Gastronomy in Puerto Rico

Unfortunately, our trip is coming to a close. Today, we had the opportunity to experience Puerto Rico through a more organic cultural lens, rather than a more traditional academic one. We started the day with the author of Eating Puerto Rico, Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra; he provided a brief run-through of Puerto Rico’s history in the framework of trade, raw materials, and ingredients that have had an impact on the dishes we see in Puerto Rico today. The influence of slave trade, the Columbian Exchange and two colonizations were the building blocks for modern day components of the Puerto Rican diet. In other words, we learned how these political events were huge catalysts in what people eat. Imports in result of these events, such as sugar and rice, are examples of items that still play a major role in Puerto Rican cuisine today.

To see how immigration and slavery has been a part of Puerto Rico’s culinary capital, we took a trip to Piniones/Loiza. Pinones and Loiza are areas of the island that are predominately black/Dominican. Adjacent to the jaw-dropping beach landscape, are endless food kiosks. We saw this Dominican influence in the form of these kiosks. Seeing this Dominican pocket solidified the fact that there might not be such a thing as “Puerto Rican food.” Instead, it is a compilation of many different culture’s cuisines due to this complex history of colonization, trade and slavery. Puerto Rico’s food has always been a product of major political and economical events.

Our evening activity was a trip to Caguas, a town outside of the San Juan area. Here, we did a tasting at a restaurant called Orujo Taller de Gastronomia. Orujo, started as a private dinner club in Chef Carlos Portela’s house and later moved to his location in Caguas. Chef Portela truly recognized the importance of elevating “Puerto Rican cuisine” into something more modern and more delicate. We were fortunate enough to experience this through his four-course tasting. Each dish was layered with innovative flavor profiles, yet still paid homage to his Puerto Rican roots in one way or another. More importantly for our class theme, Chef Portela pointed out his mission to create dishes that have at least one ingredient grown or produced on the island. He hopes to have every ingredient come from the island one day in the future, but also pointed out the challenges that go along with that goal.

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This more upscale, refined take on the cuisine with the value on local ingredients was a helpful way to see what the future of the Puerto Rican dining culture could be. After debriefing with the classmates about the day, it was clear that the “celebrifying” of chefs and promotion of nouveau cuisine could be one a catalyst for agricultural change. It is obvious that we must reach all groups and come at an issue from multiple angles to be successful; this could be the channel that affects change in the specific socio-economic class known as the middle to upper class.

Sometimes I think that experiential learning is even more valuable than sitting in classroom. Today proved this to be true. Being free to just experience and explore a topic at our own pace through our own eyes was extremely beneficial coming off of such a concentrated and condensed week of education. Having the day to relax and share special meals together was the perfect way to digest, reflect and appreciate this amazing week of cultural and political education.

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