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.

 

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…

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Distinguishing national cuisines in the Spanish Caribbean

Rice, bean, chicken and tostones Whose cuisine is it?

Rice, bean, chicken and tostones
Whose cuisine is it?

Growing up in Puerto Rico, rice, habichuelas (beans), mofongo, bacalao, bisté  were just foods, constant staples in my mom’s kitchen or in family gatherings. There were rare trips to fast foods. Mostly, I remember the trips to Wendy’s at the end of the school semester, when we got our grades. There was the occasional take-out my mom brought home after work. And the ever rarer visits to sit down restaurants, in very special family occasions.

I left Puerto Rico in 2001 to finish my undergraduate education in Miami. Back then, I was not familiar with the Puerto Rican community in the area. Luckily, the city’s overwhelming Cuban influence and foods eased my longings for home. But while familiar delicacies such as croquetas and cortaditos somewhat made up for the foods I missed from home, they were not enough. For the first time in life, I consciously sought out my food – Puerto Rican food: a well-made mofongo (not a Cuban interpretation), rice with red beans (not black)… Foods that were so commonplace were no longer just “comida criolla”. They became “Puerto Rican” foods, as cultural   affirmations in the midst of the well defined Cuban identity in the city.

My move to Miami came with a culinary language adjustment. I learned (most of the times the hard way) about subtle language differences, by the way our cultures named certain foods. It took some time to adjust to the “fact” that orange juice was not called jugo de china, but jugo de naranja, that beans were not habichuelas, they were frijoles, that a chicken thigh and leg was called encuentro, not simply muslo y cadera, and that bizcocho was wrong – the “correct” Spanish translation was “cake”.

Clever interpretation of jugo de china for the non-Puerto Rican.  Source: Mango Bajito, http://www.surropa.com/

Clever interpretation:
Mental image of “jugo de china” for the non-Puerto Rican.
Source: Mango Bajito, in http://www.surropa.com/

Traditional diets in the Spanish Caribbean have more things in common than differences. Depending on the situation, we might underline these differences, or point the similarities. While Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba share similar colonial pasts, different historical trajectories have resulted in the distinctions in national cuisine. While in Puerto Rico our culinary influences are the usual suspects (Taino, Spanish, African, and more recently, from the United States), Cuba has added influences from China, and the Dominican cuisine has a few Middle Eastern additions.

The Spanish Caribbean is an excellent context to understand how notions of national cuisine are constructed and sustained. How are these differences and similarities played out in the Diaspora, in a big international city like New York City? This is the question I am pursuing these days.

Please share your opinion below:

How do YOU define your national cuisine?