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.

 

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

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?