Jamonilla

Tulip, Tulip, jamonilla  / Deliciosa, siempre fresca / Tu la comes con el pan
Y la comes con arroz. / Tulip, Tulip, va con todo. / ¡Es el resuelvelo todo!
[Tulip, Tulip, lunchmeat / Delicious, always fresh / You can eat it with bread
And you can eat it with rice. / Tulip, Tulip, goes with everything / It’s the solve it all!]

The lyrics above are my remembered version of an 80s (or 90s) commercial for Tulip’s canned luncheon meat, jamonilla. It came back to mind after attending “The Empire of Spam” kitchen workshop a few months back, at the ASFS/AFHVS/CAFS* Annual Conference hosted by the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough.  The workshop focused on Spam as part of the Pacific culinary imaginary – discussing our perceptions about Spam while tasting it at the same time.

Empire of Spam Kitchen Workshop facilitated by (right to left): Hi’llei Hobart (New York University), Adrian De Leon (University of Toronto) and Josh Levy (Univerity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). 

Spam musibi (grilled Spam over a block of rice wrapped with nori drief seaweed). In our version, we doubled the Spam.

Much has been written about Spam (click here for a brief history). During almost eight decades of existence, the brand has gone from a soldiers’ staple during World War II to a culinary mainstay in the Asian Pacific and Hawaii (including the annual Hawaiian festival celebrating Spam -the Spam Jam festival). While celebrated today, the popularity of Spam in the region in marked by US military occupation. These are the same forces that also brought similar canned meats to Puerto Rico.

The influence of canned meats is seen in dishes like arroz con salchichas (rice with Vienna sausages), corned beef (also known as “carne beef”) and the classic party staple, “sandwichitos de mezcla“:

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Sandwiches de Mezcla – Photo by Panaderia Facciola. 

Yet, dishes like these are only a part of the culinary repertoire. More often than not, they are the go-to food in times of scarcity, a “resuelvelo todo”, as Tulip’s jingle states. To my knowledge, among the many festivals celebrated in the island throughout the year, there is no equivalent to the Spam Jam Festival in Puerto Rico. And this is not for a lack of food-related festivals! Just in the next four weeks festivals around the island will celebrate  breadfruit, longaniza, jueyes (land crabs), and molleja (sweetbread), to name a few.

The connections between Hawaii and Puerto Rico have been intriguing me for some time. Our shared, but unequal love for canned meat is another piece of this growing puzzle that started with the Borinkis’ pasteles. We are connected by a shared  insular geography and a history of US military occupation which has altered both archipelagos’ food systems, increasing the reliance on processed food sources like jamonilla. Why one is more salient in one place versus the other is still a question that remains to be answered, potentially involving a comparative look at the histories shaping the different ethnic (and food) identities in these two contexts. In the meantime, I’ll close with some “food for thought” – “Mom’s Puerto Rican Spam Flan”, a dish featured in the 2014 Spam Jam Festival that continues to connect these islands through Spam:

Mom’s Puerto Rican SPAM Flan from Buenos Antojitos. #SpamJam @spambrand @waikikispamjam @beachcomberhi (at Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Resort)

Photo by jknakas1 (tumblr) from the 2014 Spam Jam Festival. 

 

Do you have any Spam or Tulip thoughts, memories or recipes to share? 

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*The acronyms stand for three academic societies: The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS).

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

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Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting.