Re-linking Nutrition and Gastronomy

In his book, The Physiology of Taste, published in 1895, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined gastronomy as

a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal. Its object is to watch over the preservation of man by means of the best possible food.

Nutrition, on the other hand, is defined as

the act or process of nourishing or being nourished; specifically:  the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances (from Merriam-Webster)

 

As these definitions show, both nutrition and gastronomy care about the  “preservation of men” (and women). Early cookbooks contained recipes that used food as medicine, and many other contain introductions teaching the readers about the nutritive qualities of foods and how to best combine them in daily menus. Today, in practice, the gastronomic and nutrition views of food seem to stand in parallel silos.  Broadly speaking, those in the culinary fields talk about foods in terms of aesthetics, texture and taste, while nutritionists tend to reduce food to nutrient and caloric values. Now, I add “broadly speaking”, as this statement is an over-generalization. The culinary and nutrition “silos” are starting to interact. There are more chefs who are also registered dietitians and dietitians who venture into culinary training.  Chefs are also engaging in food policy. Examples are found in the Plate of the Union campaign (an advocacy movement that views access to healthy, affordable foods and safe drinking water as a right, and the current food system as favoring “Big Ag”), celebrity chefs engaging in humanitarian projects, such as the work of Chef Jose Andres and Jamie Oliver’s crusade to improve school food (and his “food revolution”), among others.

One of my ongoing research projects seeks to uncover more linkages. In a 2016 journal article, comparing dietary guidelines in the Hispanic Caribbean, I highlighted the inclusion of the Federación de Asociaciones Culinarias de la República de Cuba (the Cuban national culinary association) in the drafting of the national dietary guidelines. Their influence is seen in the guidelines messages. For example, beyond just telling the population to consume less salt, practical culinary advice is provided to achieve this recommendation:

Flavor your food with natural condiments and aromatic herbs (cumin, oregano, onion, garlic, basil, celery, parsley, among others) and citric juices. (My translation)

Beyond just asking the consumer to eat less fat and fried foods, the guide provide some advise on how to accomplish this, while also still enjoying fried foods,

Lower the consumption of fried foods. When frying, you should cut foods in large portions, so that they absorb less fat. (My translation)

Neighboring Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic have similar culinary associations are also engaged in important food work in the country, although not readily connected with the public health nutrition sector in the country. For example, the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña (and other local chefs) are working to build and solidify farm to table links in a island with a weakened agricultural sector. The Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (highlighted in my previous post) is striving to document and highlight the regional dishes in Dominican Republic.

As these examples show, chefs have an important role to improve and preserve healthy food habits in the communities they serve. This role is increasingly important amid the continued influx of ultra-processed and other globalized foods that lead to the gradual displacement of traditional fresh foods. These global changes have an often deleterious effect for consumer’s health, local producer’s livelihood and the nation’s economy. In addition, a greater (re)connection between gastronomy and nutrition can also have the needed effect of  helping us move beyond the prevailing myth that delicious food is inherently unhealthy, and that nutritious, healthy food is synonymous with bland, and tasteless dishes.

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This post is part of an ongoing research project, recently presented at the OxyFood 17 Conference, “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture”, as part of the talk titled “Taste, Health and Ethnic Cuisines: Comparing nutrition and culinary experts’ perceptions of Hispanic Caribbean diets”. 

A First Taste of Santo Domingo

Dominican cuisine is often summed up in a few main iconic dishes, including La Bandera (rice, beans and meat), sancocho, and mangú. As the case of neighboring Puerto Rico and Cuba, the cuisine is influenced by the historic amalgamation of culinary traditions from the indigenous Tainos, the Spanish colonizers, and the African slaves. Additionally, Dominican cuisine  has been and continues to be greatly influenced by incoming migration. For example, the Arab migration of the 19th century is seen in the Dominican version of the quipe (pictured below). Exchanges with neighboring Puerto Ricans has resulted in the incorporation of the mofongo, and the recent influx of Venezuelans is perceptible in new restaurants and menu additions, such as the cachapas.

Quipe de chivo (Source: Instagram)

Last week, I visited Santo Domingo for the very first time. Part of the purpose of the visit was to learn and sample how local restaurants are constructing Dominican cuisine in the island. Granted, eating out is still not widespread in the general population. The restaurants I visited seemed to cater mostly to tourists and to the middle/upper class segments of society. The prices were far from the cost of the platos del día (dishes of the day) found in smaller food establishments, where for a few hundred pesos (about $3) one could get a nice helping of rice, beans and meat.

One of the restaurants at the forefront of the continued development of Dominican Cuisine is Higüero. As described in the restaurant’s website (roughly translated),

Higüero, the restaurant, assumes the responsibility of becoming one of the pioneers in the purpose of making our food a product to be enjoyed by exigent gourmands, local and internationals.

In accord with this mission, the restaurant location is also the site of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos, a local nonprofit with the mission of motivating the advancement of Dominican gastronomy. The foundation gets this work done through the documentation and dissemination of regional gastronomic trends (which has been a great resource!), as well as the annual gathering of culinary experts as part of the Foro Gastronómico. During my visit, I had the pleasure of meeting the key drivers behind the Fundación and receiving a copy of the proceedings of the First Foro Gastronómico.

sabores
With Bolívar Troncoso Morales, President of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (far right) and Juan Febles, the president of A&B Masters, Escuela Dominicana de Alimentos y Bebidas (far left).

Higüero is not the only restaurant with the mission of developing or promoting Dominican cuisine. Take, for example, Jalao, a relatively new restaurant in the Zona Colonial, located right across the Catedral Primada de America, the oldest in the New World. The menu featured interesting dishes such as the LP, or the “long plei” – a wheat-based Johnnycake- and the “Juego de pelota linero” – goat-stuffed croquettes.

Jalao food

Buche Perico, a popular tourist spot a few steps away in the Zona Colonial, had similar traditional (re)inventions, including the mini chimis de longaniza,

chimis

I also encountered the Puerto Rican trifongo – a combination of fried and mashed plantain, yucca and, in this version, breadfruit,

The trifongo can be the topic of its own post. In short, is a new iteration of the mofongo, where the plantain is accompanied by yucca and ripe plantains (or breadfruit). Like the mofongo, the trifongo comes from Puerto Rico.  While remaining close to the Puerto Rican original, the Dominican mofongo (as experienced in the Dominican Republic) may be prepared with boiled – not fried – plantains, and served alongside sancocho broth – a nice touch not found in Puerto Rico. The version below was eaten at the popular chain, Adrian Tropical, which was recommended as serving one of the best mofongos in the island. This one, the mini mofongo combi, was served with meats on the side, instead of inside (as one would encounter in Puerto Rico),

mofongo

El Conuco, the sister restaurant of Buche Perico, is located near the Hotel Jaragua, close to El Malecón. As the last restaurant visited in this trip, we opted to share a Dominican classic: the sancocho, as our last meal before returning back home.

sancocho

This was just a short, descriptive appetizer. At the risk of transforming this blog post into an extended restaurant review, I have obviated details on how these dishes tasted, and interactions with restaurant servers. Some experiences were better than others, but they all provided insight into how contemporary Dominican cuisine is being framed today, back in the Caribbean.

In the next weeks, I will be sorting through field notes and pictures from initial take on the Dominican Republic. The trip was part of a larger effort to expand research networks and explore the current culinary and public health nutrition situation, linked with transnational connections with the Dominican community in the US.

Stay tuned for more!

Living & Eating Comida Criolla in NYC: An invited talk

This past week I had the pleasure to return to one of my alma maters, Florida International University, to share my ongoing research with Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. I was hosted by Prof. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute and Professor of Anthropology at FIU. The talk, titled Living and Eating Comida Criolla in New York City, shared results from field interviews I conducted with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the city. The talk focused on the Cuban experience in NYC, as an opportunity to gather feedback from the Cuban perspective in Miami, FL:

The talk led to a fruitful conversation with the audience. Such conversation got started with a question on the distribution of Hispanic Caribbean restaurants in New York City, an interesting issue I have partly addressed in a previous post. This motivated questions about the cuisine authenticity, in light of the emergence of high-end restaurants, where these cocinas criollas are being reinvented with a higher price tag. Members of the audience also shared memories from their own migration histories, enriching my ongoing analysis of the Cuban American experience.

 

The Joy and Comfort of Fried Food

Fried food, fritura, fritanga, friture, frijituak, fri manje, gefrituud eten… The list goes on. Fried food is enjoyed across the world, across cultures and socioeconomic classes. Eating fried food provides the crunchiness and flavor we innately crave. At the same time, enjoying fried foods can be costly to our health, including risks to heart disease and increasing waistline. The dual value of fried foods, as a source of comfort and illness, make these foods a worthwhile subject of inquiry from an eater’s perspective, as presented in my latest publication, “We like Fried Things”: Negotiating Health and Taste among Hispanic Caribbean Communities in New York City, at the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition.

As described in the article,

the shared Spanish colonial history and insular geography result in similar cuisines that merge Spanish influences with foods from the precolonial indigenous populations and African influences brought from the times of slavery. Traditional diets in this community consist of white rice, beans, and meats (especially pork). Fried foods feature prominently in these cuisines. These include snacks, such as the Cuban croquette, the Puerto Rican alcapurria (deep fried green banana and root crop dough filled with meat or seafood), and the Dominican quipe (deep fried bulgur roll stuffed with ground lamb). Frying is also used to cook meats and side dishes, for example, tostones (fried, mashed green plantains), maduros (ripe, fried plantain slices), and fried yucca.

friedfoods

One of the interesting findings was the different levels of importance of fried foods as perceived by these informants. While Puerto Ricans consistently recognized the salience of this cooking method in their traditional cuisine, Cubans and Dominicans underscored the prevalence of other cooking methods, such as boiling and sauteing. When asked to reflect about the importance of fried foods, it was explained through the deliciousness of these foods, cost considerations, as well as their emotive value – the latter exemplified in this quote,

When you eat a good alcapurria, you start thinking about the times when it was prepared in your home, in Puerto Rico, and that is what you miss.

The consumption of these foods was also situated in local neighborhoods, where cuchifritos, Dominican bakeries and street vendors provide ready access to these foods.

cuchifrito

Cuchifritos in Spanish Harlem (Photo credit: Sofrito Magazine, http://sofritomagazine.com/blog/cuchifrito/)

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Dominican bakery in the Lower East Side, featuring a small sample of fried foods.

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Fried food stand at community celebration in the Bronx.

These New York City formal and informal establishments seek to recreate the food outlets back home in the Caribbean, including the beach side fried food heaven of Piñones, in Puerto Rico,

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A view of Piñones (Photo credit: Puerto Rico Revealed, http://puertoricorevealed.com/pinones-puerto-rico/)

and the fritura stands in Dominican Republic,

fritura

Fritura stand in Dominican Republic (Photo credit: El Arte de La Gorda, http://giorcelia.blogspot.com/2015/08/10-reasons-why-you-should-skip-resorts.html)

The article is the result of my ongoing inquiries into Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. It is available for download through this link (limited to the first 50 downloads). I invite you to read it and send me your thoughts, either through comments below, or through my contact form.

Eating History in New Orleans

I started this post almost a month ago, in an airplane, on my way to New Orleans. The trip was one last vacation before the start of the spring semester. However, as a food scholar, a trip to a city like New Orleans will inevitably become work related.

New Orleans is famous for its restaurants. Restaurants and chefs play an important role in the city’s cultural production and reproduction.  As noted by Anthropologist (and New Orleans resident), David Berris, the place of restaurants in the city’s foodscape is different from other cities. The city has

a long standing food culture, a cuisine, built from local products, that is regularly produced in homes and restaurants and frequently discussed around local tables and in the local media. (Berris 2007: 153).

New Orleans cuisine is often described as Creole and Cajun. Just like my cocina criolla, Creole cuisine results from the blending of different influences, including  those of early Native inhabitants, the colonizers (Spanish and French) and the people that came after, including the African slaves. Cajun, on the other hand,  is one from the French speaking Acadian people, who arrived in Louisiana after being deported by the British from Canada. Like Creole cuisine, it results from the use of local ingredients and simple food preparations. For more on these distinctions, see this Chicago Tribune article.

A long weekend in New Orleans is not enough to digest the foodscape of the city, but I tried. As a tourist, taking a first bite at the city, I stayed at the French Quarter. Mostly skipping Bourbon St. at night, the Quarter offered walking access to historic culinary sites, such as Napoleon House. The landmark has been open for almost two centuries, named after the legend that the building was built as the home of Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile. History was consumed through their signature (Italian) muffuletta, a round sandwich built with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, Swiss cheese, provolone and an olive salad. This view of the kitchen shows the muffuletta in progress,

nola_napoleon

The Kitchen at Napoleon House

I also tried the boudin sausage, which turned out to be a be a bloodless morcilla, the blood sausage consumed in Spain and many of its old colonies, like Puerto Rico.  Continuing to make culinary comparisons, I also tried the  “New Orleans Favorites”, red beans and rice and the Jambalaya, reminding me of the closeness between my cocina criolla and New Orleans Creole cuisine.

nola-pimmsThese foods were downed with a Pimm’s Cup, a drink that

made its mark at the Napoleon House bar in the late 1940s amongst the bon viveur set. Unique to its maker, it is a gin based aperitif mixed with fresh lemonade, 7 up, and a sliver of cucumber that would be a refreshing cocktail that cools you off during heated summer days in New Orleans. –  Napoleon House.

While eating is a big part of a New Orleans visit, so is drinking. The city is home to many classic cocktails, like the sazerac, first concocted by a local apothecary in 1838 and is said to be the first cocktail in the United States. Another New Orleans creation is the Vieux Carré, a drink named after the earlier name of the French Quarter, the “old square”. This drink was first mixed in the 1930s at the Hotel Monteleone, where I enjoyed by first, at the Carousel Bar,

nola_carrousel

And yes, I also had other classics in the New Orleans tourist menu: Beignets and several gumbos,

nola-beig-and-gumbo

Gumbo and Beignets from Cafe Beignet

as well as the local Gulf fish, my favorite of all I ate, pictured below:

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Louisiana Gulf Fish Amandine (This photo of Meauxbar Bistro is courtesy of TripAdvisor)

As a caribeña, my cultural upbringing and food is the result of creolization, just like that in New Orleans. Because of this historical link, the city felt familar, a welcomed home-like respite from New York City. A weekend was certainly not enough to eat many of the city classics, including the po’boys and alligator meat. At the same time, this short experience allowed me to see a different way to experience, celebrate and sell the result of mixing different cultures in a pot, providing a new, comparative lens to approach my ongoing work with cocinas criollas in the Caribbean.

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Acknowledgement: This culinary adventure was shared with some amazing travel companions. A special thanks to fellow traveler, B. Betancourt, for helping us navigate and taste the Old Quarter.

Reference and further reading: Berris, D. and D. Sutton (2007). “Authentic Creole: Tourism, Style and Calamity in New Orleans Restaurants”. The Restaurants Book: Ethnographies of where we eat. D. Berris and D. Sutton. New York, Berg: 151-166.

 

A nutritious holiday find

During this year’s holiday visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this recipe manual written in 1980 by nutritionists in the town of Caguas:

The recipe manual was distributed at some point to the town’s residents, more than three decades ago, as a collection of various traditional recipes with the “highest nutritional value”, with a simple reminder that we should  always eat in moderation:

Now, the Christmas menu (and celebration) in Puerto Rico is best summarized in the chorus of El Gran Combo’s 1985 hit, La Fiesta de Pilito:

A comer pastel / a comer lechón / arroz con gandules / y a beber ron / que venga morcilla / venga de tooo

The last line, venga de tooo, roughly translated to “bring it all”, characterizes the indulgence of the holiday season. Our plates are filled with pasteles, pork, rice with pigeon peas, and blood sausages, downed with beer and rum. 

Hence, I was curious to see the nutritionist interpretation of this celebratory menu…

The suggested menus stay true to traditional favorites – with the omission of alcohol. Pork (lechón) remains at the center of the celebration, with favorites like morcilla (Blood sausage) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), still present. The recipes do not reflect the fat-free craze of the 80s, featuring lard (manteca) as the cooking fat, as seen in this recipe for arroz con gandules,

Instead of changing traditional menus and recipes, it seems that the nutricionistas cagueñas that authored this recipe collection opted to add vegetables to the festivities, through simple salads to accompany the usual fare.  

While I am skeptical that green salad substituted the usual potato salad in Christmas celebrations in 1980s Caguas (or today), the intent of the menu is still commendable and relevant today. 
Happy 2017! 

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A special thanks to Norma for sharing this recipe manual with me. 

The “Spicy” Myth

“My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, your’re going to have taco trucks on every corner”

Such were the words of Marco Gutierrez, founder of Latinos for Trump. The phrase “taco trucks on every corner” has taken over social media, with many professing their love for tacos and discussing how delicious it would be to actually have tacos in every corner using the hashtag #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner. The phrase has also motivated the actual spread of taco trucks, under the initiative to “Guac the Vote”, using these trucks to register new voters.

While the last piece of Gutierrez’s quote has been the one catching the most attention, I was more taken aback by the first part. The notion that Latino culture is “dominant”, “imposing” and “causing problems” is in line with common stereotypes of Latin Americans being passionate, loud and belligerent. These stereotypes are also encompassed by the often ascribed adjective: “spicy”.

Cristen Conger, from Stereotypology, explored how our culture was reduced to a jalapeno pepper:

The “Spicy” stereotype is not only the product of racism or a lack of interest regarding the richness in history of the region that comprises most of what is called America. The stereotype is also promulgated by many of us in the community, as seen in Gutierrez’s response to the backlash regarding his statement:

“I really didn’t mean to ridicule my fellow Mexicans and their jobs. I misspoke, I used poor [phrasing]. I wanted to describe something and I didn’t use the proper words to do it. But in my community we are also very sensitive, we Hispanics are very emotional, so I guess I hit a nerve.” (From interview with GW.com)

The homogenization Latin American cultures as “spicy” is also expanded to our food, as noted by Puerto Rican cookbook author, Erisbela Garriga, during a recent exchange:

“I’ve been approached several times to answer the question about the differences between Mexican and Puerto Rican food. Mexicans were among the first Hispanics/natives to have lived in this continent for centuries including parts of Texas and California former territories of Mexico. Puerto Rico was discovered in 1493 and was a Spanish colony until 1898, when it was transferred to the United States under the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish American War. What makes our food different from Mexican and other Latin American countries is the seasoning. The base of our Puerto Rican dishes is sofrito which is a blend of spices and herbs such as garlic, onion, oregano, cilantro, culantro, and sweet and bell peppers. Some cooks add cumin, basil and other aromatic herbs. Also the adobo which is a paste that we prepare with garlic, oregano, vinegar or lemon juice, annatto oil (a combination of olive oil and annatto seeds) to marinade or rub meats. The main staple of Mexican food is the use of corn and chiles as their base ingredient. Their food is spicy hot, at the point that, sometimes, you cry when you eat it.

There is a misconception that all Spanish/Latin food is cooked Mexican style. However, Latin American foods are so diverse and rich in different flavors and spices (not all of them hot spice). When you watch some of the food channel programs, almost all of them treat Spanish/Latin food as Mexican. It seems that there is no difference among the various Latin cuisines such as Peruvian, Colombian, Argentinean, Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican. Even when some of the chefs are judging, instead of tasting the food the way it is served in that country, they usually make comments that it needs some “hot pepper”, jalapeños, to kick it a little bit with some hot sauce, etc. Not all Spanish/Latin food use the jalapeños to give food a good taste. It is a matter of regional preferences and judges should be aware of that. The notion that Latin food is expected to be spicy hot keeps adding to the many misconceptions of what a Latin dish should look and taste like.”

Mexican food is popular in the United States. This has been evidenced lately in the responses to Gutierrez’s remarks. The long history of the Mexican community is evident in the merging of foodways at the border, including the creation of the Tex-Mex cuisine as representative of this blend. Still, we need to recognize the heterogeneity of the community, and its growing diversity in the United States.

Mac n’ Cheese: Comfort & convenience in a box

The year was 1937. Kraft Company boxed one of the tastiest and simplest dishes: Macaroni and Cheese. I grew up with the blue Kraft box in the kitchen. As an extremely picky eater, it was one of the few foods I would enjoy, forgoing pork, arroz con gandules, pasteles and other Puerto Rican traditional dishes I have since incorporated into my eating repertoire. Lately, I have been thinking about this early childhood memory, as I engage migration and dietary acculturation in my ongoing research. On days I work from home, I sometimes  find myself going back to this childhood staple. I sit at my computer, eating this dish while writing about dietary transitions and global preferences for processed foods.

MacCheese_JeffersonThe original macaroni and cheese dates back to the late 13th century. An early recipe was found in the cookbook, Liber de Coquina. The dish, de lasanis, consisted of lasagna sheets, cut into squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese and dried spices (See Latin version and a modern day interpretation here). Centuries later, the dish arrived to the United States thanks to Thomas Jefferson after a trip to Italy. The story goes that Jefferson brought back a pasta machine, serving the pasta with cheese during an 1800s state dinner. Scholars at Monticello documented Jefferson’s recipe here. As noted by this group and others, most likely Jefferson was not the first to make macaroni and cheese in the United States, but he helped disseminate the dish  during his time in office.

Kraft Mac and Cheese was a product of the Great Depression, as a meal that could “serve four for 19 cents”, ready in 9 minutes:

MacCheese_OldBox

Such wonderful concoction would not have been possible without key innovations. James L. Kraft patented processed cheese technology in 1916. Heated and melted regular cheese is mixed with emulsifying fats, preventing the otherwise perishable food from spoiling. This technology gave us Velveeta, and, later on, the bright orange powder in Kraft Mac n’ Cheese – thanks to “spray-drying” technology. Invented in 1872 by Samuel Percy, the technology allowed for the “prevention of the destructive chemical change [by] bringing fluid into a state of minute division” (Cited here). Liquid, such as melted cheese, is sprayed and blasted with hot air, leaving solid, dry particles. Aside from powdered cheese, the technology gave way to powder eggs and milk, feeding the army and the population at large (See more here).

Nowadays, the simple Mac n’ Cheese have been re-taken by chefs in high-end restaurants. The technologies that allowed for these innovations are viewed in negative light, tied to processed (“fake”) foods, as seen in this blog excerpt below,

Sadly, and far more commonly, processed cheese powder in a box has become a household staple; a replacement in war times, for the authentic comfort of the original. This can be blamed on Kraft Foods, whom first packaged it in 1937, and represents the dissolved culture of food, due to mass homogenization and factory processing that began (and forgot to end), during the 30’s and 40’s. (Source: here)

While it is hard to deny our disconnection from food and cooking, there is a role for these products in today’s society. Food innovations maligned today, such as “TV dinners”, frozen foods, and canned and boxed meals, allowed many women to care for their families, while also being able to enter the workforce. Still today, they are allies for working parents, as well as those of us working from home in need of a quick lunch. These were not everyday foods, but they may serve as a lifeline when hunger and time fail to coincide.

MacCheese_1975 Ad

Food companies, like Kraft,  have done well capitalizing on our need and desire for convenience. Food marketing has convinced many of us that we do not have to spend too much time in the kitchen, if any at all. At the same time, attaching a negative moral value to consuming these foods disregard real time and income scarcities families face today. After all, we all have to negotiate  between health, convenience, and taste (among other things), at least three times a day.

Jamonilla

Tulip, Tulip, jamonilla  / Deliciosa, siempre fresca / Tu la comes con el pan
Y la comes con arroz. / Tulip, Tulip, va con todo. / ¡Es el resuelvelo todo!
[Tulip, Tulip, lunchmeat / Delicious, always fresh / You can eat it with bread
And you can eat it with rice. / Tulip, Tulip, goes with everything / It’s the solve it all!]

The lyrics above are my remembered version of an 80s (or 90s) commercial for Tulip’s canned luncheon meat, jamonilla. It came back to mind after attending “The Empire of Spam” kitchen workshop a few months back, at the ASFS/AFHVS/CAFS* Annual Conference hosted by the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough.  The workshop focused on Spam as part of the Pacific culinary imaginary – discussing our perceptions about Spam while tasting it at the same time.

Empire of Spam Kitchen Workshop facilitated by (right to left): Hi’llei Hobart (New York University), Adrian De Leon (University of Toronto) and Josh Levy (Univerity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). 

Spam musibi (grilled Spam over a block of rice wrapped with nori drief seaweed). In our version, we doubled the Spam.

Much has been written about Spam (click here for a brief history). During almost eight decades of existence, the brand has gone from a soldiers’ staple during World War II to a culinary mainstay in the Asian Pacific and Hawaii (including the annual Hawaiian festival celebrating Spam -the Spam Jam festival). While celebrated today, the popularity of Spam in the region in marked by US military occupation. These are the same forces that also brought similar canned meats to Puerto Rico.

The influence of canned meats is seen in dishes like arroz con salchichas (rice with Vienna sausages), corned beef (also known as “carne beef”) and the classic party staple, “sandwichitos de mezcla“:

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Sandwiches de Mezcla – Photo by Panaderia Facciola. 

Yet, dishes like these are only a part of the culinary repertoire. More often than not, they are the go-to food in times of scarcity, a “resuelvelo todo”, as Tulip’s jingle states. To my knowledge, among the many festivals celebrated in the island throughout the year, there is no equivalent to the Spam Jam Festival in Puerto Rico. And this is not for a lack of food-related festivals! Just in the next four weeks festivals around the island will celebrate  breadfruit, longaniza, jueyes (land crabs), and molleja (sweetbread), to name a few.

The connections between Hawaii and Puerto Rico have been intriguing me for some time. Our shared, but unequal love for canned meat is another piece of this growing puzzle that started with the Borinkis’ pasteles. We are connected by a shared  insular geography and a history of US military occupation which has altered both archipelagos’ food systems, increasing the reliance on processed food sources like jamonilla. Why one is more salient in one place versus the other is still a question that remains to be answered, potentially involving a comparative look at the histories shaping the different ethnic (and food) identities in these two contexts. In the meantime, I’ll close with some “food for thought” – “Mom’s Puerto Rican Spam Flan”, a dish featured in the 2014 Spam Jam Festival that continues to connect these islands through Spam:

Mom’s Puerto Rican SPAM Flan from Buenos Antojitos. #SpamJam @spambrand @waikikispamjam @beachcomberhi (at Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Resort)

Photo by jknakas1 (tumblr) from the 2014 Spam Jam Festival. 

 

Do you have any Spam or Tulip thoughts, memories or recipes to share? 

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*The acronyms stand for three academic societies: The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS).

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

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Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting.