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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

ComedoresSociales

 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,

Pescaventura

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 http://saboresdominicanos.org/ and http://www.apega.pe/index.html

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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. 

Adela

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.

Comederia

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.

lolos

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:

camisa

Thank you for reading and Happy 2018!

Weathering the Storm: A note of the event

On September 30th, 2017, Brooklyn College hosted the event, Weathering the Storm. The event started with the keynote address from the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. She arrived to the venue to a standing ovation, in a basketball ball court full with fellow faculty, students and community members, including this group that proudly displayed the flag and sang a quick parranda to the mayor during the Q&A.

I was given the amazing opportunity to chair the lunch panel, “Feeding our people” which presented an interdisciplinary look at the food crisis post-Maria, through the perspective of Puerto Rican historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra (University of Puerto Rico – Humacao) and public health nutritionist, Uriyoan Colón-Ramos (George Washington University).

Prof. Ortíz Cuadra shared his experiences during the immediate aftermath, analyzing the development of the food crisis, as things started to grow scarce and the lines for everything got longer. Prof. Colón Ramos shared results from her ongoing research assessing food aid in the aftermath of Maria, including looking into the FEMA boxes. In her presentation, Colón Ramos reminded us the importance of the nutritive quality in foods during times of crisis, especially in a context where obesity and diabetes is prevalent.

My panel was followed up by two more afternoon conversations. The first, “Race, Sex, and Disaster Response”, was a roundtable discussion bringing in psychology experts from the island and NYC, to discuss the emotional stress from the hurricane, not only in Puerto Rico, but also among the Diaspora community, waiting to hear from their loved ones. The second panel, “(Re)building Resilient Communities”, ended the event with a look to the future.

Events like this one have been happening across the city, and many other locations in the United States. They have served as a reminder of the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, tending to Mayor Yulín’s pleads, “no nos olviden” (do not forget about us). The events also serve to shed a spotlight on the underlying factors that led to the crisis, including the political situation of the island, a topic that becomes harder to avoid.

My gratitude to Brooklyn College Professors Reynaldo Ortíz-Minaya and Liv Yarrow for their amazing work of putting this event together, as well as the support from the Mellon Foundation and the City University of New York.

See this link for the complete program of the day’s event and the complete video of Mayor Yulín’s talk; and this link for a short article published by Brooklyn College reviewing the event.

“San Guivin” and #ChefsForPuertoRico

A few years ago I wrote this post, recounting memories of Thanksgiving (or “San Guivin”) in Puerto Rico. This holiday marks the commencement of the long Christmas celebration, quickly transitioning from Thanksgiving’s pavochón to the actual lechón (pork), accompanied with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and pasteles.

26 old pavo

From a past Thanksgiving meal, featuring pavochón, arroz con gandules and mofongo stuffing. 

This year, the holidays will find Puerto Rico in post-Maria reconstruction. In light of this occasion, I wanted to use this post to highlight the ongoing work of Jose Andres, World Central Kitchen and the many local chefs and volunteers assisting with this effort:

World Central Kitchen, Andrés, and their coterie of chefs and volunteers plan to serve an estimated 40,000 Thanksgiving meals this week. They plan to serve “families throughout the island including San Juan, Vieques, Naguabo, Adjuntas, Ponce, Dorado, Utuado, Aguadilla and Manatí” as well as volunteers. – From Eater.com

Photo: @chefjoseandres / Twitter (in Eater.com article)

Chef Jose Andres has provided a spotlight on the chronic food crisis in Puerto Rico. His efforts have been supported by many local Puerto Rican chefs, including: José Enrique, Enrique Piñeiro, Victor Rosado, Wilo Bennett, José Santaella, and Manolo Martinez, as well as the food truck network – Ocean Deli, High Kitchen, Lemon Submarine, Pisco Labis, El Churry, Yummy Dumplings, Peko Peko, Acai on the Go, and The Meatball Company (see here).

The work of World Central Kitchen and these chefs underscore the important role of members of the culinary sector in assisting communities in times of need. I will continue to follow their efforts and contribute to their ongoing work. If you want to join me, follow this link for more information.

Maria

My last post was a celebration of one dish that always reminds me of home, the arroz con salchichas – what I called “el arroz del resuelve.” I described the dish as “nostalgic”, a dish that I enjoy on special occasions, by choice, from my table away from home. My choice contrasts with the more usual occasions the dish is consumed – that is, during times of need and limited possibilities, such as right after a natural disaster. A few weeks after I wrote my post, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, followed, a week later, by the historical devastation brought by Hurricane Maria. Today, almost two months after, most of Puerto Rico remains without electricity and water, in what has turned out to be a humanitarian crisis with repercussions for years to come.

In an interview published by the Association for the Study of Food in Society, Puerto Rican Historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra provided an insightful historical and contemporary assessment of the ongoing crisis,

Food crises have been with Puerto Ricans through history. During the Spanish conquest, when the majority of Taino Indians were forced to work in las vetas auriferas [gold mines], reducing cassava cultivation for a long period, those who could escape to the mountains probably resorted to eating marunguey (Zamia pumila, Zamia debilisi), a poisonous tuber that the Taino had learned to use by making a bread from its roots. Older rural people followed a tradition where, once the bread was ready, it was put out in the open until it began to ferment and bugs started to eat it. Informants say the bread is then ready to eat, as the poisons have been extracted by the insects. [After hurricane Maria] it has been reported that people are using what remains on the ground–plantains, bananas, breadfruit, and other fruits as their sole daily food–eating them raw, because water, often used to boil them, is scarce. – See complete interview here

Since the hurricane, long lines have become an everyday activity. People have stood in lines for hours to enter  supermarkets, often requiring lines beforehand to get gasoline and cash. At the end of the line, people have encountered empty supermarkets, and many foods were rationed. What are people eating in these times of crisis? Ortiz Cuadra provides some insight “from the ground”,

In the long lines I have been in, while waiting for a bag of ice (only 45% of the running water system is in place and practically no electricity), I have asked this question and various women have answered “mac and cheese” with Spam (we call it jamonilla) and also with Vienna sausages.

These processed foods – the salchichas (Vienna sausages) and jamonilla (Spam) – have been provided by FEMA, as part of the controversial food aid in the island,

JoshSanchez FEMA tweet

Oct. 12, 2017 viral tweet by sports journalist Josh Sanchez. 

FEMA’s aid has been controversial in its inclusion of skittles, and other “junk foods.” The local newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported FEMA boxes including inapt products, such as packets of ketchup, cooking wine and meat thermometers. As such, Hurricane Maria has grabbed the news attention not only for the size of its devastation, but for the severe mismanagement of the recovery efforts, including the appalling (yet not surprising) mediocre response from the sitting president. Still today, the number of deaths remains unknown and rising, with hundreds still unaccounted for and the deaths continuing to accumulate as a result of the slow recovery efforts. The situation is compounded by the ongoing exodus. Two weeks after the hurricane, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were already on their way to Florida. Others are choosing New York and other various destinations across the States where families and friends continue to receive loved ones on a daily, often rotating basis. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies provide sobering estimations of the post-Maria exodus,

Between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents will leave the island annually in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. From 2017 to 2019, we estimate that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population. In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation. – See Research Brief by Melendez & Hinojosa (Oct 2017) here.

The outflow will have political and economic consequences not only for the island, but also in the United States, particularly  in Florida.

Despite the continuing crisis in the island and the consequences in the States, the news cycle has since moved on from Puerto Rico. Thankfully, many continue to work to address this chronic crisis. Of note is the work of George Washington University Public Health Nutrition Professor Uriyoan Colon-Ramos who is working to  document food aid in Puerto Rico, and develop needed nutrition guidelines in these trying times, in collaboration with people on the ground. I am also following the work of Casa Pueblo, a local organization working hard to address the electricity crisis, with the potential of bringing solar power as a sustainable solution. Community kitchens have also opened up providing needed food, including and beyond the (now concluded) amazing effort led by Chef Jose Andres in collaboration with local Puerto Rican chefs.

Still, the recovery continues to be painfully slow and quite difficult to follow from a distance. If this post inspires you to help or get involved, check out this recent Take Action article by Ariana Rosas Cardenas on The Nation, along with many others articles providing a variety of ways to help (see here and here, among others).

 

Arroz del Resuelve

Lately, I have been thinking about “nostalgic foods”, a termed coined by Viladrich to signify the “traditional staples and recipes that are transmitted, prepared, and consumed by immigrants and their families in the host country”*. For me, one such meal is arroz con salchichas (rice with sausage). It is a dish most of us ate as children in Puerto Rico, which turned into part of what Ortiz Cuadra calls the “paladar memoria” (the palate’s memories), an “intimate bond with food and diet molded by material circumstances, a mother’s cooking, the frequent repeating of various dishes and meals, and the ‘principles of taste’”**

As I write this, I stand right by the kitchen. I am waiting for lunch to be cooked. Today I prepared what I decided to call el arroz del resuelve – a hastily put together version of my nostalgic arroz con salchichas. I had the Vienna sausages in the pantry for some weeks now (maybe a few months?). I bought them on my last visit to East Harlem (El Barrio). Whenever I am in the area, I try to stop at one of the local supermarkets to stock on Puerto Rican favorites not easily found in my neighborhood. The salchichas, much like the corned beef I also bought in that last trip, have been in my pantry waiting for a moment like today.

Two days ago we returned from the last trip of the summer – a two week stint. We returned home to an empty kitchen, and a to-do list that constantly grew during our time away, preventing us for getting proper groceries at one of the nearby stores. When faced with the midday meal, I scavenged the pantry and refrigerator with the the following results:

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The original arroz con salchicha must have been an arroz del resuelve, a mixed of processed and fresh foods thrown together when faced with hunger and a lack of fresh meat. The salchichas arrived to Puerto Rico as part of the growth of the food industry after the Second World War. As explained by Ortiz Cuadra in the Glossary of Eating Puerto Rico , the salchichas “have nothing in common with European sausages. Rather, they are a processed, canned food, composed of meat by-products (from cows, swine, poultry, or even some combination of these)”. Today, I am eating the combined kind…

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My take on the recipe substituted the medium grain white rice with large grain brown rice. Years ago we stopped buying canned tomato sauce, favoring fresh tomatoes for our Puerto Rican dishes. Unfortunately today, we had to make due with spaghetti sauce. Thankfully, we always have sofrito in stock (thanks to Norma D., my mother in law), and had onions and preserved, chopped fresh garlic to complement (a tip learned from my mother). And, to add the touch of color, a pizca of sazón

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The arroz del resuelve is now done, an hour after I combined the found ingredients in the non-traditional pot…

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I added a sparkle of color with green peas as a finishing touch, along with a hint of pique de acerola – a hot sauce made from West Indian cherry, another of my nostalgic foods. Despite the changes in flavor from the brown rice and the green peas, the salchichas still provided a bite from the Caribbean home I am able to enjoy miles up north.

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Sources:
* Viladrich, A. and B. Tagliaferro (2016). “Picking fruit from our backyard’s trees: The meaning of nostalgia in shaping Latinas’ eating practices in the United States.” Appetite 97: 101-110.
** Ortiz Cuadra, C. M. (2013). Eating Puerto Rico: a history of food, culture and identity. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press