We know it is impossible to specify the exact date in which a nation started to exist, but ours, by virtue of so many that deny its existence, has built a fantasy that includes various millenniums, since it is firm in tracing its national origins back to the first wave of inhabitants on the island. To be fair with all theories, let us say that Puerto Rico was established during a period dating between 4000 B.C. and the day before yesterday. Based on the assumption that the formation of Puerto Rico the county is a continuous process, a work in progress, an eternal montage, a collage of nationalistic affirmation, we need to see the development of the Puerto Rican cuisine, and its intrusion in our social and cultural lives, in light of this process.
Our food habits identify and put us on the map, they take us to the past and bring us forward to a present; but most of all, they're embedded in the way we speak, which probably not a day goes by that we don't use food terminology to describe some situation in our daily lives.
And speaking of politics, all radio commentators say: arrimó la brasa a su sardina "the flame came near its sardine"; older people say: "we traveled like a can of sardines" to complain about how squashed together they were in the car, while the younger generation corrects them and say: "we traveled like a can of sausages" (each group embracing the reality of what they used to eat during their times); and when entering the corporate world, we "lovingly" refer to the not so bright executives as ñames (a starchy root vegetable) / yams with ties ".
In Puerto Rico, what we eat is one of the most important elements, if not the most, that characterize our people; but it has progressively shaped throughout time, it is not static and will never be, because tasting is the way to cook.
1. From the Taino Indian in a canoe to a plantain canoe
It is thought that in 4,000 B.C., some Amerindian tribes settled on the west coast, perhaps on the beaches of Cabo Rojo, while others, who came from the southeast, maybe arrived on the beaches of Ceiba. Going deep into the island from all cardinal points, they all decided to stay (as it always happens when new comers arrive and see the wonders of the island), and celebrated their own welcoming party with feasts of probably small crabs and turtledoves, since they didn't know how to sow yet.
Many centuries later, the island was inhabited by the Taino Indians, those legendary indigenous people, founders of the Puerto Rican heritage, whose traditions, names, vocabulary, toponymy and DNA supposedly flow and run through the atavistic memory and veins of every true Puerto Rican. From elementary school, we are taught what historians have been able to discover, or fabricate for that matter, about the Taino Indians. We learned that 500 years ago, they (as other inhabitants of the Caribbean) ate whatever they could cultivate or pick from trees and bushes; and, by the way, gobbled up practically every living non-poisonous animal that moved.
As the first ethnic layer of our "Puerto Ricanism" and culinary identity, these indigenous people left us a culinary legacy, and for many years the inhabitants of the island ate like them: snapper, sea bass, manatees yes (worms no), oysters, chilies, sweet potatoes yes (iguanas no). But most of all, they left us cassava, described and incorrectly illustrated in pages and pages of children's books: Taino women planting cassava, Taino girls harvesting cassava, Taino man eating cassava, the smarter ones fermenting cassava, and the Taino warriors converting cassava into venom. However, our Amerindian ancestors, traveling the seas of America in their canoes, had already brought and sown foods that the Spaniards thought were autochthonous when they arrived to the island. Today we know they're not native, like pineapple, corn and quenepas or Spanish lime.
Since the prehistoric beginnings of our culinary work, we have imported food products. Should History be considered a discipline that starts with the chronicles of the more or less literate, then, we have documents of our "historic" origins (when two worlds met) that show the first European inhabitants in Puerto Rico were not the audacious Spaniards nor the timid Andalusians, but the edible pigs and goats brought in and released on the island by Vicente Yañez Pinzón in 1505 to reproduce while the Spaniards settled.
Waste of time. Those first pigs, whose young piglets (locally called "lechones") are the icon par excellence of Puerto Rico's traditional cuisine, and those first goats, which compete with the pigs for the palate of many islanders, surely disembarked with great happiness after their long captivity in the open seas, but didn't live long; all were gone when the Spaniards came back. And the chronicles don't record oral testimonies of any Taino Indian that testified if his tribe roasted the pigs, with cassava on the side, or if simply they were wiped out.
However, the Spaniards came back with more pigs and goats… and cows and calves and chickens and roosters and all the edible fauna that, at the present time, is embedded in Puerto Rican traditional cooking.
But maybe the most important thing they brought, what makes us closer to ethnic group because it stains us, is the muse of paradise, which in Puerto Rican Spanish looses its poetic name and is called plantain; not banana, not Dominican male plantain, simply plantain, the one that stains, the one we eat until full either roasted or fried like the tostón (fried plantain patties), and like mofongo (mashed baked or fried plantain) when green; the one we savor boiled and fried chips, or in syrup when it is ripe. Supposedly the emblematic plantain arrived from Africa in 1516, followed by many other food products of that continent, which today are fundamental in our kitchens: the banana, root vegetables like ñame (starchy tuberous root) and malanga (type of starchy corm), okra, guinea, peas and our legume of honor: the pigeon pea, known as wandú or gandul, a side to the quintessential rice and roasted pig dish of every Christmas.
During the first centuries of the Spanish conquest, the palate of the inhabitants of San Juan Bautista's island were willing to savor anything the Crown would allow them to officially import, plus everything brought via the black market, which doubled the volume of legal shipments.
In this manner, the Puerto Rican menu expanded with the arrival of coconut palm trees from the Canary Islands; tomato, chayote or prickly pear, avocado and medlar from Mexico; mango and tamarind from India; potato form Peru; ginger from Oceania via Mexico; breadfruit from the Pacific; and coffee, which made its entrance in the 18th century, and is now a staple on our tables and gain us worldwide recognition.
Nowadays, a cooked sweet plantain, split down the middle and stuffed with stewed chicken or beef, is called a canoe at cafeterias and restaurants, involuntarily preserving its vegetable memory of the other side of the sea. Puerto Ricans still say "that's what the ship brought" when referring to what is real instead of what we desire, a state of mind we've always maintained since, as an island, we receive food products from all over the world. Our culinary identity originated from a combination of edible flora and fauna, whatever there was (that arrived throughout centuries in canoes, caravels, sailing boats, frigates) and it expanded with foods that we all made our own, out of savoring necessity.
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