Returning from Puerto Rico

I start this post in the plane. A dozen of pasteles and six mallorcas sit inside a small suitcase in the overhead compartment, while a jar of acerola jam is wrapped and saved underneath, in my checked bag. I am flying back to my current address in the “big apple”, coming from my first home, la isla del encanto. I’ve just spent 18 days in Puerto Rico, splitting time between family, tourism and work- sometimes, lines blurring between the three.

A serendipitous meeting with a professor from the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey a few months ago landed me the opportunity to give a talk at this institution, where more than 10 years ago I started my studies in Biology, at the Rio Piedras campus. The seminar, titled “Talking about Food: The healthy, the pleasurable, and the complicated”, brought together my research in El Salvador and my current work in the Spanish Caribbean, aimed at starting a different conversation around eating, nutrition and well-being.

This talk coincided with my one year anniversary as a faculty fellow in the NYU Food Studies program. This relatively new, interdisciplinary approach has allowed me to delve deeper into the many complexities we face in the act of eating, moving beyond the study of “healthy eating” to addressing the significance of food in our daily lives. More specific, the role of food in the lives of those living away from “home”, like me. Food discourses have a deep-rooted influence of nutrition. More often than not, we value food in terms of calories, deconstructing foods and meals into quantifiable pieces, namely, fat, carbs, and protein. Yet, in our daily food experiences, eating is also a source of pleasure and memory, and food is also a vehicle for social interaction and economic development.

During these past 18 days in Puerto Rico, I ate, drank, laughed, swam, tanned, rested and worked. I had amazing meals, and not so great ones, made better by the company. I bring these memories with me, inside the food packed in the overhead compartment. I’ll gradually enjoy these mallorcas for breakfast, and the pasteles for lunch or dinner, along with rice, sometime during the week. The calories and nutrient content of these foods will not matter. They signify home. Consuming those honors the local hands that prepared them, and my mom, who loving bought these for me. The sweetness of the mallorca and the meatiness of the pastel will be intensified, in my palate, by the memories and the taste of home. In these future meals, food will be memory, and eating, an act of remembering.