Adela

It was a hot and humid August morning. Adela sat in the back of her restaurant, peeling potatoes, with only a small fan to appease the heat. The TV was tuned to Telemundo, with Elvis Crespo singing for Monica Puig, the Puerto Rican tennis player who days before had just won the first gold medal for the island at the Olympics in Rio. Pepe, a mutual friend and local community leader, introduced us. She smiled, turning back to her potatoes and television show. By the time we arrived, she had already been working for a couple of hours, making the necessary prepping for the day’s service. The smell of garlic, mixed with oregano and onion, forming the sofrito base, filled the air announcing to regulars and passersby that something delicious is being prepared. We sat at her table, and Pepe got the conversation started by asking Adela about her early days in the city.

Adela first came to New York City in 1971 for a visit. Back then, she worked as a seamstress in Puerto Rico, later transitioning to working with her mother, selling fiambreras (lunch boxes) to factory workers. She moved to New York City around 1975. When I asked why she moved, she replied with a smile, “Ese salto lo da todo el mundo que quiere progresar” [That leap is made by everyone who wants to progress in life]. Upon arrival, she worked as a cook, but quickly transitioned to establishing her own place. She rented her first restaurant, El Caribe, in the West Side, which she later bought from the Cuban owner. When the building was condemned, she moved her business to the Lower East Side, where she later established Casa Adela in 1976. While an exact timeline of life events and places was not specified, the one thing that was clear while talking with her was the entrepreneurial success. At one time, she recalled owning three establishments, with the goal of passing two of them to her children. However, she ended up selling two of them, with her children being actively involved in the running Casa Adela today.

Casa Adela is one of the few truly authentic Puerto Rican restaurants in the city, and an important community landmark in the Lower East Side. As she recounted, “he estado por 40 años aquí. He corrido las cuatro esquinas y acabe aquí”. In those early years, there were more Puerto Rican establishments in the area. The local restaurants, such as hers, served as places for late night meals after nights of drinking among the local artistic community. Some of them were starving artists, which Adela fed at little or no cost. Nuyorican AmeRícan poet Tato Laviera was among her faithful clients. His love for Adela’s mondongo (tripe soup) is recorded in his poem, “criollo story”:

i was drunk, sunday morning/ sitting at tompkins square park/ i was drummed-all-night […] i was so drunk i could not even laugh/ and then salvation time/ “for you, mira, mondongo”/ i thought tyrone was goofing on me/ “you look like a mondongo yourself”/ “no, no, not you, mira, i mean, HUMERA/ for HUMERA, mondongo, bro, adela,/ she opens at five o’clock, let’s / eat some of that tripe”
we walked into adela’s five-/ thirty morning mountain smell/ of madrugada simmering concrete/ puerto rican new york radio JIT/ cuatro-music, recordado a borinquen/ songs made famous by don santiago/ grevi, and the crushed plantains/ bollitos rounded boricua matzo all/ around cleaned vinaigrette tripe/ and patitas de cerdo pig feet, softened to a melted overblown/ delicacy, brother, and i tell you that/ down went the russian vodka/ the alcohol disappear with/ bites of calabaza-pumpkin pieces/ and the one hundred proof bacardi/ was choked by un canto de yautia/ tubers that were rooting the european/ dry red wine into total decolonization/ and the broth, brother, EL CALDO/ condimented garlic onions/ peppered with whole tomatoes/ that were melted by the low/ heat, ese caldo was woefully/ seducing the jamaican liquors/ into compatibility, and down/ went the BORRACHERA bro and/ […]
–  excerpt from “criollo story”, in Tato Laviera’s AmeRícan

Today, the establishment still serves as a must-stop for Puerto Rican and other Latino celebrities who live or visit the city – a testimony of her continued role in the community and the iconic status of her restaurant. Visits are documented and displayed in the restaurant wall as well as on the Facebook page. Days before our meeting, she had the visit of Iris Chacón – the Puerto Rican dancer, singer and entertainer nicknamed “La Vedette de América”. “No comió mucho,” Adela recalled, “porque tiene que cuidar su figura…¡El esposo se dio una jartera!” [She did note at much because she has to care for her figure. The husband stuffed himself!]

Image source: Facebook (Casa Adela)

As our conversation progressed, she moved effortlessly from peeling potatoes to carrots, and then plantains. I offered to help, to which she declined, cleverly saying, “Tú no los vas a pelar como yo” [You will not peel them like I do]. And she was right! We spoke about the food served in the restaurant, which she described as “lo que se come en Puerto Rico” [what people in Puerto Rico eat], including rice, habichuelas, meat, bistec, and chicken. Speaking about the rotisserie chicken the New York Times called “magical”, she recounted that in the early days,  “no tenia la maquina (de rotisserie), lo hacía al horno” [I did not have the rotisserie machine, I made it in the oven]. Other staples in the menu include pernil and carne frita. She never served cuchifrito, in the true definition of the food (that is, fried pig parts), but she does serve fried foods, such as relleno de papa. She used to make pasteles for Christmas, but now she buys them from someone, “que es boricua”, that is Puerto Rican, as she specified. She used to offer tasajo (“pero ahora está caro”) and the gandinga. On rare occasions, she would make the celebrated mondongo, but not so often any more, as “la toalla no se consigue” [the tripe is not easy to find]. Her son procures the ingredients for her restaurant from a vendor in New Jersey or at the nearby Essex Market, where one can still buy pig or cow’s feet. She recalled occasions when she would bring food from Puerto Rico, such as the sought-after pana, (breadfruit). “Antes,cuando no cobraban por las maletas, yo traía. ¡Una vez traje una maleta llena de pana! Ya no.” [Before, when airlines could not change for bags, I would bring breadfruit. One time I brought a full suitcase! Not anymore]. As such, the tostones de pana are a rare occurrence, only available to those in the inner circle lucky enough to stumble in the restaurant that day.

Adela – at 80-years-young – worked every day, from around 6am, at times, until 9 or 10pm, taking a month-long vacation to Puerto Rico or Florida just once a year.  While talking about her daily work, she reflected about her legacy, and the hope that her family would carry it on. Her cooks have been carefully trained on her sazón and ways in the kitchen. Her son and daughter are actively involved in the restaurant. Additionally, she mentioned her grandson is studying in culinary school, but playfully remarked, “Es vago. Siempre quiere que le cocine yo”. To which I replied, “Who would not want you to cook for them?” Our conversation carried on for more than two hours, amidst her continually monitoring the kitchen and the TV. There was a brief pause when the horoscope came on. Adela directed her attention to the TV, grabbing the pen from my hand to write down some notes as the astrologer, Walter Mercado, spoke – going sign by sign, using what seemed to be Tarot cards to predict the good fortune, in one way or another, for all of us, irrespective of the sign.

As lunchtime approached, I feared I was overstaying my welcome. I thanked her for her generosity and time, promising to return soon, to which she responded with a smile, “¡Puerto Rico invita!” I will forever be grateful for the morning I spent with Adela, and for her hard work maintaining a little piece of Puerto Rico in the Lower East Side for new generations to enjoy.

Image source: Instagram (Casa Adela)

Adela passed away last week. Her wake was held a few blocks from her restaurant, filled by probably hundreds of community members who stood in line in a wintery night, waiting to pay their respects to this amazing woman. She was beautifully dressed, surrounded by flowers, family, friends, and many like myself, who simply came along to thank her for the meals and memories build in what felt like a home – Casa Adela.

——

My gratitude to Iyawó Pepe Flores for making my conversation with Adela possible.

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¡Feliz Navidad!

Wishing you all a happy holiday, by sharing one of the quintessential dishes of the season: Arroz con gandules, ¡apastela’o!

Rice cooked with pigeon peas, sofrito, and pieces of ham, covered with a plantain leaf, like a pastel (hence, “apastela’o”).

More to come next year! Happy 2018 and thanks for reading!

Arroz del Resuelve

Lately, I have been thinking about “nostalgic foods”, a termed coined by Viladrich to signify the “traditional staples and recipes that are transmitted, prepared, and consumed by immigrants and their families in the host country”*. For me, one such meal is arroz con salchichas (rice with sausage). It is a dish most of us ate as children in Puerto Rico, which turned into part of what Ortiz Cuadra calls the “paladar memoria” (the palate’s memories), an “intimate bond with food and diet molded by material circumstances, a mother’s cooking, the frequent repeating of various dishes and meals, and the ‘principles of taste’”**

As I write this, I stand right by the kitchen. I am waiting for lunch to be cooked. Today I prepared what I decided to call el arroz del resuelve – a hastily put together version of my nostalgic arroz con salchichas. I had the Vienna sausages in the pantry for some weeks now (maybe a few months?). I bought them on my last visit to East Harlem (El Barrio). Whenever I am in the area, I try to stop at one of the local supermarkets to stock on Puerto Rican favorites not easily found in my neighborhood. The salchichas, much like the corned beef I also bought in that last trip, have been in my pantry waiting for a moment like today.

Two days ago we returned from the last trip of the summer – a two week stint. We returned home to an empty kitchen, and a to-do list that constantly grew during our time away, preventing us for getting proper groceries at one of the nearby stores. When faced with the midday meal, I scavenged the pantry and refrigerator with the the following results:

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The original arroz con salchicha must have been an arroz del resuelve, a mixed of processed and fresh foods thrown together when faced with hunger and a lack of fresh meat. The salchichas arrived to Puerto Rico as part of the growth of the food industry after the Second World War. As explained by Ortiz Cuadra in the Glossary of Eating Puerto Rico , the salchichas “have nothing in common with European sausages. Rather, they are a processed, canned food, composed of meat by-products (from cows, swine, poultry, or even some combination of these)”. Today, I am eating the combined kind…

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My take on the recipe substituted the medium grain white rice with large grain brown rice. Years ago we stopped buying canned tomato sauce, favoring fresh tomatoes for our Puerto Rican dishes. Unfortunately today, we had to make due with spaghetti sauce. Thankfully, we always have sofrito in stock (thanks to Norma D., my mother in law), and had onions and preserved, chopped fresh garlic to complement (a tip learned from my mother). And, to add the touch of color, a pizca of sazón

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The arroz del resuelve is now done, an hour after I combined the found ingredients in the non-traditional pot…

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I added a sparkle of color with green peas as a finishing touch, along with a hint of pique de acerola – a hot sauce made from West Indian cherry, another of my nostalgic foods. Despite the changes in flavor from the brown rice and the green peas, the salchichas still provided a bite from the Caribbean home I am able to enjoy miles up north.

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Sources:
* Viladrich, A. and B. Tagliaferro (2016). “Picking fruit from our backyard’s trees: The meaning of nostalgia in shaping Latinas’ eating practices in the United States.” Appetite 97: 101-110.
** Ortiz Cuadra, C. M. (2013). Eating Puerto Rico: a history of food, culture and identity. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press

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.

 

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/

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”.

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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

Local chefs and Puerto Rican Cuisine

Arroz con gandules, pernil, pasteles, cuchifritos… These foods come to mind when describing Puerto Rican cuisine. Home cooked, simple dishes. Nothing fancy. These are foods that fill our stomachs and our souls. For many Puerto Ricans, these are to be eaten at home, lovingly made and served by mami or, even better, abuela. Therefore, Puerto Rican food is not to enjoy at a restaurant, and even less pay too much money for it– or is it?

Our cuisine is evolving. Rice, plantains, gandules, pork, and other classic food staples and ingredients are being recombined in creative ways, reinventing or reinterpreting traditional dishes that persist in our culinary memory…

Take for example these dishes from La Jaquita Baya (Miramar, PR). The traditional gandules and habichuelas colora’s are served alongside bite-size arepas. And the pastel? A smaller version, topped with salmorejo de jueyes and fresh greens.

Go south, to the center of the island, and you find Orujo Taller de Gastronomia in Caguas, PR. With this meal, my first time eating cuajitos, where the fattiness of the fried pig ears was balanced by pickled, fresh vegetables.  Also on the menu, slow, smoked pernil on top of the traditional fufu (mashed, sweet plantains).

And the list could go on…

These meals are just a sample of the new, emerging restaurants in Puerto Rico. The “heavy” elements of our cuisine (root crops, fried foods, pork) become “light(er)”, by being served in smaller, more flavorful portions. There are also greens, beyond the usual iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes. These meals value quality over quantity. The chefs behind these dishes are driven by a desire to elevate our cuisine. With these, they also demonstrate the many possibilities of traditional ingredients, while also seeking to revive almost forgotten ones from a not so distant past.

This ongoing “evolution” or “reinvention” comes hand in hand with an emerging movement back to the island agricultural roots, and a re-valuation of traditional island cuisine. Granted, this is by no means mainstream, and at times, it can be arrogant and pretentious, served with a side of bad service, as in the unfortunate case of this salad:

Green salad, unnamed restaurant (San Juan, PR)

Yet, these new restaurants challenge the ever expanding and conveniently located franchises, offering homogeneous, pre-packaged flavor, for a perceived (but not always) lower price. This role is key in the case of Puerto Rico, where palates are increasingly accustomed to artificial flavors and economic woes are part of everyday conversations. These new restaurants represent the growing entrepreneurship spirit on the island, inspired by a love of food, culture and el buen comer.

Buen provecho and support your local chef!

The Hot Dog … Reforza’o

A few months ago, one of my field interviews stirred to the topic of hot dogs. The informant, an elderly Puerto Rican woman, was recounting a recent occasion she was craving a hot dog. This was no ordinary craving. This informant is under a very strict prescribed diet regimen, with dire consequences for not adhering to the regimen. Given her circumstances, such craving had to be satisfied by a great hot dog! Her daughter, aiming to please, asked around for hot dog recommendations. They were directed to a guy that served the “best hot dog” in their area, a long drive away…

 “¡El señor tan aguajero! Me planta el hot dog en el pan, con los sobrecitos de ketchup… ¡La peor calidad! Y él dice, ¡los mejores hot dogs! Si viera como nosotros hacemos los hot dogs: Le ponen la carnecita, las papitas…”
[The man was a fake. He puts the hot dog in the bread, with the bags of ketchup…the worse quality! And he says, the best hot dogs! If he sees how we make hot dogs: they put the meat, the potatoes…”]

Such was the reaction of this lovely woman, as she compared the Spartan, “low quality” New York hot dog, to the elaborated criollo version in Puerto Rico, referred by some as the “hot dogs del reforza’o.

As a sanjuanera, I never had the reforza’o. I first heard of this legendary hot dog from my husband, a cagueño, graciously sharing his experience as follows:

“As I remember it from childhood, El Reforza’o de Don Mike is a delicious layered take on a hot dog. It starts with a regular bun that is smothered with mash potatoes in a guiso criollo. On top of that, the hot dog (or hamburger) is added. Then, stewed ground beef and shredded chicken. To finish the delicious confection the usual condiments are available: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, and others. The final delicious touch: hot sauce. As a child el Reforza’o de Don Mike was our go-to place for lunch after my mom’s bank errands. For me it meant more than that. It was my payoff for behaving while my mom took care of her errands. Don Mike’s hot dog cart, to me, looked like a small kitchen mounted on a truck, always clean and shiny. I remember being so mesmerized by the sound of the various compartments containing the ingredients opening and closing, as well as with the skill and grace with which Don Mike mastered the confection. So much so, that I remember thinking this could be something that I can do for a living when I grow up.”

Image from El Nuevo Dia

Image from El Nuevo Dia

Clearly, these hot dogs were more than a processed sausage inside a bun. They were an experience, one that he remembers to this day and lights up talking about.

“I always had these with cold lemonade” – He adds.

Hot dogs were first invented in Germany back in the late 1600s, and brought to the US, as many other iconic “American” foods, by immigrants selling food in street pushcarts (Read more here). Today, hot dogs are part of the street-foodscape, becoming an important part of “American cuisine”, eaten as part of US Independence Day celebrations, including the traditional hot dog eating contest.

In El Reforza’o’s rendition of this all-American food, we find an otherwise simple food “reinforced” with extra meat and flavor. These additions add much more than extra calories, protein, fat and sodium. They add puertorriqueñidad, making this food our own. Just like the pavochón, the hot dog reforza’o is a local adaptation of a foreign food, introduced to Puerto Rico along with foreign holidays, such as san-guivin (Thanksgiving) and today’s celebration, the fourth of July.  Could these adapted foods be interpreted as a (un)conscious assertion of a Puerto Rican identity through the palate, in light of the imposition of “another”? Perhaps. More likely, the Reforza’o is a reinvention of a simple street food, with an added extra flavor, just as these other examples below:

19 otros hot dogs

Have YOU experienced el reforza’o?

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Thanks to my partner, Omar A. Dauhajre, for sharing his delicious memories of hot dogs from El Original Reforza’o de Don Mike in Caguas.  

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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Related Posts: 

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?