces/ and the one hundred proof bacardi/ was choked by un canto de yautia/ tubers that were rooting the european/ dry red wine into total decolonization/ and the broth, brother, EL CALDO/ condimented garlic onions/ peppered with whole tomatoes/ that were melted by the low/ heat, ese caldo was woefully/ seducing the jamaican liquors/ into compatibility, and down/ went the BORRACHERA bro and/ […]
–  excerpt from “criollo story”, in Tato Laviera’s AmeRícan

Today, the establishment still serves as a must-stop for Puerto Rican and other Latino celebrities who live or visit the city – a testimony of her continued role in the community and the iconic status of her restaurant. Visits are documented and displayed in the restaurant wall as well as on the Facebook page. Days before our meeting, she had the visit of Iris Chacón – the Puerto Rican dancer, singer and entertainer nicknamed “La Vedette de América”. “No comió mucho,” Adela recalled, “porque tiene que cuidar su figura…¡El esposo se dio una jartera!” [She did note at much because she has to care for her figure. The husband stuffed himself!]

Image source: Facebook (Casa Adela)

As our conversation progressed, she moved effortlessly from peeling potatoes to carrots, and then plantains. I offered to help, to which she declined, cleverly saying, “Tú no los vas a pelar como yo” [You will not peel them like I do]. And she was right! We spoke about the food served in the restaurant, which she described as “lo que se come en Puerto Rico” [what people in Puerto Rico eat], including rice, habichuelas, meat, bistec, and chicken. Speaking about the rotisserie chicken the New York Times called “magical”, she recounted that in the early days,  “no tenia la maquina (de rotisserie), lo hacía al horno” [I did not have the rotisserie machine, I made it in the oven]. Other staples in the menu include pernil and carne frita. She never served cuchifrito, in the true definition of the food (that is, fried pig parts), but she does serve fried foods, such as relleno de papa. She used to make pasteles for Christmas, but now she buys them from someone, “que es boricua”, that is Puerto Rican, as she specified. She used to offer tasajo (“pero ahora está caro”) and the gandinga. On rare occasions, she would make the celebrated mondongo, but not so often any more, as “la toalla no se consigue” [the tripe is not easy to find]. Her son procures the ingredients for her restaurant from a vendor in New Jersey or at the nearby Essex Market, where one can still buy pig or cow’s feet. She recalled occasions when she would bring food from Puerto Rico, such as the sought-after pana, (breadfruit). “Antes,cuando no cobraban por las maletas, yo traía. ¡Una vez traje una maleta llena de pana! Ya no.” [Before, when airlines could not change for bags, I would bring breadfruit. One time I brought a full suitcase! Not anymore]. As such, the tostones de pana are a rare occurrence, only available to those in the inner circle lucky enough to stumble in the restaurant that day.

Adela – at 80-years-young – worked every day, from around 6am, at times, until 9 or 10pm, taking a month-long vacation to Puerto Rico or Florida just once a year.  While talking about her daily work, she reflected about her legacy, and the hope that her family would carry it on. Her cooks have been carefully trained on her sazón and ways in the kitchen. Her son and daughter are actively involved in the restaurant. Additionally, she mentioned her grandson is studying in culinary school, but playfully remarked, “Es vago. Siempre quiere que le cocine yo”. To which I replied, “Who would not want you to cook for them?” Our conversation carried on for more than two hours, amidst her continually monitoring the kitchen and the TV. There was a brief pause when the horoscope came on. Adela directed her attention to the TV, grabbing the pen from my hand to write down some notes as the astrologer, Walter Mercado, spoke – going sign by sign, using what seemed to be Tarot cards to predict the good fortune, in one way or another, for all of us, irrespective of the sign.

As lunchtime approached, I feared I was overstaying my welcome. I thanked her for her generosity and time, promising to return soon, to which she responded with a smile, “¡Puerto Rico invita!” I will forever be grateful for the morning I spent with Adela, and for her hard work maintaining a little piece of Puerto Rico in the Lower East Side for new generations to enjoy.

Image source: Instagram (Casa Adela)

Adela passed away last week. Her wake was held a few blocks from her restaurant, filled by probably hundreds of community members who stood in line in a wintery night, waiting to pay their respects to this amazing woman. She was beautifully dressed, surrounded by flowers, family, friends, and many like myself, who simply came along to thank her for the meals and memories build in what felt like a home – Casa Adela.


My gratitude to Iyawó Pepe Flores for making my conversation with Adela possible.

Starting 2018 in Puerto Rico

After months agonizing over news coverage of the 2017 Hurricane Maria passing through the Caribbean, I was finally on my way to Puerto Rico. After landing, as I walked towards the airport exit, I was hit by a sudden trepidation of not knowing what to expect on the other side of the airport doors. I imagined a landscape devoid of greenery, a deep darkness in the streets, and overly aggressive drivers. Happily, I was mostly wrong. Nature was revamping. Trees were blooming and palm trees rocked in the warm Caribbean breeze. Darkness remained, but restoring power is slowly lighting up the island. The few homes with Christmas lights illuminated their neighbors a few blocks away that remained in the dark in a way sharing some of the season’s spirit that people long for now more than ever.

Weeks before my trip, I was interviewed by the New York Times about the food situation on the island, with a particular concern over the availability of pasteles in a year post-Maria. The hurricane had devastated the local production of the main ingredients for the traditional pastel de masa – the plantain. Granted, pasteles were the least of my concerns when I thought about the situation in the island and what I would encounter during my holiday visit. When the reported asked me about whether I would eat pasteles this Christmas in Puerto Rico, my response, as quoted, was simple:

“in difficult times, one thing that defines us is that we keep positive,” Ms. Fuster said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people found a way to make pasteles.”

And I was right, evidenced by the pasteles feast we enjoyed in the New Year, seen here at the peak of boiling:

pasteles boiling

Three months after Maria, Puerto Rico is slowly returning to normalcy – even if at a new kind of normal. Agriculture is slowly coming back, as (hopefully) you can see from these quick snapshots taken from the road.

ag snapshots

Farmer’s markets are also carrying on. I visited the Mercado Orgánico at La Placita de Roosevelt, pictured below in its late hours. The market had some organic produce, including a variety of greens and a variety of hot sauces, including pique de acerola (hot sauce made from West Indian Cherry, one of my favorite things in the world). The Placita at Plaza las Americas was also running, selling limited amounts of produce, such as root crops and peppers, as well as pasteles, coffee, maví, and orange juice – all from local production.

roosevels snapshot

While the restaurant industry was negatively impacted by the hurricane season, this industry has played an important role of feeding many in the aftermath of María. This role was beyond the publicized collaborations with Chef José Andrés and Chefs for Puerto Rico. Many eateries, for example, quickly opened their kitchens serving low cost breakfast and lunch. Sadly, the delay in restoring the electrical grid, combined with issues of food access, the worsening economic crisis, and the exodus of many in the industry has caused many to close their doors or reinvent themselves. For example, Chef Xavier Pacheco, who was featured in a recent episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in Puerto Rico, reinvented his popular restaurant, Jaquita Baya, into Comedería, Fonda Urbana. Chef Pacheco explained this shift in an interview for El Nuevo Día,

In essence, it is the transformation of a restaurant that was a culinary platform inspired in reviving Puerto Rican recipes, motivated by the development of local products sponsoring gastronomic artisans and nourishing the pride in our cuisine. Our goal is to create a space where we can offer quality food, delicious, and real for the Puerto Rican pocket after this hurricane aftermath. (My translation)

Based in my visit to Comedería, I can testify that the food offered meets this goal. Just as Chef Pacheco did in Jaquita Baya, he continues to offer local produce, but at much more accessible prices at Comedería. Some of the delicious food we enjoyed were the hummus de gandules (pigeon peas), vianda gnocci, pastelón de verduras, and breaded chicken over coconut rice and topped with a fried egg.


My favorite restaurant, Orujo Taller de Gastronomía in Caguas, opened its doors right after the hurricane, serving low cost meals for the surrounding community. Alas, as time went by, Chef Carlos Portela temporarily closed its doors taking the time to try a new concept at Lote 23 – Lolo’s Mac & Grilled Cheese. Chef Portela explained the new concept in an interview for Sabrosía,

Orujo’s essence will always be present no matter what we serve or the food we cook.  All of our company’s new concepts, will be based in Orujo.

Below, a “taste” of the offerings at Lolo’s. During our visit we had a lobster open-faced sandwich and a mac and cheese topped with salmon. Click here for a quick view of Lote 23 and the amazing food served by Chef Portela at Lolo’s.


Thankfully, Orujo is set to open early in February, with reservations strongly encouraged. Opting for a different direction as that taken by Chef Pacheco, Chef Portela will carry on with his high-end cuisine, continuing to elevate Puerto Rican culinary traditions and offerings to new delicious and beautiful levels.

orujo queso

Texturas de Queso (source: Orujo, Facebook page)

Orujo and Comederia are two of the hundreds of restaurants in the recovering culinary landscape of Puerto Rico. Other popular places remain, such as La Cueva del Mar, which even expanded to a new location. Eating at some of these establishments one can easily forget the ongoing crisis. Yet, at others there are sudden reminders of the underlying scarcities – particularly of plantains. Anecdotes of the long lines or things lost are common are part of the daily conversations with friends and strangers alike.

This post sought to highlight the recovery of the island. This is not to minimize the ongoing needs and chronic crisis exacerbated by the 2017 hurricane season. There are many still living in darkness, with limited physical and economic access to food. Yet, not all is lost, as US news media tend to portray (if it bleeds it leads). The island is open for business, and this business is highly needed. One of the best ways to help Puerto Rico in its recovery and strengthening is by visiting and enjoying what the island offers.  In these visits, you will get to experience the delicious culinary offerings, excellent hospitality and breathtaking beaches and landscapes, as well as witness the hard work of many seeking to bring the island afloat and reinvent its future, in spite of the politics that continues to cloud these efforts.

And to end this post, I’ll leave you with this image from a T-shirt found in the southern town of Guayama, illustrating the ways we keep positive in times of strain:


Thank you for reading and Happy 2018!