Some Thoughts on “Eating Healthy”

“A new year, a new you” is the ever present slogan in commercials as 2013 comes to an end. A new year means a new “reassessment” of ourselves, and who we want to be. In concordance to this, weight loss is a very popular resolution in the United States, along with eating healthy, exercise and quit smoking. Health seems to be our personal responsibility, and it is tightly linked to what we eat and what we do in our spare time.

Last month, Food and Foodways published my article, “Local Notions of Healthy Eating and National Dietary Guidelines”. The research presented in the article was guided by the questions: How do people living in poor communities define what does it mean to eat healthy?  Are these definitions on par with those established by professionals? My motivation was to bring the points of view of my informants to policy makers and food and nutrition professionals. I wanted to question the assumption that “people don’t eat healthy because they don’t know or can’t afford it.” As well as the notion that only “if they knew better and had the means, their diets (and hence their health and lives) would be improved.”

What does it mean to eat “healthy”? The answers were as expected, reviewed below and further expanded in the article:

My informants were eager to talk about the importance of homemade foods for healthy eating, and talked about the unhealthy eating behavior of “others”. However, in more (rare) candid moments they confessed to their taste for sodas, treating themselves to fast food on special occasions, and the convenience of buying a pre-packaged foods and drinks. As I wrote the article and later finished my thesis, I thought of my own use of industrialized foods, how I have never cooked fresh or even dried beans, opting for the canned variety, or how we season our food with Sazón, Maggie or Knorr, instead of using fresh herbs and spices.

I finished my work in El Salvador (along with my thesis) about a year ago. And as it happens to researchers, upon the completion of this work, new questions came to mind as well as a reassessment of my own inquiries. I have become interested in the different perceptions and social acceptance concerning the use of processed, industrialized foods – different notions concerning the modernization of food systems. In addition, I am also thinking about the different conceptualizations of “good foods”, where do these come from and how they relate – or not – to definitions of “healthy foods”. By attempting to answer the question of how are healthy foods defined and perceived in contexts of scarcity, new inquiries came up on the the role of food in our lives and the need for more empathy when discussing or teaching what it means to “eat right”.


Pasteles and Ketchup


We got our first pasteles in New York. They are in the freezer – half a dozen – waiting for a nice arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) to be paired with. We’ll eat these in Christmas. Most likely we’ll put a little bit of ketchup and pique (hot sauce) on top. Yes. I said ketchup. And I may be taking a risk confessing this. To some Puerto Ricans, eating pasteles with ketchup is a culinary aberration – an issue best understood through this music video:

Music Video: "Pasteles con Ketchup"

The song and video portrays the very interesting debate I want to explore next. 

First, what exactly are pasteles? For the non-Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking reader, the word pastel evokes the image of a pastry, in some cases a cake. Usually, we tend to explain pasteles simply as the Puerto Rican version of the tamal. If I may, pasteles are a much more complicated version. Let’s take for example the Cuban tamal as a point of comparison, using the recipe from Cuban culinary icon Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto. Her Tamal en Hoja has 11 ingredients in total and 5 steps, including cooking. In comparison, a recipe for a pastel may have as many as 22 ingredients and 33 steps. In Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla (the Puerto Rican “culinary bible”), the recipe for her Pasteles “Mamie” takes 4 pages, dividing the process in three parts: the filling (16 ingredients, 11 steps), the dough (6 ingredients, 6 labor intensive steps), and the actual construction and cooking of the pastel (16 steps, including a diagram).

From Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla: Diagram to help comprehend the way to form the pastel

Like most Puerto Ricans in my generation, I have never attempted to make pasteles. It is quite a feat and one I think most of us Puerto Rican food lovers might like to take on someday.  We rely on small entrepreneurs, mostly Puerto Rican doñitas (and some dones as well), to take on the task and sell for about $2/pastel. Finding a “pastel connection” is not a straight forward act either, but once you find your connection, you are loyal to that person. You defend their pasteles, as your own achievement on finding this connection. You recommend them and fight with others as to who can bring to the table the best ones and at the best price.

The last step in the pasteles’ preparation is to boil them for about 45 minutes. Go over the cooking time, and they are ruined. Next, you need to unwrap them, being careful of not getting burned or stained from the water with achiote hiding in the wrapping. And – finally! – the pastel is on the plate. Can you pass the ketchup?

Just bringing this condiment to the table might be a sign of disrespect. How can you ruin a pastel with ketchup after all the work someone put into making it? Now, I have to say that in thinking of this issue I realize that we put ketchup on many things: burgers, eggs, rice, steak, fried chicken, beans, alcapurrias…However, these do not come with such an outrage.

An academic take on the merging of pasteles with ketchup can bring the symbolism of this dish as the current state of Puerto Rican culture. The ingredients in the pastel, the root crops both from African ancestors and from Tainos are merged with contributions from Spain (pork) and the Middle East (garbanzo). The long process of preparing can be symbolic of our history and struggles, resulting in the very mixed Puerto Rican “race”.

Is the rejection of this new ingredient, the ketchup, a rejection on the influence of the United States in our culture?

Like ketchup on a pastel, U.S. influence in Puerto Rico has resulted in an ever increasing influx of fast food chains – and highly processed foods. This food colonization is not unique to Puerto Rico. We share this with other Latin American countries and the rest of the world. Globalization and the “Macdonalization” of diets worldwide is certainly a huge topic to be further unpacked. Is the adamant rejection of even trying pasteles con ketchup an assertion (conscious or unconscious) of Puertorriqueñidad? As some may reject pasteles con ketchup, are these same people rejecting Starbucks over the local café? Are these individuals skipping the ever increasing influx of US-based chains over the amazing array of local restaurants?

But back at the more simple argument – devoiding the conversation from the politics of our Puerto Rican identity – the pasteles are just too labor intensive, too precious to ruin with this awfully processed red sauce.  And yes, it is quite a processed product with high fructose corn syrup and unnamed “natural flavors”, as seen in a store-bought bottle.

But what if you made your own? Could changing ketchup from an imported, highly processed bottled sauce to a home-made condiment bring the opposition to at least try the combination?

A basic tomato ketchup is made out of tomato, onion, vinegar, sugar, and salt. With the help of a blender, you can make it at home. The process may take you about 30 minutes, depending on the ingredients, plus a 2+ hours of refrigeration for flavors to develop from a tomato sauce to ketchup. It is the sugar and the salt help accentuate the flavor of the pastel – that is, if used wisely. The ingredients themselves are not entirely foreign, and may even be included already in other parts of the meal.

The controversy over pasteles with ketchup is hardly settled, and may continue on for years to come. Where do you stand in the debate? Please share your own views below.

¡Feliz Navidad! 

On a comida…

Corned beef, rice and fries

Corned beef, rice and fries

What better way to start a blog called “Comida Studies” than with a photo of a Puerto Rican meal? Rice with corned beef, french fries and ketchup, topped with home-made pique (hot sauce – not shown)… This was my lunch. I digest this as I write these first words. As I do, I  think of this seemingly traditional meal. My husband cooked this. The corned beef came from Uruguay. The rice – not white, but brown, long-grained – came from India and Thailand (two different bags). The “Carne Bif” is cooked with organic cherry tomatoes and home-made sofrito (made in someone else’s home). As my body metabolizes this meal – this comforting, flavorful, calorie-dense meal – I can’t help but wonder, how can we call this a traditional Puerto Rican meal?

This simple lunch represents globalization, a combination of organic foods and conventional, ultra processed foods, a commentary on changing gender roles, and a questioning of how this dish can be traditional when none of its components have roots in Puerto Rico, or even the Spanish Caribbean. This dish, served in a modern rectangle platter, represents the many complicated issues we seek to address across multiple disciplines – nutrition, food studies, food policy, agriculture studies, just to name a few. It is then quite fitting as an aperitif to this space, to open the conversation with an unknown cyber audience, to share emerging ideas for a greater understanding of the many complicated issues this comida represents.

Buen provecho.