De los plátanos de Oller a los Food Trucks: Comida, alimentación y cocina puertorriqueña en ensayos y recetas (From Oller’s plantains to food trucks: Food, eating, and Puerto Rican cuisine in essays and recipes) is a collection of essays and a brief historical cookbook that thinks through the place of food in the study of social history, economics, and politics in Puerto Rico. As Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra shows, the Caribbean has been absent from discussions around food sovereignty, race, and identity even though it was the work on sugar cane and the plantation economy—conducted by Sidney Mintz—that paved the way for the field of food studies. As a sugar historian, Ortiz Cuadra documents the history of food in Puerto Rico in Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity, published in Spanish (2006) and English (2013). This new book continues this journey, with thirteen essays that each follow one dish, food, or cultural text. It privileges a historical, social, and cultural reading exercise that explores eating and cooking practices in Puerto Rico through paintings and cookbooks, political figures and food policy, and food geographies that consist of supermarkets, popular food kiosks, restaurants, and food trucks. The book is in Spanish and all translations for the purpose of this review are my own.
The first essay analyses Francisco Oller’s painting El velorio (The Wake) (1893) and studies the positionality of pork, corn, plantain, and rice in the painting to question notions of labor, production, and the civilizing project of the nation through these staple foods. Similarly, essays like “La historia, el cerdo y el ‘cajne’e puerco’” (History, pork, and “pork meat”), “Ínsula grasa” (Fritter isle), and “La pana de pepita y el durián” (Jackfruit and durian) emphasize the historical conditions and the historiography of foods like pork meat, fried foods, and jackfruit, a curiosity that also questions the relation between a past and a present of these foods.
“Cocine a gusto: El recetario de la modernidad” (Puerto Rican dishes: Modernity’s forgotten cookbook) is perhaps the first essay in the study of food in Puerto Rico that focuses on modern cookbooks—it inaugurates the study of the cookbook in Puerto Rico beyond strictly its function as a historic document and brings it into the field of cultural anthropology and cultural studies. In it, Ortiz Cuadra follows the place of the cookbook in the field of food studies and the three main currents in which it is studied: in the scientific realm, as a writing of history, and through the intimacy of the kitchen.
Throughout the book, Ortiz Cuadra reminds us of the influences that make up Puerto Rican cuisine—indigenous Taíno, Iberian, and African cultures—and explores the different results of this blend. This is a common trope when studying food and culture in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Nonetheless, Ortiz Cuadra is more interested in the place of the African diaspora in our understanding of Puerto Rican cuisine as a mestizo culinary culture. For instance, in the essay “Saber haciendo: La cocina costera en la vitrina” (To know while doing: Coastal cuisine in the shopfront), Ortiz Cuadra sees Puerto Rican cuisine as a diasporic cuisine: “fruto de éxodos constantes, de idas y vueltas de gente y alimentos, de memorias culinarias rehechas en nuevas geografías y nuevas circunstancias sociales, económicas y religiosas” (fruit of constant exodus, roundtrips of peoples and foods, of culinary memories remade in new geographies and new social, economic, and religious circumstances) (p.85).
A recurring theme in the book is the politics of food in Puerto Rico. The two essays dedicated to the Luis Muñoz Marín era—characterized among many events by the establishment of the estado libre asociado or the commonwealth status and the drafting of the constitution of Puerto Rico—look at the development of Puerto Rican foodways from the 1950s. In them Ortiz Cuadra explores instances that defined public and private lives and spaces; case studies include the first lady, educator, and writer Inés María Mendoza’s experience as a cookbook writer, as well as the development of the muñocista supermarket and its relation to the current discontent with the food system. The closing essays highlight the contemporary Puerto Rican foodscape, from the fast-food industry in the archipelago, to a critique of the current state of the restaurant business, to the trend of food trucks in the San Juan metropolitan area.
The book concludes with a selection of historical recipes that range from a nineteenth-century recipe, Majarete criollo (Sweet cream of corn), to a 2019 recipe for Gnocchi de batata (Sweet potato gnocchi) that provides a commentary on such recipes from the author’s primary sources and emphasizes their historical affective economy.
With this book Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra continues to pave the way for the study of food in Puerto Rico and invites scholars, home cooks, chefs, writers, and farmworkers to think about the historical, economic, and political conditions through which food appears at our table. A shortcoming in this book is the absence of other geopolitical spaces of the Caribbean. By centering Puerto Rico, Ortiz Cuadra reproduces the ideas of cultural ownership and national cuisines that contribute to the idea of Caribbean isolation instead of an archipelagic approach. Nonetheless, this absence indicates the much-needed work to be done and dialogues to be had on the place of the Caribbean within the field of food studies, a discussion that can contribute much to understanding colonialism, neocolonialism, race, subjecthood, and capital.