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.
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 . 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.
Puerto Rican Family in Hawai’i, 1900 (Photo: Blase Camacho Souza) 
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.” 
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 . 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 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 
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?” 
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:
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!
Chapin, HG. “Puerto Ricans Arrive in Hawaii”, https://www.hawaiianhistory.org/time-capsules/firsts/puerto-ricans-arrive-in-hawaii/
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?
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:
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”.
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:
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.
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.”
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:
Have YOU experienced el reforza’o?
Thanks to my partner, Omar A. Dauhajre, for sharing his delicious memories of hot dogs from El Original Reforza’ode Don Mike in Caguas.
“When I readJulie 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 withPedro Panand she stillhadto 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…
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 somewhatmade 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: 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 addedinfluences 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.
Cucuyé lives in the Fairy Kingdom. He is a kind and adventurous elf. He is the creation of Carmen Aboy Valldejuli the author of Cocina Criolla, the go-to reference guide in Puerto Rican cooking and subject of a recent posting.
I stumbled upon Cucuyé through my current research on Valldejuli and her work. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that aside from her cookbooks, she ventured into children’s literature. These books were published in the late 70s, early 80s. They are beautifully illustrated by Poli Marichal. The first one, Cucuyé en el Reino de las Hadas (Cucuyé in the Fairy Kingdom) won the 1979 children literature prize from the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena. The series is about the many adventures of Cucuyé. And this elf has quite the adventurous life! He has been a champion cowboy (Cucuyé, Vaquero Campeón), has enjoyed the wonders of the sea (Cucuyé y las Maravillas del Mar), and spent time with a naïve giant (Cucuyé y el Gigante Inocentón). However, and most interesting to me, are his adventures in the kitchen described in the book Cucuyé en la Cocina.
“Sencillamente he decidido dejar de experimentar mas. Trataremos la receta tan deliciosa de mantecaditos del libro de cocina que usa Mamá Duende y que tanto nos gusta.”
[Simply, I have decided to stop experimenting. Let’s try the delicious recipe of mantecaditos that we like so much from the cookbook Mother Elf uses.]
Such were the words of Cucuyé after trying three other recipes with his friends in preparation for a culinary contest. You see, Cucuyé likes to help his fellow elfs. Apparently some of his friends were walking around with old, broken boots and their families were too poor to buy new ones (Yes, poverty and social class divisions are present even in the Fairy Kingdom). When Cucuyé brought the idea of experimenting in the kitchen to his loyal friends, they mocked him:
“¡Estas chiflado!” (You are crazy!) – said Chemi.
“Eso se lo dejamos a Mamá Duende” (We leave that to Mother Elf) – said Chopo (Yes, cooking is for women in the Fairy Kingdom).
But Cucuyé pressed on and convinced them, for the benefit of their friends in need, as with the money from the culinary contest price, they would be able to buy the needed boots. Like Valldejuli, Cucuyé and friends collected and tried different recipes. But, in the end, they went for the tried and true recipes from Mother Elf’s favorite cookbook, which greatly resembles Cocina Criolla. And they made mantecaditos – the Puerto Rican almond shortbread cookie, named after the use of Manteca (lard) in the recipe, ½ a cup according to the Cocina Criolla’s recipe (yield not specified). Mother Elf was proud, seeing the little elves work in the kitchen, measuring every ingredient and following the instructions in from the cookbook. Funny moments were not á miss. A coquí, the emblematic Puerto Rican frog, decided to jump in the flour, creating havoc and laughter in Cucuyé’s kitchen (Yes! There are coquís in Fairy World).
In the end – spoiler alert – they won the contest. Everybody was happy. Cucuyé bought new shoes for his grateful friends. On went Cucuyé to plan his next adventure… (Was there another adventure?)
Cucuyé en la Cocina was a treat for me (and I hope for you as well). It is another, different piece, to my society a la Valldejuli puzzle. It echoes the importance of using cookbooks with tested and tried recipes, and of precision and measurements to produce winning results in the kitchen, also found in Cocina Criolla. Hope you enjoyed this little known treasure in the Puerto Rican children’s literature.
(The illustrations come from the book, Cucuye en la Cocina, by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli.)
Ha llegado inesperadamente un amigo, el cual se quedará a comer. ¡¡¡Qué problema!!! ¡¡¡Qué aturdimiento!!!
Y a esto yo contesto: ¡Nada de eso! Manos a la obra, y mientras el esposo lo obsequia con un “cocktail” o “highball”, nosotras hábilmente, sin carreras ni precipitaciones, preparamos un menú sencillo y atractivo.
– Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, Ideas de Menus para Invitados Inesperados in “Cocina Criolla”
Family listening to the radio in a rural home in Puerto Rico, circa 1950. Source: Colección Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín.
The 1950s was a period of economic, societal and political changes in Puerto Rico. The decade brought the establishment of Puerto Rico’s current political status as a commonwealth of the U.S., and the adoption of its constitution and flag. This was also an era of political turmoil and government repression.
Amidst these changes, Carmen Aboy Valldejuli published the first edition of Cocina Criolla, in 1954. This cookbook has been used and cherished by many through different generations, this despite other cookbooks written during that time (including the 1950 Cocine a Gusto) and since then. Why is Valldejuli’s book the one with staying power in our culinary imaginations?
The Valldejulis Photo by Ramon Aboy Miranda, from the back cover of Puerto Rican Cookery (1975)
We don’t find much written about Valldejuli’s life, aside from the autobiographical notes in her books and a few newspaper articles. Valldejuli was born in 1912 (or 1918), less than two decades after the 1898 United States occupation of Puerto Rico. Born into the well known Aboy family, her privileged upbringing kept her out of the kitchen. She lived in a home with plentiful servants and a father who enjoyed fine food. In her twenties, she married another man who loved fine food, Luis Valldejuli. A ponceño who became her life and business partner, even co-authoring a book together titled Juntos en la Cocina.
The Valldejulis loved entertaining and enjoying the company of others over food. An article from the Milwaukee Journal in 1968 cites Mr. Valldejuli as saying, “When I come home, I never know how many people I’m having for dinner”. This love for entertaining is reflected in her book. She dedicates a chapter to the requirements of the formal dinner, including indispensables such as guests, a table and chairs, and specific guidance concerning the help, “competent” and “appropriately uniformed”, among other things. Valldejuli also offers tips on what to do with unexpected dinner guests, mostly a quick menu from different canned and jarred foods. Was Mrs. Valldejuli the one opening the cans and preparing the snacks for the unexpected guests?
The same 1968 Milwaukee Journal article, describes the Valldejuli home and kitchen. A “large glass front living room” opens to the terrace. Walls are decorated with Spanish fans, antique lace and modern paintings. The kitchen is large, perhaps matching the “imposing” 16 foot black mahogany dining table. In the kitchen we find Francisca Falu, mentioned in passing, almost as an accessory.
Ms. Falu had been with the family for 30 years (by 1968) and she was the one in charge of doing the family cooking. I had heard of Francisca before, as the black woman in Valldejuli’s kitchen, but I have not been able to find any other documentation about her aside from that short reference in the Milwaukee Journal. A web search revealed a social security record of a Francisca Falu-Torres born in the Virgin Islands in September 26, 1913 and dying in Puerto Rico, August 23, 2006, at 92 years of age, with her last residence in Santurce, PR. Was this the same Francisca in the Valldejuli’s kitchen? What stories could she have shared about the culinary life of the “Puerto Rican Julia Child”? Was she a part of the cookbook writing process?
I have spent many hours with the first and last editions of Cocina Criolla (1954 and 2001, respectively). This exercise has sparked many questions about the author and the book in its historical context. Valldejuli is an important part of the culinary memory and imagination of the Puerto Rican community in the island and abroad. Yet not much is known about her, her culinary influences, how she finally learned to cook, or where these recipes came from. Taking her recipes and dinner party instructions alongside the economic and political realities of Puerto Rico in the 1950s inevitably bring the picture of two different worlds in the same small island.
Cocina Criolla, 1954 & 2001 editions
Despite the many changes in Puerto Rico since the 1950s, Cocina Criolla has remained virtually unchanged throughout the decades. While Valldejuli does not ask us to pluck chickens in the 2001 edition, she still asks us to open coconuts. Some people follow her instructions with very delicious results, but not me. In all honesty, I have only made one recipe from the book, Bizcocho de Chinas (Orange cake), the orange juice version. And I certainly do not have plans of cooking my way through Cocina Criolla (a la Julie and Julia). Why have I not cook more from this book? That is certainly the topic of another, future post.
In the meantime, please share your own experiences (or lack of experience) with Valldejuli (or your own national culinary icon).
We got our first pasteles in New York. They are in the freezer – half a dozen – waiting for a nice arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) to be paired with. We’ll eat these in Christmas. Most likely we’ll put a little bit of ketchup and pique (hot sauce) on top. Yes. I said ketchup. And I may be taking a risk confessing this. To some Puerto Ricans, eating pasteles with ketchup is a culinary aberration – an issue best understood through this music video:
The song and video portrays the very interesting debate I want to explore next.
First, what exactly are pasteles? For the non-Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking reader, the word pastel evokes the image of a pastry, in some cases a cake. Usually, we tend to explain pasteles simply as the Puerto Rican version of the tamal. If I may, pasteles are a much more complicated version. Let’s take for example the Cuban tamal as a point of comparison, using the recipe from Cuban culinary icon Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto. Her Tamal en Hoja has 11 ingredients in total and 5 steps, including cooking. In comparison, a recipe for a pastel may have as many as 22 ingredients and 33 steps. In Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla (the Puerto Rican “culinary bible”), the recipe for her Pasteles “Mamie” takes 4 pages, dividing the process in three parts: the filling (16 ingredients, 11 steps), the dough (6 ingredients, 6 labor intensive steps), and the actual construction and cooking of the pastel (16 steps, including a diagram).
From Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla: Diagram to help comprehend the way to form the pastel
Like most Puerto Ricans in my generation, I have never attempted to make pasteles. It is quite a feat and one I think most of us Puerto Rican food lovers might like to take on someday. We rely on small entrepreneurs, mostly Puerto Rican doñitas (and some dones as well), to take on the task and sell for about $2/pastel. Finding a “pastel connection” is not a straight forward act either, but once you find your connection, you are loyal to that person. You defend their pasteles, as your own achievement on finding this connection. You recommend them and fight with others as to who can bring to the table the best ones and at the best price.
The last step in the pasteles’ preparation is to boil them for about 45 minutes. Go over the cooking time, and they are ruined. Next, you need to unwrap them, being careful of not getting burned or stained from the water with achiote hiding in the wrapping. And – finally! – the pastel is on the plate. Can you pass the ketchup?
Just bringing this condiment to the table might be a sign of disrespect. How can you ruin a pastel with ketchup after all the work someone put into making it? Now, I have to say that in thinking of this issue I realize that we put ketchup on many things: burgers, eggs, rice, steak, fried chicken, beans, alcapurrias…However, these do not come with such an outrage.
An academic take on the merging of pasteles with ketchup can bring the symbolism of this dish as the current state of Puerto Rican culture. The ingredients in the pastel, the root crops both from African ancestors and from Tainos are merged with contributions from Spain (pork) and the Middle East (garbanzo). The long process of preparing can be symbolic of our history and struggles, resulting in the very mixed Puerto Rican “race”.
Is the rejection of this new ingredient, the ketchup, a rejection on the influence of the United States in our culture?
Like ketchup on a pastel, U.S. influence in Puerto Rico has resulted in an ever increasing influx of fast food chains – and highly processed foods. This food colonization is not unique to Puerto Rico. We share this with other Latin American countries and the rest of the world. Globalization and the “Macdonalization” of diets worldwide is certainly a huge topic to be further unpacked. Is the adamant rejection of even trying pasteles con ketchup an assertion (conscious or unconscious) of Puertorriqueñidad? As some may reject pasteles con ketchup, are these same people rejecting Starbucks over the local café? Are these individuals skipping the ever increasing influx of US-based chains over the amazing array of local restaurants?
But back at the more simple argument – devoiding the conversation from the politics of our Puerto Rican identity – the pasteles are just too labor intensive, too precious to ruin with this awfully processed red sauce. And yes, it is quite a processed product with high fructose corn syrup and unnamed “natural flavors”, as seen in a store-bought bottle.
But what if you made your own? Could changing ketchup from an imported, highly processed bottled sauce to a home-made condiment bring the opposition to at least try the combination?
A basic tomato ketchup is made out of tomato, onion, vinegar, sugar, and salt. With the help of a blender, you can make it at home. The process may take you about 30 minutes, depending on the ingredients, plus a 2+ hours of refrigeration for flavors to develop from a tomato sauce to ketchup. It is the sugar and the salt help accentuate the flavor of the pastel – that is, if used wisely. The ingredients themselves are not entirely foreign, and may even be included already in other parts of the meal.
The controversy over pasteles with ketchup is hardly settled, and may continue on for years to come. Where do you stand in the debate? Please share your own views below.