An Exodus and a Return: A Cook's Journey with Puerto Rico's Comida Criolla

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An Exodus and a Return: A Cook's Journey with Puerto Rico's Comida Criolla

My grandparents, my mother in tow, moved to Sacramento, California during the great emigration of the 1950s. Operation Bootstrap was in full effect, and Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate continued to increase — as did its population. This gave the United States justification for sterilization of impoverished Puerto Rican women under the legalization of such social science research.

And so, my grandparents extracted their roots, disappeared into the night and eventually I was born along the banks of the Sacramento Delta. I spent every day with my grandma. My phantom family was a thicker-than-water bunch before the 1980s crack epidemic tumbled into urban areas at the speed of light and lingered over underrepresented socioeconomic families like a sinister version of Winnie the Pooh’s little black raincloud. Secrets layered like weathered paint on a dilapidated house. The family had been barely holding on by a thread, only coming together for holidays to consume the food of the motherland. Sofrito seemed to be the only thing keeping my family rooted to the island. Eventually the family finally dispersed into separate line-in-the-sand pods like bamboozled religious followers; sometimes I wonder if the phantoms were ever really there.

After finishing culinary school, my brother-in-law talked me into creating a cookbook. It was the perfect opportunity to document my grandmother’s recipes — recipes normally passed down oratorically. Through watching my grandmother perform her recipes and doing online research, comparing her techniques to others, what I hadn’t known before is that her style of cooking was considered old-fashioned “cocina criolla.” Because she had moved to Sacramento, virtually isolated from other Puerto Ricans, she hadn’t adapted the shortcuts that many Puerto Ricans on the mainland had. She made her sofrito from scratch (not a bottle), she cooked her beans from dried beans (not a can). These techniques virtually disappeared. If this was happening on the internet, there had to be more out there that I didn’t know about. My brother-in-law and I planned a trip to Puerto Rico and I invited my cousin.

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My self-published and Kickstarter funded cookbooklet was on its way from the printers. It took a disappeared connection with my family to reconnect with my culture. But, I was just a first-generation-born phantom. I walked out of Luis Munoz airport and was slapped by the oppressive heat and humidity; it was my first time in Puerto Rico.

Our taxi shuffled through cars as we flew past concrete housing developments, myriad of satellite dishes reaching for the sky like vines to sunlight. This was not the Puerto Rico in the postcards. Financial turmoil was on the minds of many Puerto Ricans, both on the island and the mainland. Constantly in the peripheral sight of the mainland, the future of Puerto Rico is uncertain. No longer a colonial need for free slave labor on sugar cane plantations, or using Vieques as a military bombing test site, the US doesn’t need Puerto Rico.

But what do you do with an island of a million people? The hopes of the island might be banking on the diaspora that sit on the mainland. While the younger generation loses the will to create the food of our grandmothers (favoring the addictive spell of American fast food chains), perhaps it’s also the task of the Puerto Rican mainlanders to preserve the traditional recipes of our ancestors.

I was unable to track down any of my family members past my great-grandmother through genealogy websites; surnames were changed through time, through distance, through a need to excommunicate themselves. At least we could track down one of the last remaining cooks that utilizes a pre-colonial method of cooking; the metal plancha called the “buren.”

In the town of Loiza exists El Buren de Lula, an eatery owned by a 79-year-old woman named Lula that has become a beacon of history and culture in a town where descendants of slaves built their communities.

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According to some residents of Loiza, Lula is the last remaining institute that perpetually uses the buren, a metal plancha that is the closest recreation of a cooking surface used by Tainos. And after she passes, the craft could disappear. Lula cooks pre-colonial recipes, a lot of which feature coconut and cassava, on the buren.

We almost didn’t make it out to her. The day before proved to us that GPS was virtually useless and that maps only work if you have a general idea of where you’re going. We walked down to the Plaza de Armas and convinced a driver to take us out to Loiza. The driver proved a necessary force: historian, navigator, translator and diplomat. We finally pulled up to the ramshackle eatery. As we walked into the open and dim kitchen with glassless windows, smoke billowed from the large metal flattop that dominated an entire side of the room.

There stood a stoic and sturdy Lula, manning the entire buren on her own. Lula uses coconuts husks — fed in a pit that stands outside of her kitchen — as her fuel.

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My cousin and I were enamored by this woman, not only for her sweetness, but because she looked like our grandma. Lula was convinced we’d be impressed with her cassava bread.

She grates cassava – which many of us know as yuca, a drought-tolerant woody tuber that has a waxy exterior and starchy interior, and can be interchanged with potatoes. Then, Lula separates the water from the flesh in cheesecloth, allows it to dry and uses it as flour.

Lula grabbed a primitive wooden mold, placed it on the buren, dumped handfuls of the cassava flour into the mold and left it alone. She added nothing more than the flour — no liquid. After a minute, she flipped the mold and the bread was solid, golden-brown and crispy. She told us to informally dip a piece into a bubbling cauldron of red liquid, and it was delicious. The bread tasted like pure yuca, but with a toasted nutty notes. Dipped into the unidentified seasoned red sauce, it mirrored the act of dipping bread into an Italian gravy. We were impressed, and I made a mental note to definitely steal that idea.

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After we gorged ourselves on rice with blue land crab, pig’s feet, beans and pumpkin pudding, I stood alone outside her restaurant and fed her chickens. The restaurant started to fill up. As the tradewinds started to envelope me, the voices mingled with the soft boleros being played and together they spilled out of the restaurant windows. I started to cry.

Here was Lula, who reminded me so much of my grandmother. Not only were they the same age, but they were cooking traditional foods using techniques that are now considered outmoded. And it probably has never occurred to either of them that it should be any other way. If eventually what’s old is now new again, then I guess I’m coming around the bend at the right time where the diaspora is searching for its roots that were once wildly grasping for a foundation. Lula’s cooking and my grandma’s cooking has taught me to be okay with cooking traditional food and through traditional food you can find a connection.

Sadly, I lost my grandmother exactly a month after my return from Puerto Rico, 12 days after her 77th birthday. My grandmother raised me, and although she passed away, her spirit lives on through the food I create. I may not be able to track down my ancestors, but I know they’re there. The one thing that remained unscathed was the food. Through cooking my grandmother’s food I learned everything about her; strife, unrequited love, poverty. Every time I cook, I’m connecting with the phantoms. Through my cookbooklet I have documented our phantom history, it contains my grandmother’s recipes. I am connected.

illyanna Maisonet currently lives in Oakland, California. She’s interested in the preservation of the Puerto Rican diaspora’s traditional and regional foods. Her work’s been featured with Lucky Peach and in her cookbooklet, Gorda Eats: A Puerto Rican Cookbook.

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