After months agonizing over news coverage of the 2017 Hurricane Maria passing through the Caribbean, I was finally on my way to Puerto Rico. After landing, as I walked towards the airport exit, I was hit by a sudden trepidation of not knowing what to expect on the other side of the airport doors. I imagined a landscape devoid of greenery, a deep darkness in the streets, and overly aggressive drivers. Happily, I was mostly wrong. Nature was revamping. Trees were blooming and palm trees rocked in the warm Caribbean breeze. Darkness remained, but restoring power is slowly lighting up the island. The few homes with Christmas lights illuminated their neighbors a few blocks away that remained in the dark in a way sharing some of the season’s spirit that people long for now more than ever.
Weeks before my trip, I was interviewed by the New York Times about the food situation on the island, with a particular concern over the availability of pasteles in a year post-Maria. The hurricane had devastated the local production of the main ingredients for the traditional pastel de masa – the plantain. Granted, pasteles were the least of my concerns when I thought about the situation in the island and what I would encounter during my holiday visit. When the reported asked me about whether I would eat pasteles this Christmas in Puerto Rico, my response, as quoted, was simple:
“in difficult times, one thing that defines us is that we keep positive,” Ms. Fuster said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people found a way to make pasteles.”
And I was right, evidenced by the pasteles feast we enjoyed in the New Year, seen here at the peak of boiling:
Three months after Maria, Puerto Rico is slowly returning to normalcy – even if at a new kind of normal. Agriculture is slowly coming back, as (hopefully) you can see from these quick snapshots taken from the road.
Farmer’s markets are also carrying on. I visited the Mercado Orgánico at La Placita de Roosevelt, pictured below in its late hours. The market had some organic produce, including a variety of greens and a variety of hot sauces, including pique de acerola (hot sauce made from West Indian Cherry, one of my favorite things in the world). The Placita at Plaza las Americas was also running, selling limited amounts of produce, such as root crops and peppers, as well as pasteles, coffee, maví, and orange juice – all from local production.
While the restaurant industry was negatively impacted by the hurricane season, this industry has played an important role of feeding many in the aftermath of María. This role was beyond the publicized collaborations with Chef José Andrés and Chefs for Puerto Rico. Many eateries, for example, quickly opened their kitchens serving low cost breakfast and lunch. Sadly, the delay in restoring the electrical grid, combined with issues of food access, the worsening economic crisis, and the exodus of many in the industry has caused many to close their doors or reinvent themselves. For example, Chef Xavier Pacheco, who was featured in a recent episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in Puerto Rico, reinvented his popular restaurant, Jaquita Baya, into Comedería, Fonda Urbana. Chef Pacheco explained this shift in an interview for El Nuevo Día,
In essence, it is the transformation of a restaurant that was a culinary platform inspired in reviving Puerto Rican recipes, motivated by the development of local products sponsoring gastronomic artisans and nourishing the pride in our cuisine. Our goal is to create a space where we can offer quality food, delicious, and real for the Puerto Rican pocket after this hurricane aftermath. (My translation)
Based in my visit to Comedería, I can testify that the food offered meets this goal. Just as Chef Pacheco did in Jaquita Baya, he continues to offer local produce, but at much more accessible prices at Comedería. Some of the delicious food we enjoyed were the hummus de gandules (pigeon peas), vianda gnocci, pastelón de verduras, and breaded chicken over coconut rice and topped with a fried egg.
My favorite restaurant, Orujo Taller de Gastronomía in Caguas, opened its doors right after the hurricane, serving low cost meals for the surrounding community. Alas, as time went by, Chef Carlos Portela temporarily closed its doors taking the time to try a new concept at Lote 23 – Lolo’s Mac & Grilled Cheese. Chef Portela explained the new concept in an interview for Sabrosía,
Orujo’s essence will always be present no matter what we serve or the food we cook. All of our company’s new concepts, will be based in Orujo.
Below, a “taste” of the offerings at Lolo’s. During our visit we had a lobster open-faced sandwich and a mac and cheese topped with salmon. Click here for a quick view of Lote 23 and the amazing food served by Chef Portela at Lolo’s.
Thankfully, Orujo is set to open early in February, with reservations strongly encouraged. Opting for a different direction as that taken by Chef Pacheco, Chef Portela will carry on with his high-end cuisine, continuing to elevate Puerto Rican culinary traditions and offerings to new delicious and beautiful levels.
Texturas de Queso (source: Orujo, Facebook page)
Orujo and Comederia are two of the hundreds of restaurants in the recovering culinary landscape of Puerto Rico. Other popular places remain, such as La Cueva del Mar, which even expanded to a new location. Eating at some of these establishments one can easily forget the ongoing crisis. Yet, at others there are sudden reminders of the underlying scarcities – particularly of plantains. Anecdotes of the long lines or things lost are common are part of the daily conversations with friends and strangers alike.
This post sought to highlight the recovery of the island. This is not to minimize the ongoing needs and chronic crisis exacerbated by the 2017 hurricane season. There are many still living in darkness, with limited physical and economic access to food. Yet, not all is lost, as US news media tend to portray (if it bleeds it leads). The island is open for business, and this business is highly needed. One of the best ways to help Puerto Rico in its recovery and strengthening is by visiting and enjoying what the island offers. In these visits, you will get to experience the delicious culinary offerings, excellent hospitality and breathtaking beaches and landscapes, as well as witness the hard work of many seeking to bring the island afloat and reinvent its future, in spite of the politics that continues to cloud these efforts.
And to end this post, I’ll leave you with this image from a T-shirt found in the southern town of Guayama, illustrating the ways we keep positive in times of strain:
Thank you for reading and Happy 2018!