Lerenes: Ancient tubers in the local market

calathea allouia

Calathea Allouia
Source: http://plantillustrations.org

Part of the beauty of visiting local marketplaces, such as the Plaza del Mercado in Rio Piedras, is re-discovering traditional and often forgotten foods. In this light, I want to dedicate this week’s post to the Guinea arrowroot – known in Puerto Rico as Lerenes. Their scientific name is Calathea allouia and around the Americas they are known by many other names and in different languages. In English-speaking areas, it is also known as sweet corn root, topeetampo, topi-tamboo, and topinambour. In Spanish, it is called dale dale in Peru, and agua bendita or cocurito in Venezuela. Lerenes are also known as aria or làirem in Brazil. [Source: J.E. Hernandez Bermejo & J. Leon (eds) 1994 “Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective”.]

Lerenes and Plantains - Plaza del Mercado (Rio Piedras, PR)

Plantains & Lerenes  at the Plaza del Mercado (Rio Piedras, PR)

During my visit to the Plaza del Mercado, we bought a pound of lerenes – On sale: $3/pound, down from $3.50. We spent some time at the stand, talking about the lerenes and the other products available at the market. During this time, I was able to observe other patrons at the produce stand as they joined me with a similar purchase, making comments that showed their excitement and surprise at finding these tubers in the market.

Once in the kitchen, the lerenes were cleaned and boiled in salted water. After an hour, they were finally ready to eat. I was instructed that traditionally, the skin is peeled off after cooking, before consuming – and so I did. While it can be done by hand, peeling lerenes is time consuming. After a few, I just ate them with the skin on, just as I do with potatoes. I liked the flavor and texture, even of the unpeeled ones. The lerenes taste is a cross between the starchy, creamy flavor of potatoes and the sweetness of corn, with a nice crunchy texture.

I tried lerenes as an appetizer, eating them in the seemingly traditional manner. Sitting at the kitchen counter and eating this root made me think of older times. Perhaps, decades ago, in rural Puerto Rico, families would sit around a bowl of freshly picked, boiled lerenes, peeling and eating them along with conversations about their days or perhaps catching up on the community gossip. While a rare, local treat for me, it was a basic sustenance crop for rural families of the times, and still may be among present-day rural Latin American communities.

Lerenes have been cultivated by indigenous populations in the tropical Americas for about 7,000 years. The book “Buried Treasures: Tasty tubers of the world” (B. Hanson (ed) 2007) suggest two possibilities for the English name, Arrowroot. One possibility is that the name derived from the Arawak term Aru-Aru, meaning “meal of meals”, denoting the importance of this tuber in the indigenous diet. A second possibility comes from the use of the plant to treat poisonous arrow wounds. Centuries later, lerenes have survived, although with a much minimized role in our diets. Luckily, they are still available thanks to the efforts of small-scale farmers who cultivate this root alongside other crops and to those who support their local products. With this, I can only hope to have encouraged you to venture to your local market: Support local agriculture and discover unknown culinary treats along the way.

“Vamos muchachos a buscar lerenes
Palos van y palos vienen”
– Estribillo de Vejigantes (Puerto Rico)

My thanks to A. Espada, L. Espada, and E.V. Rivera for their help in this post.

A Walk Through the Plaza del Mercado

Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Today I concluded a short family visit to Puerto Rico with a stroll along the Plaza del Mercado in Rio Piedras, a district of San Juan. The Plaza is located in the downtown area, amid a busy commercial area. Upon entering the Plaza, the smell of meat from the butcher shops hits you. You encounter a few rows of small shops selling different goods, with attendants ready for a sale. Of course, there are fruits and vegetables. Local produce is labeled, sitting alongside imported  goods. We bought avocados, pumpkin, and lerenes (Guinea Arrowroot, a native root crop). Butcher stands display several types of feet – cow’s, pig’s and chicken’s – with a few kinds of dried fish, mostly the traditional bacalao (codfish), along with other cuts of meat. You also find botánica stands, selling candles, herbs and other goods for your corporal and spiritual health (along with other purposes). There are a also stands selling lottery tickets.

Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras

Outlining the small maze of shops, there are clothing stores, a barbershop, a multi-purpose doctor’s office, and other varieties of goods and services. In the heart of the Plaza you find the food court,  with traditional offerings including morcilla (blood sausage), pork, rice, beans, seafood turnovers, and other varieties of tasty and calorie-dense Puerto Rican dishes. You also find traditional food from the Dominican Republic, such as mangú, reflecting the changing demographic in the area, and creating the wonderful Spanish Caribbean plate I had for lunch.

Lunch: Pork, baked ripe plantain, mangu, and morcilla, with a cold Kola Champagne.

Many urban centers in Puerto Rico have their Plaza del Mercado. Sadly, their use has been in decline as people opt for air conditioned supermarkets and, more recently, wholesale stores, like Costco and Sams. At the same time, there is a growing interest in local agriculture and locally produced goods, especially among the youth. Artisan products, such as jams, soaps, coffee, and beer, are more prevalent and accessible.

Sample of vendors from the Mercado Agricola Natural in Old San Juan (Photo taken from: "Nuestros Agricultores y Placeros", www.mercadoagricolanatural.com.

Sample of vendors from the Mercado Agricola Natural in Old San Juan (Photos taken from: “Nuestros Agricultores y Placeros”, http://www.mercadoagricolanatural.com)

According to some informal conversations, this (still small) increase in local production seems to be fueled by the harsh economic times, and the need for innovation when faced with an ever increasing unemployment and lack of other opportunities. Local production is also receiving some help (although maybe not enough) from the local Department of Agriculture, through various small initiatives, including education for farmers and consumers. As a result, the few Plazas del Mercado left in the island are now accompanied by a growing number of farmer’s markets, some catering to the “organic/natural”consumer, while others target welfare recipients. Urban agriculture is slowly rising, starting in people’s homes. In addition, new high-end restaurants are shedding a spotlight on fresh, local produce.

These are just a few initial observations. There is much to learn about the evolving Puerto Rican food system. While some might opt for the convenience of the supermarkets and wholesale stores, there is still a place for the small producer in the market. Further attention to the agriculture sector has the potential to improve the social and economic situation in the island. More will be explored in future entries…any comments, ideas, or information to further this conversation would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks to E.V. Rivera and A. Espada  for their help in preparing this post.

Food, Prestige and the Breadfruit

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Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is a wonderful food. It is a staple in the Pacific and the Breadfruit Institute, part of Hawaii’s National Tropical Garden, highlights its potential in helping fight hunger and ameliorate environmental issues worldwide.

Agriculturally, breadfruit is a high yielding tree, producing 50-150 fruits a year. Its tree can be used for construction, medicine, and even its flower can serve as a mosquito-repellentNutritionally, breadfruit is low in saturated fat, full of fiber, and a good source of calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamin C. Gastronomically – it depends on who you ask.

If you ask me, Breadfruit is a delicacy, a wonderful treat. In Puerto Rico, we call this delicious green ball “pana” – a word we also use to refer to a dear friend. In the town of Humacao, on the east coast of the island, a weekend festival is dedicated to this fruit, El Festival de la Pana. There, a magnificent mountain view of the island’s east coast serves as a backdrop for the culinary and artistic creativity of the festival’s hosts who prepare varied iterations of this food, including flan, wine, sangria, chips, cake…along with music, crafts, and even food art.

Mostly, we eat pana fried (tostones, mofongo) or boiled – pretty much anything you can do with a plantain or a root crop, you can make with a pana. Below, a few images from the preparation of tostones de pana, from a recently picked Puerto Rican breadfruit this week (Gracias, Angel!):

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While our culinary appreciation for breadfruit is shared by some of our West Indian neighbors in the Caribbean, in our sister Spanish-speaking countries, Cuba and Dominican Republic, our pana, our friend, is seen with different eyes. From a desired, traditional food, breadfruit becomes fruta de pan, commonly used as pig or livestock feed. Anecdotal accounts describe how breadfruit was left to rot in Cuba, even during the difficult period of the 1990s known as the Special Period in Times of Peace. Less extreme (but similar) perceptions are found in other Latin American countries, where breadfruit is called pan de pobres (poor people’s bread), among other names, and eaten only in times when there is nothing else left.

Breadfruit is thought to be native of New Guinea. It was brought to the Caribbean to feed slaves, and, on occasions, it was rejected by them. Such past and current rejections, even in times of hunger, underscore the cultural specificity concerning which foods are good enough to eat. It also points to the necessity of understanding the different notions and experiences of food insecurity, scarcity and hunger, even in culturally and historically close contexts. In this case, how has breadfruit transitioned from a slave food to a beloved fruit in Puerto Rico and to a low prestige, non-human food in Cuba, Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries?

Society a la Valldejuli

Ha llegado inesperadamente un amigo, el cual se quedará a comer. ¡¡¡Qué problema!!! ¡¡¡Qué aturdimiento!!!

Y a esto yo contesto: ¡Nada de eso! Manos a la obra, y mientras el esposo lo obsequia con un “cocktail” o “highball”, nosotras hábilmente, sin carreras ni precipitaciones, preparamos un menú sencillo y atractivo.

– Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, Ideas de Menus para Invitados Inesperados in “Cocina Criolla” 

Family listening to the radio in a rural home in Puerto Rico, circa 1950. Source: Colección Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín.

Family listening to the radio in a rural home in Puerto Rico, circa 1950. Source: Colección Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín.

The 1950s was a period of economic, societal and political changes in Puerto Rico. The decade brought the establishment of Puerto Rico’s current political status as a commonwealth of the U.S., and the adoption of its constitution and flag. This was also an era of political turmoil and government repression.

Amidst these changes, Carmen Aboy Valldejuli published the first edition of Cocina Criolla, in 1954. This cookbook has been used and cherished by many through different generations, this despite other cookbooks written during that time (including the 1950 Cocine a Gusto) and since then. Why is Valldejuli’s book the one with staying power in our culinary imaginations?

The Valldejulis Photo by Ramon Aboy Miranda, from the back cover of Puerto Rican Cookery (1975)

The Valldejulis
Photo by Ramon Aboy Miranda, from the back cover of Puerto Rican Cookery (1975)

We don’t find much written about Valldejuli’s life, aside from the autobiographical notes in her books and a few newspaper articles. Valldejuli was born in 1912 (or 1918), less than two decades after the 1898 United States occupation of Puerto Rico. Born into the well known Aboy family, her privileged upbringing kept her out of the kitchen. She lived in a home with plentiful servants and a father who enjoyed fine food. In her twenties, she married another man who loved fine food, Luis Valldejuli. A ponceño who became her life and business partner, even co-authoring a book together titled Juntos en la Cocina.

The Valldejulis loved entertaining and enjoying the company of others over food. An article from the Milwaukee Journal in 1968 cites Mr. Valldejuli as saying, “When I come home, I never know how many people I’m having for dinner”. This love for entertaining is reflected in her book. She dedicates a chapter to the requirements of the formal dinner, including indispensables such as guests, a table and chairs, and specific guidance concerning the help, “competent” and “appropriately uniformed”, among other things. Valldejuli also offers tips on what to do with unexpected dinner guests, mostly a quick menu from different canned and jarred foods. Was Mrs. Valldejuli the one opening the cans and preparing the snacks for the unexpected guests?

The same 1968 Milwaukee Journal article, describes the Valldejuli home and kitchen. A “large glass front living room” opens to the terrace. Walls are decorated with Spanish fans, antique lace and modern paintings. The kitchen is large, perhaps matching the “imposing” 16 foot black mahogany dining table. In the kitchen we find Francisca Falu, mentioned in passing, almost as an accessory.

Ms. Falu had been with the family for 30 years (by 1968) and she was the one in charge of doing the family cooking. I had heard of Francisca before, as the black woman in Valldejuli’s kitchen, but I have not been able to find any other documentation about her aside from that short reference in the Milwaukee Journal. A web search revealed a social security record of a Francisca Falu-Torres born in the Virgin Islands in September 26, 1913 and dying in Puerto Rico, August 23, 2006, at 92 years of age, with her last residence in Santurce, PR. Was this the same Francisca in the Valldejuli’s kitchen? What stories could she have shared about the culinary life of the “Puerto Rican Julia Child”? Was she a part of the cookbook writing process?

I have spent many hours with the first and last editions of Cocina Criolla (1954 and 2001, respectively). This exercise has sparked many questions about the author and the book in its historical context. Valldejuli is an important part of the culinary memory and imagination of the Puerto Rican community in the island and abroad. Yet not much is known about her, her culinary influences, how she finally learned to cook, or where these recipes came from. Taking her recipes and dinner party instructions alongside the economic and political realities of Puerto Rico in the 1950s inevitably bring the picture of two different worlds in the same small island.

Cocina Criolla, 1954 & 2001 editions

Cocina Criolla, 1954 & 2001 editions

Despite the many changes in Puerto Rico since the 1950s, Cocina Criolla has remained virtually unchanged throughout the decades. While Valldejuli does not ask us to pluck chickens in the 2001 edition, she still asks us to open coconuts. Some people follow her instructions with very delicious results, but not me. In all honesty, I have only made one recipe from the book, Bizcocho de Chinas (Orange cake), the orange juice version. And I certainly do not have plans of cooking my way through Cocina Criolla (a la Julie and Julia). Why have I not cook more from this book? That is certainly the topic of another, future post.

In the meantime, please share your own experiences (or lack of experience) with Valldejuli (or your own national culinary icon).