More than rice and beans

More than rice and beans, Puerto Rican cuisine is a seductive stew of traditional and refreshing new flavors. From the humble beginnings of the Taino Indians to the most recent culinary boom, the story behind the local diet brings to life who we are as people and the realities that make us the resilient community we are today. It’s a reflection of our individual and collective dreams throughout time.

Every islander can tell this culinary story from a very unique angle. The traditions that our mothers choose to carry on, the family diners that we continue to celebrate, our exposure to new restaurants, the rebirth of a self-sustaining conscience and the migratory experience find a way into this larger woven narrative that illustrates the evolution and current state of our cuisine.

Within that beautifully complex spectrum of cultural connections and individual stories, we each create our personal interpretation of what this cuisine is. And of course, most of us have that key person in our lives who directly influenced our diet, the ingredients we believe to be ours, how we season our meals and the flavors that we associate with home.

In my life, that person is my grandma, which is curious because grandma Isabel wasn’t exactly the most sophisticated cook. She was a busy stylist in the Condado area back in the 50’s and 60’s, when it wasn’t considered a glamorous profession. Her life was practical, and so was her cooking. Her motto in life was that “there’s no reason to complicate things that don’t need to be complicated” and that also applied in the kitchen.

An avocado, a sweet potato or a few cups of gandules could easily become the star of any soup, salad or main dish with a drizzle of olive oil and garlic. She would focus her energy into quickly transforming ingredients into a complete meal, without diluting the essence of those ingredients. What comes from the ground was particularly sacred to her. All you really need to enjoy them is a “good dose of hunger”.

Needless to say, my grandma didn’t believe in canned items very much, unless you were talking about Rovira export soda crackers. Not sure why, but she obsessively loved those crackers in the green tin can! Real food, she would say, doesn’t come packed. It’s what you grow in a small plot of land or a tin can or what you get at the Plaza del Mercado. Isabel was a country girl and she grew up having to grow and find her own ingredients.

Her childhood stories in barrio Canovanillas are my favorite. While the kids of my generation could always count on a pantry stocked with Chef Boyardee spaghetti, Ritz crackers and Cheese Whiz, my grandma had amazing hunting and survival stories. Forget about Chapulín Colorado! My grandma was a true heroine.

Raised mostly by her dad in an agricultural sector north of the island, her family’s humble wood shack had no floor. Where the wall ended, there was dirt; her naked feet were always muddied. Yet, it wasn’t a sad childhood. At least, her memories were happy memories. The world back then was a very different one.

While her dad worked, she and her brothers would go out to look for adventures free of parental supervision. The river was their personal pool; the massive centenary trees were their hideout. And nothing was better than sliding down the hills on gigantic yagua leaves. She never lacked anything.

But of course, she would devour anything that was put on her plate. ("Comía con hambre"). Aside from snacking on fresh fruit from around the neighborhood, Isabel didn’t experience the abundance of food we take for granted today — which would somehow make ingredients "taste even better". Every fruit from the ground, every fish from the ocean, every bird from the sky was treasured.

Perhaps that’s why among her most precious belongings, she had an artisanal slingshot made by her brother Cruz. Isabel and Cruz would spend hours patiently peeking out the window, waiting for a family of pigeons to rest on a clothesline. When least expected, they would aim and shoot with expert precision, securing a decent meal for all of their siblings. It was time to pluck the birds clean and season them with salt, pepper and garlic —the “gourmet” specialty of the household.

Life could be deliciously simple if you fought for it.

Growing up with so many of these stories, you can probably understand why I couldn’t help to buy my very own slingshot at the corner hardware store.… not that I ever dared eating a wild pigeon in my lifetime! My mom, of course, wouldn’t allow it either. Life in San Juan in the 80s was worlds apart from my grandma’s. All I knew were microwaves and TV dinners and convenience, and just the idea of eating something remotely similar sounded pretty barbaric.

At home, many of our weekly meals involved a little help from our friends Lipton, Campbell’s, Chef Boyardee and a number of prefabricated meals for parents working over 60 hours a week. Shortcuts were already standard, and even encouraged.

All of the modern conveniences made me asked myself why would my grandma insist on growing gandules in the backyard when you could easily buy them at the store. Why spend the time to grow them, shell them, clean them and tenderize them? Her answer was always “we have to do it”.

Isabel had migrated from the country to the city, became a working woman, adapted herself to a new world, but still couldn’t and wouldn’t disconnect herself from the ground. Whether it was in a small apartment or her house, she would always find a way to grow something. Nothing would give her more security, physical and financial stability like a little plot of land.

She would say that regardless of the job you have, the amount of money you make or where you want to go in life, it’s that connection to the land and the food you choose to eat that’ll nourish everything you do. It's what keeps you balanced, focused, and grounded.

Your dishes and their flavors should also come organically. If you’re missing an ingredient in a given season, it’s the perfect opportunity to try something different and create a new combination. Your diet evolves accordingly, and it becomes more interesting with the ingredients that make it to your table year after year.

That was basically my grandma’s culinary philosophy and it’s the one I decided to borrow.

Like Isabel’s story, there are many great ones on our island. There are authors, defenders and legacies. I find them by following local chefs or by visiting great local restaurants, like Santaella or Casita Blanca. I find them at the local farmer’s markets, farms and stores. I find them through the amazing Puerto Rican food bloggers living on and off the island. Even when we travel, I find my fellow countryman and their unique stories everywhere I go.

Something good is happening, regardless of any obstacles that come our way. More than rice and beans, our cuisine has beautiful depth and meaning behind all of its ingredients and flavors. What better time than now to highlight everything it represents?... What’s your story?

Click here for the Spanish Version of this post.

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