by Kavya Madhavpeddi
This morning, Prof. Ortiz Cuadra, author of Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture and Identity came to speak with us about the relationship between race, food, land, and migration in Puerto Rico. More specifically, Prof. Ortiz spoke about the significance migration had on Puerto Rican foods and culture. In addition to bringing us Puerto Rican foods deriving from African slave cooking, he guided us to a beach and mangrove forest in the Piñones area of Puerto Rico, and introduced us to Kiosko La Comay, a classic Puerto Rican street-style food vendor. Our discussions today affirmed some of the major themes portrayed in his book–that Puerto Rico’s “dynamic arc of food” has created a unique cultural identity among islanders, and that many modifications and additions were made to traditional Puerto Rican food to create the food we see on the island today (Ortiz Cuadra 13).
Ortiz Cuadra explained that the Northern Plains of Puerto Rico, including Piñones, are characterized by sand dunes, formed by strong currents from the Arctic Ocean, as well as marshlands, lagoons, wetlands, and immigrated flora, brought by various participants of the Columbian exchange. These lands were originally inhabited by Native Indians, but were largely used for plantation and farming purposes by the 1500s when enslaved Africans were brought to Puerto Rico to work the land. Although these African slaves were at first dependent on their owner’s food supply, they increasingly began to develop their own cuisine in oder to meet their own needs.
For example, enslaved Africans would steal molasses from the sugar plantations in which they worked so they could make highly sugared foods which could keep them energized throughout the workday. When slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873, many people started selling these foods on the street. Eventually, these foods became very popular during the process of urbanization, during which they were perceived as “traditional” island foods. Prof. Ortiz Cuadra brought the following sugary foods to us for sampling: tortilla de cassava, dulce de coco, and dulce de almendra y coco. He explained that many upper-class Puerto Ricans visited the historically lower-income Piñones area in search of these African-influenced foods.
These desserts are not the only Puerto Rican foods heavily influenced by migration. Ortiz Cuadra explained that foods such as coconut, sugar cane, rice, banana, yams, plantain, and breadfruit were brought to the island by foreigners, and therefore, are not indigenous to the territory. These foods, which are largely used in modern Puerto Rican cuisine, came to the island through Columbus’ second voyage, the Caribbean Exchange, and through exchanges with Britain, Spain, and Asia. Interestingly, the blending of these diverse cultures produced what we know as modern day Puerto Rican cuisine. At the same time, the food we see today “works to establish group or community identity” in Puerto Rico (Ortiz Cuadra 9).
At Kiosko La Comay, we were able to taste authentic Puerto Rican street food, which mostly consisted of fried foods such as pastelillos and tostones. Although Ortiz Cuadra debunked the idea that the street food was “traditional Puerto Rican food,” by explaining that fried food is relatively new to Puerto Rican cuisine, and only became popular with industrialization, it was evident that the food was a product of many years of cultural synthesis. In addition to using indigenous, truly traditional food, such as Yuca, the vendors also utilized non-indigenous foods such as plantains, breads, meats and seafood.
Today’s discussions, trips, and tastings truly showed me that migration, colonialism, and trade have affected Puerto Rico’s culture, in terms of food, race relations, and land use. Puerto Rico is thus a true amalgamation of cultures, and a melting pot for diversity.