Pega’o: Celebrating the shared love for a special rice

This post is a love letter to rice. But not any rice. I am writing of the delicious, crispy, salty rice, that forms gently and patiently at the bottom of the pan.

I grew up knowing such special rice as pega’o. That is the Puerto Rican term for “pegado”, which translates to stuck-on, or perhaps glued. Such rice crust holds the salt and fat where the rest of the rice cooked. Often, one will dig deep into the pan, to mix a scoop of the crusty rice as part of the meal. Other times, it is eaten last, after the rest of the caldero is spent. Sometimes, the pega’o is reserved for the special few who wait around the kitchen, or are called upon during the post-meal kitchen clean-up process. The act of eating and sharing the pega’o often straight from the caldero has an air of complicity, of sharing a moment when we break table manners, forgoing the table and eating straight from the source.

Pega’o (Photo from Pinterest, because I always eat it and forget to take a picture)

I grew up thinking of pega’o as uniquely Puerto Rican. I have soon learned this is not the case. Our love for scorched rice is not unique. Cubans call is raspa and Dominicans call it concón. The Spanish paella provides the delicious socarrat. And the list goes on and on.

Outside of the pega’o, another scorched rice holds a special place in my heart: the Tahdig. When I first encountered this Persian delicacy, I was hit with the realization of the consumption of a type of pega’o that was made on purpose, to be served beautifully, as part of the meal.

This was contrary to the seemingly improvised way our pega’o is often eaten. That is, the pega’o is not really planned for. It appears as a surprise in the bottom of the caldero, as the cook can not be certain of its presence or quality in the end.

I’ve attempted Tahdig in my kitchen, thanks to one of my favorite wedding gifts, the “New Foods of Life” Iranian cookbook. The chelow (rice) recipes are an act of love, resulting from patience and a few hours in the kitchen. The rice and meat are cooked separately, joined as a last important step, in alternating layers with the future Tahdig as a base.

The global shared love for pega’o (or whatever other name you use!) results from the universal love for crunchiness, saltiness and fat. But, beyond these key sensual aspects, the pega’o would not exist without the passing of time, coming to being from the slow, care-infused process of home cooking, making it an often remembered aspect from happy, past meals.

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Preserving cuisines: Quick thoughts at the intersection of gender, race and Diaspora

Afro-descendant women have been key in the keeping and sustaining of food traditions in societies with a history of colonialism and slavery. Examples I have encountered in my work are Francisca Falú, the woman who taught iconic Puerto Rican cookbook, Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, how to cook, and Margot Bacallao, the assistant to Nitza Villapol, the Cuban cuisine icon. The role continues in the Diaspora, as the story of Adela Fargas in New York City.

I started thinking about these women upon reading a beautiful piece by Illyanna Maisonet in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month, titled, A pilgrimage to the keeper of Puerto Rico’s past, before she disappears. The article recounts Maysonet’s journey to the island in search for her culinary roots. She focuses on her visit (or “pilgrimage”) to El Burén de Lula, in Loiza, a beach-side town in the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, known as a bastion of African traditions in the island. El Burén is an appropriate place for a culinary pilgrimage. Lula, the owner, is one of the remaining gatekeepers of Loiza’s Afro-Puerto Rican culinary traditions. Such risk of loss inspired the gastronomic nostalgia that permeates Maisonet’s article.

The desire for preservation and documentation is best exemplified in this excerpt:

If Lula is the last connection to our pre-contact gastronomic world, should we be content with photos for the inevitable future “anthropologist” who wants to teach a class on long-disappeared cooking techniques? While the younger generation loses the desire to create the food of our grandmothers — favoring the addictive spell of American fast-food chains or the Eurocentric lullaby of soigne plating techniques — perhaps it’s the task of the Disasporican to preserve the traditions of our ancestors.

This excerpt caught my attention. Lula’s cuisine is not truly “pre-contact”. It is built on African and slave plantation culinary traditions, with some Taino elements. While many offerings in El Buren de Lula have their roots in indigenous Taino culinary traditions and ingredients, key components, such as the plantain leaf and the use of achiote oil, are examples of the important African influence.

Maysonet is certainly not alone in her desire to save these “pre-contact” traditions. Many in the Diapora (the “Diasporicans”) hold a nostalgic view of Puerto Rican cuisine, seeking to preserve and hold on to simpler times. But, is it truly the “task of the Diasporican to preserve the traditions of our ancestors”?

In 2011, María Dolores de Jesús (aka Lula) published the beautiful cookbook, El Burén de Lula: Cocina artesanal, as a vehicle to divulge her secrets from the burén, in an effort to document and preserve her culinary expertise for future generations.

As detailed in the book, Lula is the third generation in her family who has worked the burén cuisine. She learned the craft from her mother, Doña Marcia de Jesús Carrasquillo, who was a food entrepreneur, selling food from her home kitchen and later opening a kiosko in Loiza. El Burén de Lula was the result of this transmission of know-how for decades now, being featured in the media, including a Bacardi commercial back in 1978 (as recounted in the book).

Thankfully, Lula is not the last remaining bastion of African culinary traditions in Loiza. Like her, there are other Afro-descendant, entrepreneurial women continuing these traditions, while seeking to make a living for their families. One example is La Comay, from Kiosko La Comay. I met her briefly during my study abroad course in Puerto Rico back in 2015. We visited her kiosko accompanied by my good friend and colleague, historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra (as recounted in a student-authored blog post).

La Comay in action, displaying fresh conch in the making (2015)

The movement of across the globe has accelerated since the meeting of the old and new worlds in 1492. The cuisine many, like Maysonet, seek to preserve was the result of that movement and change. And it inevitably continues to change. The questions remain: What to preserve? How to preserve it? And, who gets to preserve it?

Comedores Sociales in Puerto Rico

This post is dedicated to the work of the Centro para el Desarrollo Politico, Educativo y Cultural (CDPEC). The CDPEC organizes the comedores sociales in Puerto Rico – “social dining rooms” or community kitchens that serve food through a grassroots approach. The work of the CDPEC demonstrates the use of food as a vehicle to sustain and promote social justice. Aside from the comedores, the CDPEC  engages in a variety of initiatives that seek to promote autogestion (self-management) to, in their own words, “break the distance that exists between the ideas that promote social change and the people through contact work and popular education” (my translation).

(Click photo for a Vimeo on their work)

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I learned about this work through Giovanni Roberto, organizer at the CDPEC. We were part of the panel at Cocinando Justicia (Cooking Justice).  Loisaida, Inc hosted the event on April 30, 2018. The conversation was moderated by Huascar Robles, author/journalist/producer of Catatonia podcast.

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The panel in action, with Huascar Robles (Left) and Giovanni Robert (Right). 

Huascar led the discussion with thought provoking questions about food security in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the deleterious effect of the political situation, and the importance of grassroots work to counteract government inaction. Giovanni shared stories of personal and political transformation of some of the people he has met through his work, showcasing the power of food to build bridges and inspire change. On the lighter side, we also learned new recipe ideas, such as quinoa con gandules, as a healthier alternative to rice.

ComedoresSociales

 Serving food through donations (Photo from Comedores Sociales Facebook Page)

The work of people like Giovanni and his fellow corillo members at the CDPEC is often lost amidst the stream of bad news that continue to emanate from the island. The island has been in a recession for more than a decade. Many continue without electricity almost nine months after Maria. Austerity measures are tightening the conditions even more, in order to pay the $70 billion debt to Wall Street.  Just the day after our panel, the island had a national strike that ended with tear gas. The protest was in opposition to school closings, increases to university tuition and cuts to pensions. In the face of this continued economic pressure and frustration, many continue to leave the island. In short – good news are needed, as well as examples of successful models of autogestion. I will continue to follow the work of the CDPEC. I invite you to do the same and support them in any way you can.

For more information:

Starting 2018 in Puerto Rico

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:

pasteles 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.

ag snapshots

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.

roosevels snapshot

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.

Comederia

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.

lolos

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.

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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:

camisa

Thank you for reading and Happy 2018!

Weathering the Storm: A note of the event

On September 30th, 2017, Brooklyn College hosted the event, Weathering the Storm. The event started with the keynote address from the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. She arrived to the venue to a standing ovation, in a basketball ball court full with fellow faculty, students and community members, including this group that proudly displayed the flag and sang a quick parranda to the mayor during the Q&A.

I was given the amazing opportunity to chair the lunch panel, “Feeding our people” which presented an interdisciplinary look at the food crisis post-Maria, through the perspective of Puerto Rican historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra (University of Puerto Rico – Humacao) and public health nutritionist, Uriyoan Colón-Ramos (George Washington University).

Prof. Ortíz Cuadra shared his experiences during the immediate aftermath, analyzing the development of the food crisis, as things started to grow scarce and the lines for everything got longer. Prof. Colón Ramos shared results from her ongoing research assessing food aid in the aftermath of Maria, including looking into the FEMA boxes. In her presentation, Colón Ramos reminded us the importance of the nutritive quality in foods during times of crisis, especially in a context where obesity and diabetes is prevalent.

My panel was followed up by two more afternoon conversations. The first, “Race, Sex, and Disaster Response”, was a roundtable discussion bringing in psychology experts from the island and NYC, to discuss the emotional stress from the hurricane, not only in Puerto Rico, but also among the Diaspora community, waiting to hear from their loved ones. The second panel, “(Re)building Resilient Communities”, ended the event with a look to the future.

Events like this one have been happening across the city, and many other locations in the United States. They have served as a reminder of the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, tending to Mayor Yulín’s pleads, “no nos olviden” (do not forget about us). The events also serve to shed a spotlight on the underlying factors that led to the crisis, including the political situation of the island, a topic that becomes harder to avoid.

My gratitude to Brooklyn College Professors Reynaldo Ortíz-Minaya and Liv Yarrow for their amazing work of putting this event together, as well as the support from the Mellon Foundation and the City University of New York.

See this link for the complete program of the day’s event and the complete video of Mayor Yulín’s talk; and this link for a short article published by Brooklyn College reviewing the event.

“San Guivin” and #ChefsForPuertoRico

A few years ago I wrote this post, recounting memories of Thanksgiving (or “San Guivin”) in Puerto Rico. This holiday marks the commencement of the long Christmas celebration, quickly transitioning from Thanksgiving’s pavochón to the actual lechón (pork), accompanied with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and pasteles.

26 old pavo

From a past Thanksgiving meal, featuring pavochón, arroz con gandules and mofongo stuffing. 

This year, the holidays will find Puerto Rico in post-Maria reconstruction. In light of this occasion, I wanted to use this post to highlight the ongoing work of Jose Andres, World Central Kitchen and the many local chefs and volunteers assisting with this effort:

World Central Kitchen, Andrés, and their coterie of chefs and volunteers plan to serve an estimated 40,000 Thanksgiving meals this week. They plan to serve “families throughout the island including San Juan, Vieques, Naguabo, Adjuntas, Ponce, Dorado, Utuado, Aguadilla and Manatí” as well as volunteers. – From Eater.com

Photo: @chefjoseandres / Twitter (in Eater.com article)

Chef Jose Andres has provided a spotlight on the chronic food crisis in Puerto Rico. His efforts have been supported by many local Puerto Rican chefs, including: José Enrique, Enrique Piñeiro, Victor Rosado, Wilo Bennett, José Santaella, and Manolo Martinez, as well as the food truck network – Ocean Deli, High Kitchen, Lemon Submarine, Pisco Labis, El Churry, Yummy Dumplings, Peko Peko, Acai on the Go, and The Meatball Company (see here).

The work of World Central Kitchen and these chefs underscore the important role of members of the culinary sector in assisting communities in times of need. I will continue to follow their efforts and contribute to their ongoing work. If you want to join me, follow this link for more information.

Maria

My last post was a celebration of one dish that always reminds me of home, the arroz con salchichas – what I called “el arroz del resuelve.” I described the dish as “nostalgic”, a dish that I enjoy on special occasions, by choice, from my table away from home. My choice contrasts with the more usual occasions the dish is consumed – that is, during times of need and limited possibilities, such as right after a natural disaster. A few weeks after I wrote my post, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, followed, a week later, by the historical devastation brought by Hurricane Maria. Today, almost two months after, most of Puerto Rico remains without electricity and water, in what has turned out to be a humanitarian crisis with repercussions for years to come.

In an interview published by the Association for the Study of Food in Society, Puerto Rican Historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra provided an insightful historical and contemporary assessment of the ongoing crisis,

Food crises have been with Puerto Ricans through history. During the Spanish conquest, when the majority of Taino Indians were forced to work in las vetas auriferas [gold mines], reducing cassava cultivation for a long period, those who could escape to the mountains probably resorted to eating marunguey (Zamia pumila, Zamia debilisi), a poisonous tuber that the Taino had learned to use by making a bread from its roots. Older rural people followed a tradition where, once the bread was ready, it was put out in the open until it began to ferment and bugs started to eat it. Informants say the bread is then ready to eat, as the poisons have been extracted by the insects. [After hurricane Maria] it has been reported that people are using what remains on the ground–plantains, bananas, breadfruit, and other fruits as their sole daily food–eating them raw, because water, often used to boil them, is scarce. – See complete interview here

Since the hurricane, long lines have become an everyday activity. People have stood in lines for hours to enter  supermarkets, often requiring lines beforehand to get gasoline and cash. At the end of the line, people have encountered empty supermarkets, and many foods were rationed. What are people eating in these times of crisis? Ortiz Cuadra provides some insight “from the ground”,

In the long lines I have been in, while waiting for a bag of ice (only 45% of the running water system is in place and practically no electricity), I have asked this question and various women have answered “mac and cheese” with Spam (we call it jamonilla) and also with Vienna sausages.

These processed foods – the salchichas (Vienna sausages) and jamonilla (Spam) – have been provided by FEMA, as part of the controversial food aid in the island,

JoshSanchez FEMA tweet

Oct. 12, 2017 viral tweet by sports journalist Josh Sanchez. 

FEMA’s aid has been controversial in its inclusion of skittles, and other “junk foods.” The local newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported FEMA boxes including inapt products, such as packets of ketchup, cooking wine and meat thermometers. As such, Hurricane Maria has grabbed the news attention not only for the size of its devastation, but for the severe mismanagement of the recovery efforts, including the appalling (yet not surprising) mediocre response from the sitting president. Still today, the number of deaths remains unknown and rising, with hundreds still unaccounted for and the deaths continuing to accumulate as a result of the slow recovery efforts. The situation is compounded by the ongoing exodus. Two weeks after the hurricane, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were already on their way to Florida. Others are choosing New York and other various destinations across the States where families and friends continue to receive loved ones on a daily, often rotating basis. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies provide sobering estimations of the post-Maria exodus,

Between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents will leave the island annually in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. From 2017 to 2019, we estimate that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population. In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation. – See Research Brief by Melendez & Hinojosa (Oct 2017) here.

The outflow will have political and economic consequences not only for the island, but also in the United States, particularly  in Florida.

Despite the continuing crisis in the island and the consequences in the States, the news cycle has since moved on from Puerto Rico. Thankfully, many continue to work to address this chronic crisis. Of note is the work of George Washington University Public Health Nutrition Professor Uriyoan Colon-Ramos who is working to  document food aid in Puerto Rico, and develop needed nutrition guidelines in these trying times, in collaboration with people on the ground. I am also following the work of Casa Pueblo, a local organization working hard to address the electricity crisis, with the potential of bringing solar power as a sustainable solution. Community kitchens have also opened up providing needed food, including and beyond the (now concluded) amazing effort led by Chef Jose Andres in collaboration with local Puerto Rican chefs.

Still, the recovery continues to be painfully slow and quite difficult to follow from a distance. If this post inspires you to help or get involved, check out this recent Take Action article by Ariana Rosas Cardenas on The Nation, along with many others articles providing a variety of ways to help (see here and here, among others).

 

A nutritious holiday find

During this year’s holiday visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this recipe manual written in 1980 by nutritionists in the town of Caguas:

The recipe manual was distributed at some point to the town’s residents, more than three decades ago, as a collection of various traditional recipes with the “highest nutritional value”, with a simple reminder that we should  always eat in moderation:

Now, the Christmas menu (and celebration) in Puerto Rico is best summarized in the chorus of El Gran Combo’s 1985 hit, La Fiesta de Pilito:

A comer pastel / a comer lechón / arroz con gandules / y a beber ron / que venga morcilla / venga de tooo

The last line, venga de tooo, roughly translated to “bring it all”, characterizes the indulgence of the holiday season. Our plates are filled with pasteles, pork, rice with pigeon peas, and blood sausages, downed with beer and rum. 

Hence, I was curious to see the nutritionist interpretation of this celebratory menu…

The suggested menus stay true to traditional favorites – with the omission of alcohol. Pork (lechón) remains at the center of the celebration, with favorites like morcilla (Blood sausage) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), still present. The recipes do not reflect the fat-free craze of the 80s, featuring lard (manteca) as the cooking fat, as seen in this recipe for arroz con gandules,

Instead of changing traditional menus and recipes, it seems that the nutricionistas cagueñas that authored this recipe collection opted to add vegetables to the festivities, through simple salads to accompany the usual fare.  

While I am skeptical that green salad substituted the usual potato salad in Christmas celebrations in 1980s Caguas (or today), the intent of the menu is still commendable and relevant today. 
Happy 2017! 

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A special thanks to Norma for sharing this recipe manual with me. 

Jamonilla

Tulip, Tulip, jamonilla  / Deliciosa, siempre fresca / Tu la comes con el pan
Y la comes con arroz. / Tulip, Tulip, va con todo. / ¡Es el resuelvelo todo!
[Tulip, Tulip, lunchmeat / Delicious, always fresh / You can eat it with bread
And you can eat it with rice. / Tulip, Tulip, goes with everything / It’s the solve it all!]

The lyrics above are my remembered version of an 80s (or 90s) commercial for Tulip’s canned luncheon meat, jamonilla. It came back to mind after attending “The Empire of Spam” kitchen workshop a few months back, at the ASFS/AFHVS/CAFS* Annual Conference hosted by the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough.  The workshop focused on Spam as part of the Pacific culinary imaginary – discussing our perceptions about Spam while tasting it at the same time.

Empire of Spam Kitchen Workshop facilitated by (right to left): Hi’llei Hobart (New York University), Adrian De Leon (University of Toronto) and Josh Levy (Univerity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). 

Spam musibi (grilled Spam over a block of rice wrapped with nori drief seaweed). In our version, we doubled the Spam.

Much has been written about Spam (click here for a brief history). During almost eight decades of existence, the brand has gone from a soldiers’ staple during World War II to a culinary mainstay in the Asian Pacific and Hawaii (including the annual Hawaiian festival celebrating Spam -the Spam Jam festival). While celebrated today, the popularity of Spam in the region in marked by US military occupation. These are the same forces that also brought similar canned meats to Puerto Rico.

The influence of canned meats is seen in dishes like arroz con salchichas (rice with Vienna sausages), corned beef (also known as “carne beef”) and the classic party staple, “sandwichitos de mezcla“:

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Sandwiches de Mezcla – Photo by Panaderia Facciola. 

Yet, dishes like these are only a part of the culinary repertoire. More often than not, they are the go-to food in times of scarcity, a “resuelvelo todo”, as Tulip’s jingle states. To my knowledge, among the many festivals celebrated in the island throughout the year, there is no equivalent to the Spam Jam Festival in Puerto Rico. And this is not for a lack of food-related festivals! Just in the next four weeks festivals around the island will celebrate  breadfruit, longaniza, jueyes (land crabs), and molleja (sweetbread), to name a few.

The connections between Hawaii and Puerto Rico have been intriguing me for some time. Our shared, but unequal love for canned meat is another piece of this growing puzzle that started with the Borinkis’ pasteles. We are connected by a shared  insular geography and a history of US military occupation which has altered both archipelagos’ food systems, increasing the reliance on processed food sources like jamonilla. Why one is more salient in one place versus the other is still a question that remains to be answered, potentially involving a comparative look at the histories shaping the different ethnic (and food) identities in these two contexts. In the meantime, I’ll close with some “food for thought” – “Mom’s Puerto Rican Spam Flan”, a dish featured in the 2014 Spam Jam Festival that continues to connect these islands through Spam:

Mom’s Puerto Rican SPAM Flan from Buenos Antojitos. #SpamJam @spambrand @waikikispamjam @beachcomberhi (at Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Resort)

Photo by jknakas1 (tumblr) from the 2014 Spam Jam Festival. 

 

Do you have any Spam or Tulip thoughts, memories or recipes to share? 

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*The acronyms stand for three academic societies: The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS).

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

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Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting.