Christmas in the New World

After months at sea, Columbus and his crew sighted land in October of 1492. Continuing the exploration, they landed in Haiti’s port, naming it the port of Saint Nicholas in honor of the date of the landing – St. Nicholas Day, December 6. Christmas Eve 1492 found Christopher Columbus and his crew in the New World, amid a ship wreck, after the Santa Maria got stuck in a sand bank. The men were left without a place to stay, among the natives in a very far away land – today’s Haiti.

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Approximate location of the Navidad Fort, constructed by the Spaniards after the shipwreck, near the location of the first Christmas in the Americas (Today’s Haiti)

They were aided and saved by the Cacique Guacanagarix. He offered his town as refuge and provided shelter and a Christmas meal to the crew. Most likely, that first Christmas meal included cassava bread (shown below), along with indigenous animal protein, like river shrimps, lambi (conch), cotorras (parrots), or perhaps meat from a manatee.  

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Columbus meeting Guacanagarí. Image from the Fundación García Arévalo, Santo Domingo (Source: Florida Museum, “En Bas Saline”)

More than five centuries later, pork is now emblematic of Christmas in the Hispanic Caribbean, as lechon a la vara o puerco en pulla. The animal was brought by the Spaniards a year after that first Navidad, in 1493, cooked with the Taino culinary technique, the barabicú, which the Spanish then called barbacoa.

Christmas in the Americas has since evolved, with traditions from the Spaniards and the subsequent English settlers. The story of that first Navidad has been mostly lost to history.  Today, many migrants will be celebrating this important holiday without a home, much like the shipwrecked Spaniards in the coast of Haiti back then. However, they might not be as lucky to enjoy the same hospitality and generosity, as that provided by Cacique Guacanagarix centuries ago. 

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This post was inspired by the article, “La primera Navidad en America” by Maria Acevedo for Fundacion Sabores Dominicanos, complemented with information on that first Christmas and the Cacique Guacanagarix.   

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Remembering “La Guagua Aérea”

Imagine a plane ride from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport  in a 1960s December night.  The passengers are a mixed bag of travelers, including American tourists and business men, along Puerto Ricans returning to the city, or arriving for the very first time in search of a new life. Such flight is the premise to the tragic-comedy, “La Guagua Aérea” (Air Bus), a 1993 movie based on the book of the same title, written by Luis Rafael Sánchez, dubbed “A Flight of Hope.”

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The movie depicts what could have been one of the many flights transporting Puerto Ricans to the city during the Great Migration. Planes substituted steamships, and were starting to become akin to buses (guaguas) for many moving back and forth between the island and the city. Sanchez uses humor to explore the Puerto Rican experience as members of a nation “on the move,” including sentiments of hope mixed with nostalgia for the land and the people left behind, as well as the anxiety of the unknown.

My favorite scene is that of the cabin food service. Unlike today’s airplane experiences, cabin service back then included food. “Dinner” in this fictitious flight was a ham and cheese sandwich, with a pickle hidden inside. For most of the Puerto Rican passengers in the flight, this was the first encounter with such meal. While the American passengers enjoy the sandwich, Puerto Ricans start exploring the meal in front of them. Some take the sandwich apart, smelling the pickle with gestures of puzzlement and disgust.

Baja la caja. Baja la caja!” (take the box down) – A wife murmurs to her husband seating beside her, also struggling to comprehend the cold sandwich. He hesitates, but complies. He takes out a cardboard box from the overhead compartment. Inside – a caldero (cauldron) with arroz con gandules, topped with a plantain leaf (or “apastela’o“). The caldero traveled from the island’s countryside to satisfy a nostalgic craving of a family member already living in the city. Unfortunately for him, the caldero is shared among the passengers – happily accepted by Puerto Ricans, while being effusively rejected by the American passengers.

The generous act is contagious – starting an impromptu potluck celebration, as another passenger reveals a fiambrera filled with piononos (a sweet and savory dish, made from long slice of sweet plantain rolled with ground beef and fried).

Distributing food in La Guagua Aerea

Snapshot from food scene in La Guagua Aerea (Source: YouTube)

The feast grows. As it is Christmas, someone takes out a bottle of coquito, served alongside arroz con dulce (coconut rice pudding)- a classic dessert combination of the holiday season. The sharing of food quickly transitions to a full party. To the dismal of the American passengers (and the Puerto Ricans who wished to be like them), the meal is further “seasoned” with a parranda, as passengers unpack a variety of traditional instruments from their carry on bags.

December and January are prime travel times for those of us to travel back “home” to celebrate the holidays with family and loved ones.  Many of our bags will return full of our favorite foods. Most likely, I’ll bring back my beloved mallorcas, and a few culantro leaves from my in-laws’ backyard. I might try to sneak in some pitorro, and frozen home-made sofrito. Granted, these transports are becoming more difficult thanks to TSA rules, but we  all give it a try!

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Snapshot from La Guagua Aerea (Source: YouTube), an overflowing bag, including bags of rice and cooking equipment

In the end, times are not that different from those depicted in La Guagua Aerea. These days, Puerto Ricans are moving to the States in comparable or larger numbers as those seen in the Great Migration. The plane continues to serve as a guagua (bus), with many continuing to move back and forth, depending on life and personal circumstances. While the prime destination has changed from New York to a variety of other places (such as Orlando, FL), the sentiment might still be the same. The trek across the ocean continues to be a “flight of hope”

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The movie is available in YouTube: See this link to enjoy.

The turkey, a vehicle for cultural exchange

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I associated eating turkey with Thanksgiving (AKA El Dia del Pavo or “Turkey Day”), a celebration that came to the island through the influence of the United States. Yet, as I carried out research in Mesoamerica, it quickly became evident that the turkey is “All American,” in the truest meaning of the demonym. This year’s “Sanguivin” post is dedicated to the star of the holiday: the Meleagris gallopavo – the bird at the center of this “All American” holiday celebration.

thanksgiving postcardMentions of guajolotes, chompipes, guanajos, and, of course, pavos, are present across different Latin American cookbooks and menus. These various Spanish translations for turkey denote the importance of the bird in the Americas, much beyond the United States. The Meleagris gallopavo was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, as an important source of protein. The Mexican term for the bird, the guajolote, comes from the Náhuatl “huexólotl,” refering to the bird as a big monster, for the male’s large size and feathers. The bird was even associated with the god Tezcatlipoca, and deities of  the sun and life.

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Guajolote representations from Mexico (Image from Jareni Ayala, in “Guajolote, símbolo milenario de nuestra cultura“)

Since its domestication in the Americas about 2000 years ago, turkeys have moved across continents. When the Spanish conquistadors met the guajolote, they took it back to Spain as the gallina de las Indias and later calling the bird pavo. The bird became a dish of nobility, spreading across Europe. The bird arrived to England via Turkey, resulting in the English name of the bird from its mistakenly identified country of procedence. A century after the Spanish took the bird across the pond, the English colonist brought the Europeanized bird back to its native continent, to Eastern North America – the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving meal.

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‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914)

While the reality of the meal and the colonial times in which it took place is darker than its feel-good meaning today,  the traditional Thanksgiving feast is an important part of the United States’ origin story. For newcomers, the meal represents an opportunity to participate in the cultural festivities of the new home, as part of the journey of becoming “American.”

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Source: Tenement Museum Instagram (11/22/2018), featured in a recent NYT piece on first Thanksgivings

The turkey serves as a vehicle for adaptation, being prepared with traditional flavor principles by the diversity of cultures that celebrate the holiday in the United States, flavored with extra garlic, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, or even mofongo stuffing, just to name a few. The bird may even be replaced by tofu, while still retaining its name and shape (almost)…

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Photo: I Love Vegan blog (see post and tofurky recipe here)

The turkey’s circular journey across the globe has much to teach about the formation of food traditions, in spite of geographical borders. The bird served as a cultural ambassador of sorts from the New World to the Old World. Today, in some ways, the turkey continues to fulfill a similar role, serving as a vehicle for cultural exchange, but with its production at a large scale today, providing access to the masses – a far cry from the exclusive consumption during its early days as a European luxury bird.

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Photo: University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services (Commercial poultry)

Sources / Further reading:

On Cuba’s ration book (from Repeating Islands)

Like many things in Cuba, food is a complicated subject. Variety is lacking, yet Cubans have an assured minimum food supply through the “libreta” – the Cuban ration book. The libreta was implemented after the 1959 Cuban Revolution as a way to equalize all citizens through food. In the beginning, the libreta covered most necessities. With time, items have been gradually eliminated from the libreta. Today, the libreta is used for bare necessities, prompting Cubans to supplement through the regular market. Moreover, there are ongoing conversations regarding phasing out the libreta, and replacing it with a more targeted safety net program. While the subject is not yet settled – changes will come sooner or later. This post from Repeating Islands provide an updated take on current debates on the faith of the libreta.

Repeating Islands

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A report by Hector Velasco for the Agence France Presse.

From one end of the island to the other, every Cuban can be sure of one thing: Their ration book, or “libreta,” will put at least the basics on their table at dinner time. When President Raul Castro tried several years back to do away with this enduring symbol of both equality and scarcity, he failed.

Next February, Castro, younger brother of the late revolutionary leader Fidel, will step down, and there is little sign that the ration book will go anywhere before he does.

Behind his failed effort was the major challenge facing whoever takes over running the Communist island once he steps down: how to open up the economy without a return to capitalism?

Is the ration book the greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution, or its most inefficient burden? The booklet encapsulates two very different views…

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Some Thoughts on “Eating Healthy”

“A new year, a new you” is the ever present slogan in commercials as 2013 comes to an end. A new year means a new “reassessment” of ourselves, and who we want to be. In concordance to this, weight loss is a very popular resolution in the United States, along with eating healthy, exercise and quit smoking. Health seems to be our personal responsibility, and it is tightly linked to what we eat and what we do in our spare time.

Last month, Food and Foodways published my article, “Local Notions of Healthy Eating and National Dietary Guidelines”. The research presented in the article was guided by the questions: How do people living in poor communities define what does it mean to eat healthy?  Are these definitions on par with those established by professionals? My motivation was to bring the points of view of my informants to policy makers and food and nutrition professionals. I wanted to question the assumption that “people don’t eat healthy because they don’t know or can’t afford it.” As well as the notion that only “if they knew better and had the means, their diets (and hence their health and lives) would be improved.”

What does it mean to eat “healthy”? The answers were as expected, reviewed below and further expanded in the article:

My informants were eager to talk about the importance of homemade foods for healthy eating, and talked about the unhealthy eating behavior of “others”. However, in more (rare) candid moments they confessed to their taste for sodas, treating themselves to fast food on special occasions, and the convenience of buying a pre-packaged foods and drinks. As I wrote the article and later finished my thesis, I thought of my own use of industrialized foods, how I have never cooked fresh or even dried beans, opting for the canned variety, or how we season our food with Sazón, Maggie or Knorr, instead of using fresh herbs and spices.

I finished my work in El Salvador (along with my thesis) about a year ago. And as it happens to researchers, upon the completion of this work, new questions came to mind as well as a reassessment of my own inquiries. I have become interested in the different perceptions and social acceptance concerning the use of processed, industrialized foods – different notions concerning the modernization of food systems. In addition, I am also thinking about the different conceptualizations of “good foods”, where do these come from and how they relate – or not – to definitions of “healthy foods”. By attempting to answer the question of how are healthy foods defined and perceived in contexts of scarcity, new inquiries came up on the the role of food in our lives and the need for more empathy when discussing or teaching what it means to “eat right”.