This spring I was gave a talk about identity, family,Puerto Rican culture, and mofongo at TEDx PiscataquaRiver. Watch it on YouTube, or read the full transcript below.
[TRANSCRIPT]* Every Dish Has a Story: Mapping My Food History
I love mofongo…
It’s a traditional Puerto Rican dish made by frying, then smashing green plantains, then adding garlic, olive oil, and chicharrón or fried pork skins.
It’s super rico … really delicious. If you haven’t had mofongo before, maybe you’re looking at this image and thinking—“That looks like some really heavy deep-fried food!”
When I look at mofongo, I see creativity, ingenuity, and fusion. I see indigenous techniques and African ingredients. I see Spanish colonialism and U.S. imperialism.
I see my history.
Each of you has a food story. Doesn’t matter if your family came from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Bulgaria, Trinidad, or Ireland. Our foods map our history, and tell stories that often go untold. They tell the history of migration and diasporas, of colonies and tribes. They also tell more intimate stories about our families, of how they grew and changed over time.
You can read these histories in chop suey, in baklava, in burritos and gumbo. Because every dish has a story.
I was born in Puerto Rico, but raised in the suburbs outside of Atlanta, GA.
There are millions of Puerto Ricans across the U.S., actually more on the mainland than on the island … though perhaps not so many here in New Hampshire. And those of us here on the mainland, we’re an immigrant community who aren’t really immigrants.
You see, I was born a citizen; but like so many immigrants I felt like an outsider, and my language, customs, and foods were strange to those around me. When I was in grade school and parents sent their kids to class with holiday cookies and cakes, my mom sent me to school with arroz con dulce – a coconut rice pudding with cinnamon … and raisins.
Growing up in the South was tough. Back then there weren’t any Latinos in my neighborhood, and I met few Puerto Ricans. We spoke Spanish at home, and at Catholic mass on Sundays. But otherwise I didn’t see my culture reflected around me. No salsa music blaring from cars, no guava pastries in the bakeries…
I grew up pretty southern—saying y’all and ma’am, eating cheese grits and fried okra. Over time I grew more connected to the South, and today I’m proud to claim my southern identity.
I struggled with my Latina identity in the South, but I also struggled with my Southern identity in Puerto Rico.
As a kid I often traveled to Puerto Rico, and spent whole summers with my grandmother, Tata. Most mornings I woke up sweaty and miserable. I could barely sleep thanks to the neighbors hollering all night … and motorcycles with busted engines that screeched by every 15 minutes.
And the heat! I was a super American kid. I needed air-conditioning, and because my Spanish was pitiful and my manners so … American … I had an impossible time making friends and would spend those summers lonely and feeling like an outsider there too. I felt like I didn’t belong in the South or Puerto Rico. I didn’t know where I belonged.
But my grandmother was an amazing cook, and introduced me to the flavors that I’m obsessed with today. Despite my identity crisis, one thing I was really good at in Puerto Rico … was eating. Whenever there was food, I ate.
As you can imagine I got rounder and rounder as the weeks went by. My mom used to say I looked like a meatball with legs when I came home. But I didn’t just pack on the pounds in PR – I also started learning the techniques and ingredients I needed to make these dishes. And the more I tasted and learned about these foods, the more at home I felt. Puerto Rican food became my tether to the island, and a gateway to a culture that was complicated for me.
Eight years ago, Tata was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She struggled with dementia, at times seeing things that weren’t there, and often forgetting the names of her kids and grandkids. She also couldn’t cook anymore. She couldn’t chop, was constantly burning things, and confused everyday herbs like culantro and oregano. One day, she heated a whole can of soup in the microwave.
She still loved to eat, and I cooked for her every chance I got. Because even though she couldn’t remember how much garlic went in the adobo spice rub for a pernil or pork shoulder, she knew when it tasted right.
A couple years ago I got my hands on Tata’s 1962 copy of her favorite Puerto Rican cookbook, Cocina Criolla. Think of it as the Puerto Rican ‘Joy of Cooking’. It’s been republished 68 times, with only slight changes, and is still widely used.
Ask any Puerto Rican you know – and I bet they’ll have a copy in their family.
I started what I’ve been calling the Cocina Criolla project … cooking my way through Tata’s cookbook Julie & Julia style. I wanted to soak up every bit of taste memory Tata had, to know what made her smile and say “Que rico!” or frown and say “Wakala!”
But in many ways the Julie & Julia comparison doesn’t quite translate. We all know who Julia Child was; she was famous, trained in French kitchens, and had a fierce, loyal following.
Carmen Aboy Vall-dejuli, the author of Cocina Criolla, was a self-taught home cook. She never had a TV show or a newspaper column; she wasn’t a celebrity. The recipes you find in the pages of her book are intuitive. They reflect the ingredients, techniques, and dishes of her time. Cocina Criolla isn’t the Joy of Cooking, or the Betty Crocker cookbook. As I started cooking my way through it, I ran into … challenges.
First, the recipes are very time consuming. Some required marinating meats two days in advance, followed by hours of slow-cooking. I’m not a home-maker, I have a full-time job, so coming home at the end of a long day to start making a dish that takes 4 hours, simultaneously overheating my apartment, taking 5 or 6 pots and pans, every surface in my kitchen and dining area and sometimes the bathroom (which happens to be in my kitchen)… only to have dinner ready after midnight… wasn’t working.
Second, almost all the recipes are incredibly heavy, and fattening. Most dishes include lard or tons of olive oil. And there are almost no vegetables. Where there are vegetables, they are either canned or cooked to smithereens.
In many ways this kind of cooking reminded me of food from a place I was much more familiar with: the South.
Now, we know that Southern food today is more than just fried chicken and mac ‘n cheese. But a lot of traditional Southern food involves tons of butter, frying, and putting bits of fatty pork into just about everything to add flavor. This means heavy, fattening, starchy, and ultimately filling foods. Foods meant to sustain folks who worked hard … like farmers and laborers.
And here is where it started to make sense to me, and I began to understand what the two places where I’d grown up had in common.
Puerto Rico became a Spanish colony more than 500 years ago.
The majority of indigenous Taínos were rapidly killed or enslaved, and huge communities of African slaves were brought to the island to work the fields and sugar plantations. The surviving Taínos taught the African slaves how they cooked and what grew on the island, and these slaves shared ingredients and techniques from their home countries, like plantains … cultivating rice, grinding spices to make flavorful pastes, and preserving meats by frying them in oil. And these techniques and ingredients are still seen in Puerto Rican dishes today.
If you haven’t tasted Puerto Rican food before, you probably assume that it’s like Spanish food because of its colonial history.
You do see Spanish influence in Puerto Rican dishes and flavors … in things like bean stews with chorizo, and potato and egg tortilla Española.
But Puerto Rican food is nothing like food from other Spanish colonies, like Mexican, Argentina, or Peru. It’s an absolute hybrid that has as much in common with Spain as with Jamaica or the American South.
Because like the South, Puerto Rico had a plantation economy, run by thousands of slaves who needed heavy foods to keep them going in the fields. So instead of the light gazpachos and delicately-flavored paellas … in Puerto Rico you have rice and beans, and boiled yucca.
This shared history of African slavery in Puerto Rico and the American South has had a lasting impact on how people in these regions eat. And the story of just how African these cuisines are … is one that often goes untold.
In Puerto Rico, this story has yet another chapter. When the island became a U.S. territory over 100 years ago, it started a process that led to …
Mofongo … a dish that is such a fusion of Indigenous, African, and Spanish ingredients and flavors …
… Being stuffed into a turkey. It’s sometimes called a pavochón, because it’s seasoned like a traditional pork roast or lechón.
I grew up in Puerto Rico and Atlanta, but today I live in East Harlem or El Barrio, an iconic Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York City. In the summers the streets are filled with salsa music, and piragueros in push-carts selling coconut shaved ice. My local grocery stores have ingredients I’ve only ever seen in Puerto Rico – salt cod, guava paste, anatto seeds, and every kind of Goya product you can imagine.
These foods have taken on a new life for me. I grew up cooking them with my family …
But now I make these foods in my tiny New York kitchen, for my friends.
It smells just like Tata’s kitchen—but it’s not. The food I’m making is fresher, healthier, with brighter, lighter flavors – but still tied to the history and traditional methods that make this cuisine so unique.
I’ve made dozens of recipes from the book ranging from beef tongue to sweet plantain casserole. Some of my friends are Puerto Rican, but many aren’t, and I’ve introduced them to flavors they’ve never had before. And … with the exception of the beef tongue … people always clean their plates.
Through this project, I’m doing a lot of experimenting. I recently made tembleque – a type of coconut panna cotta that’s so common and popular it’s even made in instant pudding form. I used a Cocina Criolla recipe and made coconut milk from scratch. It was totally worth it.
I’ve also taken this project completely out of my tiny kitchen. In November I hosted a supper club at Lucky Luna, a Mexican Taiwanese restaurant in Brooklyn. I designed a menu with heavily adapted recipes that included a chayote and green bean salad with avocado, and bao – or steamed buns – with pernil and ahi-li-mojili sauce.
I’m not the only one longing to find a new ways to explore Puerto Rican cuisine. On the island, chefs are starting to look more closely at it’s indigenous and African roots. Puerto Rican farmers are beginning to cultivate things that have simply never been grown there before, like greens and other vegetables. Because Puerto Rico is an island – like Cuba and the Dominican Republic – that was cultivated for sugar cane, not kale.
Tata passed away on March 7th. I recently found a note from her, which she sent in the mail along with another of her favorite Puerto Rican cookbooks. In it she said she was proud of me, that I reminded her of herself, and how happy it made her that I loved to cook, like she had. Now, I’m working on a cookbook based on this project, to pass along her incredible gift of connecting me to my history and culture through cooking, and to honor her in each of its pages.
As I continue to explore Cocina Criolla, and share its recipes with my friends and love ones, I’ve learned so much. Because when I share these dishes with folks who’ve never tasted Puerto Rican flavors, I talk to them about their own families, what they ate as kids, and how food … connects all of us. It all started for me when I got curious about one dish.
When you go home today, or the next time you sit down with your family for a weeknight meal, or over the holidays, I hope you’ll get curious. Is there an ingredient or dish that you’ve always wondered about? Did your Greek grandmother make the most delicious Indian food you’ve ever had? What’s in that brown sauce your dad puts on ribs? And just how does your mom make the absolute best flan?
I hope you’ll trace it back, share what you learn with your friends and loved ones, and start to build a deeper understanding of how what you eat is much more than what tastes good or what you grew up with. The things we eat say so much about where we’re from, and even more about who we want to be.
*Presentation differs slightly from transcript text.