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

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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*.

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*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