Cuisine is a conversation. Foodways are not static and nothing traditional is the age people think it is. For a culinary tradition as circumstantial and inventive as Puerto Rican food, this is especially true, as new low-cost ingredients get incorporated into old patterns. That’s where this entry in our journey appears: pasta in tomato sauce, but make it Puerto Rican.
Immigrants are always homesick. This is the core of our story. Even those of us who flee horrific circumstances have at least one thing we remember fondly, or that becomes fond when it is gone. To emigrate is to surround oneself with the unfamiliar, and to live in the echoing absence of what was once everywhere. There are days when those echoes are a deafening cacophony, laying down the impossible demand of that incoherent word, home.
Ottawa’s yearly Latin festival puts the many feelings of that word into focus. This gathering of my people in the plaza before Ottawa City Hall is a riot of sensation. Live music invites listeners to come close, and an uproar of food smells permeates the area. Hand-written signs advertise our regional specialties with words I rarely see even on our restaurant menus, and every spoonful of yellow rice and chunk of slow-roasted pork is a portal to a world I left long ago. Even the less familiar offerings, Peruvian noodles that take notes from South America’s Chinese community and Colombian pastries I’ve never tried, come with our unmistakable aroma and style.
“This is what it means to be a girl, isn’t it? To never feel like enough.”
I wrote these words as one of the sadder moments in “The Prom Pine,” a short story whose fanfiction version you can read here. (The non-fanfiction version, an extended narrative meditation on dissociation and its uses, will appear in a future edition of Spoon Knife.) It’s true that this world imposes that pressure on women in general, with every ad for makeup, diet, clothing, exercise, and more promising relief from that anhedonic treadmill, but trans women face a special pressure here. The outside world doles out validation in proportion to our efforts to conform to cisfeminine expectations, and we often start from difficult positions, testosterone poisoning setting us back before we even begin. It takes eons of soul-searching to find the lines between gender dysphoria, social conditioning, and everything else. I’ve found a whole other line, and it weighs on me now.
I used to think I didn’t get attached to places. The past was a haze, an awful mystery I yearned to escape. My heart was not heavy when my family moved us from New Jersey to Florida when I was 10, and it was lighter still when I finally left Miami to seek my fortunes in Ottawa, Canada. I had much to flee. It was only later that I found something to mourn.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and with that size comes more regional variety than outsiders realize. In particular, the Oriente region of Cuba, facing Haiti and closer to the equator than the rest of this already-tropical island, are known for spicier fare than parts farther north. Bayamo, one of the oldest cities in Cuba, is at the heart of this region, and gives its name to this curious casserole.
A quick survey of the dishes I’ve presented so far might present the impression that Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s primary proteins are sausage, beans, and beef. Beef certainly has a prominent place in Cuban cuisine, but in Puerto Rico, the place of honor goes to the pig. (And we haven’t even started exploring the chicken possibilities that these gastronomies offer.) Like everything else about Puerto Rican cooking, the pig became the fixture it is today because pigs are easier to raise in Puerto Rico’s difficult terrain than cattle, and less expensive for an island with a long history of poverty and neglect from is colonial masters. I’ve neglected my way into a nostalgic fixation with the pork dishes of my youth, so, here are chuletas a la jardinera, or, “garden pork chops.”
He wasn’t odd.
Emma González gives me hope.
I cannot often say that about my people. I am by turns disappointed in each half of my heritage, but it is my Cuban half that inspires the most sadness. And when I watch Emma González, I feel that unfamiliar rise in my heart, and know that my people will be better than we have been.
This recipe is as much a requiem as a celebration.
Frijoles negros, black beans, are at the center of the Antillean Hispanic culinary constellation. Any group meal will have them, any celebration platter will center them, and any rotation of different dishes will find them eventually. One does not experience the food of Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic without dining on black beans and rice. I made this meal the center of numerous efforts to impress non-Hispanic paramours, and I kept it in my repertoire because of how constant, and powerful, its memories are.
The papa rellena, or “filled potato,” is some of Latin America’s finest party food. A papa rellena is mashed potato made into a meat-filled dumpling/fritter, breaded, and deep-fried. They emerge from the fryer looking like small loaves of golden-brown joy, and provide a deeply engaging combination of textures when bitten. I’m a big fan, and I challenged myself recently with learning how to make them, as part of a foray into more technically challenging Hispanic recipes.