Living & Eating Comida Criolla in NYC: An invited talk

This past week I had the pleasure to return to one of my alma maters, Florida International University, to share my ongoing research with Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. I was hosted by Prof. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute and Professor of Anthropology at FIU. The talk, titled Living and Eating Comida Criolla in New York City, shared results from field interviews I conducted with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the city. The talk focused on the Cuban experience in NYC, as an opportunity to gather feedback from the Cuban perspective in Miami, FL:

The talk led to a fruitful conversation with the audience. Such conversation got started with a question on the distribution of Hispanic Caribbean restaurants in New York City, an interesting issue I have partly addressed in a previous post. This motivated questions about the cuisine authenticity, in light of the emergence of high-end restaurants, where these cocinas criollas are being reinvented with a higher price tag. Members of the audience also shared memories from their own migration histories, enriching my ongoing analysis of the Cuban American experience.

 

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. 

 

The Borinkis and the Pastel

It’s Christmas time, 115 years ago, in 1900. Close to sixty Puerto Ricans arrived to the shores of Honolulu, Hawai’i. The journey lasted for a month, originally consisting of  about 100 travelers. The numbers dwindled as many abandoned ship, faced with food and water shortages [1]. After the US occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898, the sugar industry was on the decline, leaving many unemployed. Puerto Rican agrarian labor was being recruited around the world, including sugar plantations on the other side of the globe, in Hawai’i.

photo of a Puerto Rican family

Puerto Rican Family in Hawai’i, 1900 (Photo: Blase Camacho Souza) [1]

Sanchez Korrol describes this migration as follows:

“Between 1900 and 1901 eleven expeditions consisting of over 5,000 men, women and children were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association to work alongside Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and Italians in the pineapple and sugar fields of those Pacific islands […] As early as 1903, 539 Puerto Rican children were enrolled in Hawaiian schools. Within three years this figure rose to 650, and there are indications that Puerto Rican women were already employed as teachers as early as 1924. Puerto Ricans constituted 2.2 percent of the Hawaiian population in 1923, just over 5,000 individuals. Despite increased outmarriage, dispersal and isolation of Puerto Rican workers throughout the islands and limited involvement with the homeland, 9,551 individuals claimed a Puerto Rican identity in the 1950 census.” [2]

Puerto Ricans in Hawai’i came to be known as the Borinkis – a name derived from Boriken, the Taino name for Puerto Rico. More than a century since their arrival, the Borinkis are part of the interesting ethnic mixture found in Hawaii. According to recent estimates, Puerto Ricans make up the largest proportion of the growing Latino population in the state, followed by Mexicans [3]. Culinary heritage is maintained and reinvented. This includes the ganduri rice (arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas), bacalao salad, and the pasteles – although Borinkis refer to these as pastele. Puerto Rican food seems to be popular in Hawai’i, especially the pastele, including a variety of “Pastele Shops”, as the one below:

The Pastele Shop - Honolulu, HI, United States. Nana hungry for some pasteles.... Me too!!

The Pateles Shop (Honolulu, HI) (Photo: Yelp)

These shops denote the shift in the traditional significance of pasteles. In Puerto Rico, more than an everyday food, pasteles, along with its inseparable accompaniment, the arroz con gandules, is typically eaten in Christmas. Granted, we do save pasteles in the freezer, spreading them out on ocassion throughout the year. Yet, it is still strongly associated with the Navidades.

Furthermore, the Borinkis have reinvented the pastel into new interesting dishes.

First, the pastele sausage. I stumbled upon a version made by Kukui Sausage Company, in Hawai’i.  The sausage contains pork, bananas, salt, black pepper, tomato paste, and achiote oil, along with sodium phosphate and sodium nitrate:

Photo: Tasty Island Hawaii [4]

Photo: Tasty Island Hawaii

Tasty Island blogger describes the sausage as follows: “My favorite, and certainly the one shining with the most character and most true to it’s labeled name is the Pastele Sausage. While I won’t say you can taste the bananas in it, there’s something about that ingredient that gives this sausage its signature flavor. It’s really hard for me to describe this, but it’s really good and taste, well, like Pastele Sausage! Shouldn’t it?” [4]

Aside from the sausage, there is also a stew. The “pastele stew” is a less labor intensive concoction, served alongside white rice. Instead of creating the rectangular dumpling filled with meat and wrapped in a plantain leaf, the stew cooks everything in a single pot – and is also served at the pastele shops:

The Pastele Shop - Honolulu, HI, United States. Stew bowl with white rice

Pastele Stew from The Pastele Shop (Photo: Yelp)

Interested in trying this at home? Follow the recipe of Auntie Bea Rodrigues, directly from Hawai’i:

And if you have tried the pastele sausage or stew, please share your stories with us!

Buen Provecho and Feliz Navidad!

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  1. Chapin, HG. “Puerto Ricans Arrive in Hawaii”, https://www.hawaiianhistory.org/time-capsules/firsts/puerto-ricans-arrive-in-hawaii/
  2. Sanchez Korrol, V. “The Story of US Puerto Ricans, Part 2”, http://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/education/puerto-rican-studies/story-us-puerto-ricans-part-two
  3. Hawaii’s Fastest Growing Population? Latinos, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/lifestyle/2013/05/08/hawaiis-fastest-growing-population-is-latinos/

  4. “Kim Chee, Pastele and Chorizo Sausages”

    http://tastyislandhawaii.com/2007/07/28/kim-chee-pastele-and-chorizo-sausages/

Habichuelas Colora’s: Red beans through time and space

Next to white rice / it looks like coral / sitting next to snow
Hills of starch / border / The burnt sienna / of irony
Azusenas being chased by / the terra cotta feathers /of a rooster
There is a lava flow / through the smoking / white mounds
India red / spills on ivory
Ochre cannon balls / falling / next to blanc pebbles
Red beans and milk / make burgundy wine
Violet pouring / from the eggshell / tinge of the plate.

“Red Beans”, by Victor Hernández Cruz, from Maraca: New and Selected Poems 1966-2000

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Red beans – habichuelas colora’s – are a staple, important dish in Puerto Rican cuisine. The dish, the name, differentiates our beans (our habichuelas) from most of the other Latin American beans (their frijoles). These beans are part of our culinary memory, making a strong connection between our palates and home, the moment the “terra cotta feathers”, the “ochre cannon balls” are savored alongside rice. In short, red beans are part of Puerto Rican traditional cuisine.

Now, while we often think of tradition as a concept fixed in time and space, traditions are constantly changing, moving with people across borders and generations. Does the moving nature of tradition translates in our plates? How is a simple dish like red beans written and recorded across time and space?

bean recipes

There are close to 100 books published on Puerto Rican cuisine. The first one, El Cocinero Puerto-Riqueño, was published anonymously in 1859. This book shows us that in these early days, the habichuelas were frijoles. It is in Cocina Criolla, the still iconic book of Puerto Rican cuisine, that the classic habichuelas rojas are presented. The non-specified spices in El Cocinero are expanded in Cocina Criolla, with the sofrito. The recipe becomes meatier, complementing lard with other animal fats coming from tocino and ham.

A few years later, and miles from Puerto Rico, the habichuelas rojas are transformed into Basic Beans in the Nuyorican kitchen, as written by Oswald Rivera in Puerto Rican Cuisine in America: Nuyorican and Bodega Recipes. Contrary to other Puerto Rican cookbooks written in the US (mainland), Puerto Rican Cuisine in America seems to establish a Nuyorican cuisine, separate from the island. As part of this, the Nuyorican identity is described, in opposition to the insular Puerto Rican identity:

“A Nuyorican most likely attends a public school or parochial school, plays stickball in schoolyards throughout the city, listens to Salsa music at home or in social clubs located anywhere from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn, enjoys baseball, probably speaks English first, Spanish second, and the Spanish he or she does know is usually an amalgam of Americanisms combined with the traditional Spanish verbs, the Spanglish of East Harlem” (p. ix).

Moreover, it also distinguishes a Nuyorican cuisine as one that “combines elements of traditional Puerto Rican cooking with infusions of new ideas and new ways of doing things inspired by the new urban environment of New York.”

How are the habichuelas colora’s translated in this new home? They become simply beans. They lost their distinguishing red color. The pumpkin is replaced with potato (although this recipe is followed by one for white beans with pumpkin). Tocino and ham are replaced by a bouillon cube. Olive oil replaced lard.

Beans are an important healthy component of Puerto Rican diets. The journey of the Puerto Rican habichuelas colora’s demonstrate how this traditional dish has moved across time AND space. Some changes seen from Cocina Criolla to Puerto Rican Cuisine in America fit recommendations by dietitians, including the use of olive oil and diminishing the use of animal products. Yet, beans are just one piece of a larger, traditional foodway that needs to be understood in its moving and changing nature. These changes and how they are perceived and interpreted are part of the bigger understanding of food systems, eating behavior and its nutritional outcomes.

Related post: Convenience, Modernity and Beans

National claims…on Mashed Plantains?

Mofongo and mangú – can this duo of mashed plantain dishes in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean tell us something about national cuisines in this regional context?

30 mofongo y mangu

In my ongoing fieldwork, these two dishes have continually been used to distinguish Puerto Rican from Dominican cuisine. However, recent interviews with Dominican informants have revealed that they, too, claim mofongo as a national dish. Personally, I have to admit that these moments have created some conflict between my role as researcher and my national identity, as Puerto Rican. The first urges me to stay calm and continue listening, while, at the same time, my Puerto Rican self wants to argue against the assertion, and reclaim mofongo as uniquely Puerto Rican. Fortunately, the researcher in me wins these battles, while also prompting me to look further into this claim.

First, let’s start with the recipes:

30 recipes

The recipes above were selected from important cookbooks identified during my fieldwork, characterized by a long publishing history and staying power among the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, respectively. In looking at Bornia’s book I see (with some disappointment) that she also has a recipe for mofongo, quite similar to Valldejuli’s, but without the additional olive oil. Cocina Criolla does not have a recipe for mangú…

As the inclusion of mofongo in the Dominican cookbook is not enough to justify claims over the dish, I continued my research, seeking to understand how this distinction is understood by others. During my search I stumbled upon the Urban Jíbaro and his blog, Sofrito in my Soul. In his post, struggling with the same dilemma, I found this video from Corona, Queens – a neighborhood known for its cultural diversity and restaurants,

The video addresses the controversial question, is mofongo from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic? The video plays with the ethnic tensions that exist between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, with mofongo at the crossroads. While mofongo is claimed, not surprisingly, by a Dominican restaurant, when the video protagonists take the question to the streets, the answers are different. Case in point: A Dominican woman who responds that mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish, adding,

“I have been here [NYC] for a long, long time, and I never had it when I lived in DR, in Dominican Republic – I had mofongo here”.  

Such response echoes those I have received from other Dominicans I have spoken with, the older generations in New York City and Puerto Rico. Interestingly, the claim for the “Dominican mofongo” has been from younger Dominicans, perhaps signaling the relatively recent introduction (and incorporation) of the dish to Dominican cuisine.

In the end, the Dominican claim on mofongo reflects the inevitable mixing of food cultures in a city like New York, where small, but perceived important distinctions between groups start to blur, melting identities (and food) as “Latino”, “Hispanic”, or (my least favorite) “Spanish”.

IMG_20140310_230800488

Mofongo, as well as mangú, share the green plantain and its African roots, marking the importance of our African heritage in our shared histories and plates:

30 fufu