Convenience, Modernity and Beans

Convenience is a constant topic of discussion regarding modern eating habits. It is blamed for fast food consumption, and the widening of waistlines worldwide. Food habits have changed. The time spent cooking has decreased, along with the know-how. Yet, we seek to come back to simpler times, seen, for example, in the rise of Slow Food and the rediscovery of cookbooks from a recent past, among other trends.

Researching and writing about these changes in food habits, I often catch myself often lamenting about the loss of traditional cooking practices in our cultures. I stop and ponder on my own culinary practices. These introspections often take me to beans. I have never cooked beans, that is, as habichuelas guisadas. My husband has been the one in charge of cocina criolla in our home (with delectable results, thanks to my mother-in-law). Most of the beans I have eaten have been from a can, with some delicious exceptions from my mom’s kitchen. The centrality of canned (and not dried) beans in many of my plates sit as a contradiction in my mind as I write of changing food habits in the plates of others.  Recently I decided to tackle this contradiction experimentally, by cooking my first beans – dried – taken “by the hand” of Valldejuli’s recipe, Habichuelas Rosadas Secas...

Recipe & Notes Cocina Criolla 2001

It was a spur of the moment decision. I was not deterred by the need to think ahead, implied by the recipe’s first step: soaking the beans overnight. How to convert “overnight” to hours? No idea. I traded overnight for the 7 hours to be spent at the office that day. But first, how much will I’ll be making? The recipe omits the yield, and I am certain Valldejuli was not cooking for two. On the safe side and hoping for left-overs, I cut the recipe in two, relying on the internet to convert pounds to cups: 1/2 pound of dried beans=2 cups dried=2 cups (cooked).

And off I went to the office, returning around seven in the evening, to realize that I had 2 more hours of cooking time for these beans. The idea of a heavy, late dinner did not deter me either. So on to the first hour of cooking: Beans boiling along with a number of guess-timated pieces of calabaza

Next step: the sofrito! Again, no guidance on quantity. I was directed to her recipe which also had no directions on yield. The hope to use the already made sofrito in my kitchen was crushed. I had to make my own, and I improvised using a combination of fresh and frozen ingredients, forgoing the canned tomato sauce for fresh grape tomatoes, and skipping the ham and bacon. For comfort, I added about a tablespoon of the stored sofrito to the mix.

About forty minutes later, we eat! While my improvisation and guess-timates yielded good beans, they were no competition to my husband’s flavoring built and improved through experience, unconstrained by a decades-old recipe.

beans cooked

Forgoing the convenience of canned for dried beans had the added value of an improved bite, as well as no sodium, nor preservatives. Yet, the cans sit in my kitchen, conveniently waiting for a last minute decision to quench the craving for home in the plate.  As both sit side by side in my kitchen shelf, their coexistence in this space represents a decision between convenience and tradition.

Such decision, while in small proportions in my kitchen, represents, in my mind, in a small way, the struggles and complications of the continuing changing food system. We are lured by the convenience of modern foods, as we long for the traditionalism of slow cooking. Will it continue to be a struggle between the quickness of industrial modern foods and the longing for the slow authenticity of the past? Perhaps we will continue to negotiate the coexistence of these foods in our kitchens and plates, ideally in a world of food at “moderate speeds”, as coined by Sidney Mintz*.

~~~

*See Mintz, S. W. “Food at Moderate Speeds.” Fast Food / Slow Food: The Cultural Economy of the Global Food System. Ed. Wilk, R. R. New York: Altamira Press, 2006. 3-11

Advertisements

Julie and Julia, a lo Caribeño

“When I read Julie and Julia, I remembered the unopened book, as well as the [copy of the] book my grandmother brought from Cuba. My grandmother sent her sons ahead to Miami with Pedro Pan and she still had to bring that book from Cuba.  So I had to see what was in that book.”
– Cristina Gomez Pina, interviewed for WLRN, Miami, FL.

Memories of my grandmother in her kitchen, peeling yucca in her flip-flops with her hair in rollers, came flooding back as I held the book in my hands, charmed by its ugly front cover with bad drawings of tropical fruit,
– Von Diaz, quoted by Newsweek, New York, NY

The Cuban in Miami, the Puerto Rican in New York. Like Julie, of Julie & Julia, they are set to cook their way through emblematic cookery books of a recent past: Cristina cooks from Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto, and Von cooks through Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla. Von and Cristina cook from these books, perhaps at the same time, more than 1,000 miles away. They are both far from their Caribbean homelands where the first editions of the books they hold in their hands were printed. They might or might not know each other for what I know. Yet they are joined by a yearning to revisit those kitchens of the past inspired by these “Julias caribeñas.” Like Von and Cristina, I have also been inspired by these Caribbean cookery icons, although not to jump into the kitchen.

Since moving to New York City almost a year ago, I have been spending more time researching cookbooks and (frankly) less time cooking. I have been fascinated by the lives and work of Valldejuli and Villapol, as contemporaries, and highly influential women in shaping kitchens (and palates) in their countries as well as their respective Diasporas. Their writing spans across almost five decades of great changes in Cuba and Puerto Rico. They lived parallel lives, both writing and publishing cookery books since the 1950s up until the end of their lives.

The social and personal lives of these Caribbean culinary icons reflect on the historical and cultural realities the islands from which they cooked and wrote. Through their books, you can read about idealized kitchens and tables of the times. Through this, you can also notice the social and economic changes in Cuban society, in contrast with the virtual immutability of the situation in Puerto Rico. While Valldejuli was a married woman of the elite society, Villapol remained single and endured the many scarcities of post-revolution Cuba. While Valldejuli’s side project was children’s books (one of which entitled Cucuyé en la Cocina), Villapol took on teacher’s role striving to improve the eating habits of the Cuban population, writing about Cuban food and collaborating with policy makers to address food and nutrition issues in the country. These and other differences in their life stories contrast sharply with the almost identical effect they have in our minds and our kitchens, beautifully exemplified by the analogous projects of Von and Cristina. The efforts of these home-based cooks underscore the importance of these books in our culinary imagination and (I also argue) in our histories. Cocina Criolla and Cocina al Minuto are still windows into a not so distant past. The authors take us by the hand to delicious moments, real or imagined, through a journey built by their recipes, sometimes leaving us hungry in a desk, or, as it is meant to be, enjoying a wonderful meal…

beans cooked

More on this soon…

___________________________________

Related Posts: 

A Delicious Super Hero

Oh!, y ahora,  ¿Quien podra defenderme?
¡Yo! ¡El Chapulin Colorado!

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado.

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado

With these words, a new adventure of El Chapulin Colorado started each morning. This Mexican television series evokes memories of childhood to many of us who grew up in Latin American homes. I remember sitting down eating breakfast in front of the TV waiting to see the next conundrum this superhero was about to “solve”.

As a child in Puerto Rico little did I know that Chapulín was more than the name of the superhero. The term is derived from the náhuatl chapōlin, used to refer to jumping insects, such as grasshoppers. In the island we call them esperanzas which occasionally found their way to our home, seen as a sign of good fortunes to come, according to popular lore.

I still watch the show but not as often. Nowadays I enjoy the chapulín alongside a glass of mezcal

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano (Bar in Condesa, Mexico City)

These tiny critters are crunchy, with a salty and spicy taste, and light hints of lemon. And yes, their little legs may get stuck in your teeth, just as with any other food. Before reaching its place alongside a smoky and delightful glass of mezcal, they are washed, cooked in a comal, toasted and seasoned. They are also served in guacamole, tacos, or simply as a snack sold by street vendors in Mexico. Chapulines are sold alongside other insects like worms and tiny little fish similar to the ones you might find in a fishbowl.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

The idea of eating insects may evoke feelings of disgust in many of us. Insects are viewed as dangerous and dirty. Eating them, outside of their cultural context may be seen as a dare (remember Fear Factor?), or as a sign of being an adventuresome, cosmopolitan, culturally sensitive eater. Chapulines have fallen in the realm of the exotic and a “must try” alongside with Oaxaca as the foodie tourist destination identified with the traditional consumption of this insect.

Chapulines are more than a snack. They can be plagues, greatly harming food production. Eating them can be a coping mechanism to deal with their overabundance, while also bringing dietary variety and protein to rural areas (See for example, this initiative in Querétaro, Mexico). Nutritionally, chapulines are a wonderful and sustainable source of protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B.

International nutrition organisms are promoting the consumption of insects as an excellent source of protein, as they are a sustainable source of protein, compared with cattle and other common animal flesh sources. Just last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put out a report promoting the worldwide consumption of insects leading to a recent conference in the Netherlands promoting their potential to feed the world, along with a cookbook.  This new push has even generated the peer-reviewed Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, to start publication in 2015.

Could the chapulín move from an exotic accompaniment to my mezcal to the central piece of my dinner? Perhaps, with some guacamole and freshly made tortillas. Could I move beyond the toasted chapulín to stewed worms? That is another story…

Despite my current hesitation, insects are indeed part of the conversation for the future of food and for combating food insecurity. With population growth and worldwide increase in incomes, the demand for animal protein is ever increasing. The often quoted estimate of 9 billion people by 2030 along with increasing concerns over livestock production and the pollution of natural resources that comes with it calls to alternatives to our current dietary habits, and notions of what is “good” to eat. Insects can be part of the answer. Perhaps the Chapulín Colorado is a real-life hero after all.

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado – Enjoy!