RENDERED 8: A Diasporican Pantry
On shouldering cultural baggage, my Puertorriqueñidad, and yearning
Hello, and welcome back. In this month's RENDERED, I want to take you on a tour of a Diasporican pantry. (That is, the Puerto Rican diaspora.) "A," not "the" Diasporican pantry. There is an overlap between the ingredients, the food and who taught me to make it, where they came from, and the cultural system into which I was socialized. It's all connected, and like so many things that conjure up mixed feelings, it's hard to cook the food without smelling the smells that bring back the memories. The memories can be inspiring, painful, caustic, or shameful, but they are mine, and thus completely subjective.
The book Eating Puerto Rico by Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra presents two foundational ideas that I adopt here as fact: first, that there is an association between food and national identity; second, that our "palate's memories" link taste with memories and emotions, even "sensations of estrangement." (p.2)
You can't separate food from its history, nor can you pick and choose what memories and associations come up. Smell and taste are so strongly linked to memory, what comes up is automatic. Just like every ingredient has a story, a path its traced through a turbulent history, so does each recipe: every set of hands that has made it has infused their essence into the recipe. Each generation that cooks it inherits that history, tweaks the proportions a bit, leaving their own mark, then passes it down. This leaves me asking: what have I inherited along with these recipes? What cultural and familial baggage comes with these traditions? Who is looking to take advantage of those memories?
In this month's edition, I want to give you a glimpse into my memories, introduce you to my formative food vocabulary, and explore my roots: cultural, historical, gender-based.
Rice was introduced to Puerto Rico by the Spanish, and likely cultivated by the enslaved African population who had come from areas of West Africa that had already had a rice-cultivating culture for thousands of years. The Spanish saw rice as merely a foodstuff, and focused their early efforts on gold extraction, and the Indigenous population already had a well-developed food system with no need for this foreign ingredient. But when the gold extraction gave way to sugar production, more Africans were brought to the island as slave labor. Combine a familiarity with rice cultivation, with the fact that it took well to the climate, and you had a reliable source of nourishment.
The mainstay of a Puerto Rican household is rice. With rice, a few shelf-stable pantry ingredients like tomato sauce and canned meat, and some sofrito, you can feed a family. Growing up, we always had a large bag of rice in the pantry, tied off with a rubber band to keep any pests out, and the grains in. Rice stretches your ingredients further, and even if you have no meat, it forms a complete protein when served with beans.
You could always count on my grandmother to have a bite to eat. Whenever you'd go to her place to visit, it seemed like her caldero was always on the stove, at the ready: either to prepare a fresh batch of seasoned rice and beans, or already full of rice ready to be reheated. It wasn't until her funeral that I understood why that was, and just how many people that caldero had fed.
My Grama and her rice in that caldero, all cornerstones of my formative years: steadfast, reliable, warm, sustaining. She'd show up at the house with a pot of rice, wrapped in a cloth to carry it all, and you knew you were in good hands. She had an unshakeable faith that everything would turn out all right. For all that she had to deal with during her life, somehow, she never let it harden her heart. Me, I still have a lot to learn. Every time I make my own rice recipe, part of me is searching for a remnant of that steadfastness.
To make white rice:
Measure the rice into a heavy-bottomed pot, rinse a couple times and check for stones. Cover with enough water to go up to your first knuckle of your index finger, add a drab of oil and a generous spoonful of salt, and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Stir one time, once enough water has boiled off to create a risotto-like consistency. Cover tightly and lower the heat to low. Cook about 20 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all water, taken on a fluffy texture, and become just tender.
A perfect pot of white rice gives you tender grains, without a hint of mushiness. After many trials and much practice, a perfect pot of rice has a crackling, thick layer of golden-crispy pegao stuck to the bottom. Once the soft rice has been served, the pegao is lifted off with a heavy spoon, tossed into a bowl, and fought over. Or, in my house, pegao is eaten straight out of the pot with gusto. You can't short-cut your way to crispy pegao. (Take that, Gordon Ramsay.)
Mountains of ajíes, heads of garlic, green bell peppers, bundles of fresh cilantro leaves. My tiny fingers plucking stems off the little mild peppers and peeling garlic cloves. Mom and Grama worked the food processor: bowls of fragrant mush, puréed with a touch of neutral oil, then poured into empty margarine tubs.
The backbone of Puerto Rican cooking, sofrito ingredients and proportions vary, and how much you use depends on the cook (me, I tend to be a bit heavy-handed...) Fragrant and evocative, it smells like home, Mom, Grama. Sofrito is the flavor base of Puerto Rican cooking, reflective of the blended history of Puerto Rico: annatto (achiote), peppers and wild coriander (recao/culantro) from the Indigenous tradition, onions and garlic from the Spanish.
Like a soundtrack during the times I'd help in the kitchen, I heard the whispers in Spanish, to keep me none the wiser to things not meant for children's ears. I was a perceptive child who could read between the lines, though: bad things were happening, which stained the air.
Explicitly and implicitly, we learn from our environments about who we're supposed to be.
I learned about who I was expected to become, and that women hid their problems.
Here in France, I use piment végétarien instead of ají dulce. (Here, they are available at the international market in my neighborhood, which carries ingredients from the Antilles, Asia, Madagascar, and West Africa.) These little mild peppers are in the same family as habaneros, only without the heat. If you can't find any ají dulce or piment végétarien, then buzz up some fresh cilantro, garlic, green bell pepper, and maybe a touch of onion, and you've got yourself a perfectly respectable sofrito. If you find the jarred stuff in your local market, don't bother. Make it fresh, or don't use it at all.
Crackers and Cheese
Large tins stacked with export sodas (saltine crackers). Spread with butter or serve with chunks of cheese. Slide it over on a paper towel, alongside a cup of cafecito (coffee with a touch of milk and sugar).
Export sodas got their name from the crates of soda crackers imported to Puerto Rico from the United States, labelled "export." Thus, the name "export soda crackers." About 85% of Puerto Rico's food is imported from the United States, which paves the way for high food prices and leaves people susceptible to food shortages. There is very little local food production, as the Spanish set up hugely profitable monocrops of sugar, coffee, and tobacco, which the Americans gladly took over. Economic instability, lack of jobs, and food insecurity are just some of the reasons behind Puerto Rican migration to the mainland United States.
Royal Borinquen and Rovira are two companies based in Puerto Rico that produce these crackers, which were readily available on the East coast of the US while I was growing up. The packaging is instantly recognizable to me, and brings me back to kitchens with plastic-lined tables.
Settings like this showed me the importance of accommodation: be a good host, offer guests to the house some refreshment. Be hospitable. But as a child, I found myself wondering: do you have to accommodate everyone? What if I don't want to? What if they make me uncomfortable? It became part of my education of what it meant to be a girl. I remember crunching into those crackers and being a nice, polite child, while sensing that something wasn't right.
I learned who to lie to, and when to keep things from people, how to give a fractured smile through the confusion and fear, avert my eyes and tell everyone "I'm fine." Because the women are always fine--they have to be. Everything depends on them being fine.
Café Bustelo coffee
Café Bustelo was a staple in our house, and its distinctive label is burned into my memory. I remember reading the label, printed in English and Spanish. I heard people speaking Spanish over their coffees, and I felt so ashamed that I wasn't bilingual. That was just one reason why I felt like an imposter, a pathetic wannabe that didn't deserve to call herself Puerto Rican. The coffee would brew, and that toasty smell would seep into my nerves, and I convinced myself that I would never fit in.
No wonder I don't drink a cup of coffee and feel the warm embrace of Latinidad, that sense of solidity. You can't buy your way into belonging. The acrid taste of corporate bullshit overpowers the aroma of authenticity I was yearning for.
Green bananas (Guineos)
Guineos, or green unripe bananas, will forever be associated with my Grama. When picking up groceries for her, they were always on the list. She'd either leave them on the counter to ripen, or peel and boil them in salted water, as you would a potato or other root vegetable. She'd make the most delicious bacalao (salted codfish) salad with onions and green bananas. At Christmastime, she would grind mountains of them over her trusty box grater to make a sticky purée that would become the base for pasteles (boiled meat pies that resemble tamales). Those two recipes are part of my repertoire now.
Picking up groceries for Grama meant seeing my mother looking out for hers. I come from a strong matriarchal family, where the women kept things together. I learned a lot from watching the women in my family, and those around me in my community.
Somewhere along the line, I learned that men were unstable, unreliable. I was told to watch out for bad men, that I could protect myself if I acted right. I was taught to watch myself, protect myself, learn to fight back, keep my legs closed. I learned that I shouldered the responsibility for protecting myself, but implicitly, that it was necessary because they couldn't help themselves, couldn't be trusted to act right.
Even so, I wasn't prepared to go into a world that had it out for me. My ability to give and take punches didn't protect me from what I would experience. And there is shame in the fact that, even though I followed the advice they gave me, it still didn't protect me. As feminist and writer Mona Eltahawy describes it, our bodies are simultaneously target and asset: a girl that merely exists, a woman that is visible is subject to being victimized.
I'm a product of a culture of violence: one which has suffered, and which has also perpetuated it. What does it do to a girl, to teach her that men and boys are--at best, unreliable, and at worst, violent and uncontrollable--and that she has to learn to live with it? Am I supposed to yearn to belong to a culture that inflicts violence on women?
In 2011, Puerto Rico had the highest per capita rate of femicide in the world of women over the age of 14, committed by their intimate partners. (El Salvador has since taken that spot.) In 2018, after Hurricane Maria, intimate-partner murder rate rose to 1.77 out of 100,000, which is double that of the entire United States. There is an epidemic of gender-based violence, especially against transgender women, in Puerto Rico.
As members of the diaspora community, what does that say to us? That we are products of a society that debases and assaults the feminine, yet expects us to take care of everything and sweep it all under the rug? Who's supposed to protect us, if we can't protect ourselves?
As a little girl with a lot of confused, mixed feelings, I learned early on that the world was a scary place. But that I had to soldier on, buck up, and learn to comfort myself in the kitchen, the last remaining space I could be "okay." So I grate mountains of green bananas at Christmastime, quietly thinking to myself. The memories come, and I keep grating, thinking about the flavors that will come to comfort me, to bring me some peace.
"Sazón" (literally, "seasoning") is a dry seasoning mix that contains cumin (from Spain, via North Africa), ground coriander, black pepper, oregano (all originally brought from Europe to the Caribbean), annatto (achiote, an indigenous ingredient), garlic powder, and salt.
It's commercially available in the United States, sold in boxes in packets, the most famous made by Goya. It's a brand that has made billions from Latin communities, capitalizing on a desire to have a taste of home in a country that wasn't very welcoming, and catering to diasporic Latin communities from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South America with the saccharine slogan, "Tiene que ser bueno!" ("It has to be good!") The company has seen several boycotts, the most recent in 2020, when the CEO voiced emphatic support for our 45th president--the very same president whose administration purposely stalled nearly US$20 billion in relief funds after Hurricane Maria in 2017. But he was just one of a long lineage of presidents who actively advocated for the harm of Puerto Ricans and other communities of color.
What psychological violence is inflicted on a people when they are treated like second-class citizens--when you tell people that their lives don't matter?
Puerto Rico is the world's oldest colony (since 1493); first colonized by Spain, the archipelago was ceded to the United States in 1898. From forced sterilizations to nuclear testing, the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico has been marked by human rights violations rooted in racism, and the characteristic American superiority complex. My family originated in this context, moving to the mainland United States in the 1950's. What generational trauma and emotional burdens must Diasporican families heal from, and how can we do it? How much work can an individual do to heal their own wounds, while shouldering generations' worth of inherited trauma?
I ask these questions not because they have easy answers, but because I need to acknowledge that they exist. I am just one person, who needs to shut herself away from the world every once in a while, in her kitchen.
My life has been marked by a constant yearning: to belong, to be accepted, to be "there" (anywhere but here), to be "okay." To feel at peace. I wonder how much of this yearning was inherited, and how much came from my uncertain sense of self. In my ocean of uncertainty, food has always been my compass, what has brought me back to where I need to be.
My grandmother was a pillar of my life, and I will always associate her with my love of cooking and food. When she departed, I was left wondering: what do I do now? What am I still yearning for? Does that thing I'm yearning for reside outside of myself? Or did she show me how to deal with the estrangement by finding that thing inside myself?
My grandmother had her own secret ingredient, and I have my own. They both play into my cooking, and if you ever have the privilege of tasting anything I make, you will get to experience those flavor memories yourself.
Like whispered prayers over the stove, we sprinkle in secret ingredients while thinking about everything and nothing. Some things should remain secret, and dissolve into the past.
We make peace and let go, so that we may greet tomorrow with a lighter heart.
If you want to know more about the Diasporican experience and Puerto Rican food, check out Illyanna Maisonet, a Calirican food writer who is currently working on a book about it. For recipes, see Reina Gascon-Lopez at The Sofrito Project or Chef Meseidy at The Noshery.
Thanks very much for reading. If you enjoyed this month's piece, please like/comment/share to help this newsletter grow.
If you would like to support my efforts financially, you may consider becoming a Paid Subscriber. Paid subscribers receive bonus content like original art and one bonus narrated essay per month, which I call TIDBITS. I also accept one-off donations via my website.
Be well, take care of your heart, and I'll see you next month.
Berbey, Gabrielle and Alejandra Salazar. "Goya In Three Boycotts." LatinoUSA Podcast, 22 January 2021.
"Brewing Bustelo: the unlikely story of how a Cuban flavor captured the attention of New York and then the Nation." Tenement Museum, Tenement.org.
Conde, Arturo. "In the Iconic Café Bustelo, A Story of New York's Spanish Immigrant Community." NBC News, 16 October 2017.
Davidson, Alan. Tom Jaine, ed. The Oxford Companion to Food. 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 58-9.
de Malave, Louis. "Sterilization of Puerto Rican Women: A Selected, Partially Annotated Bibliography." University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.
González-Ramírez, Andrea. "No End in Sight for Puerto Rico’s Gender Violence Epidemic." The Cut, 5 May 2021.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. p. 378.
Ortíz Cuadra, Cruz M. Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity. Translated by Russ Davidson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. p. 17-20, 41-2, 61-4, 94-5, 155-7, 220, 241.
"Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens, are recruited for war effort." History.com, Updated 1 March 2021.
Reichard, Raquel. "In Puerto Rico, A History Of Colonization Led To An Atrocious Lack of Reproductive Freedom." Refinery29, Updated 20 October 2020.
Sisario, Ben. "Out of the Bodega and Onto the Scene." New York Times, 24 April 2009.
S.W.L. "Why the world has so many Guineas." The Economist, 12 September 2017.
Wade, Peter. "Trump-Appointed Watchdog Finds His Admin. Cheated Puerto Rico on Hurricane Relief, Tried To Hide It." Rolling Stone, 22 April 2021.