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Eating the Past: The rich history of Puerto Rican food

The Puerto Rican flag waves over a sandy beach.
Ana Toledo

Tammy: This is Tammy Proctor. Today I am pleased to welcome Carmen Hernandez, who currently resides in Dubuque, Iowa. Carmen is going to talk about Puerto Rican foods with me today.

Carmen's grandparents immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico, thus she is steeped in that rich food tradition. Her son lives in Puerto Rico today, so she has a great reason to travel there with some regularity.

Carmen, when I think of Puerto Rican food, I think of sofrito and pork and plantains — sort of like Cuban food. What would you say makes Puerto Rican foods or cooking unique?

Carmen: Thanks for having me on your program.

Cuban and Puerto Rican foods are very similar; both use pork and plantains, but in Puerto Rico, the native root vegetables have been more frequently incorporated into the dishes.

Tammy: As an historian, you may have a sense of how and why Puerto Rican food developed as it did. Could you talk about how world history may have transformed foodstuffs, cooking and the meaning of food for Puerto Ricans?

Carmen: The native Taino inhabitants of Puerto Rico harvested native root crops, as well as native beans, culantro (an herb that tastes much like cilantro), and peppers. Taino ate fresh and saltwater fish, crabs, now sadly very endangered, and other seafoods, all of which remain part of the cooking.

The Columbian Exchange brought Spanish foods to the cuisine of Puerto Rico, olive oil, garlic, rice, gandules, plantains, bananas, coffee and sugar, and livestock: pigs, chickens, goats and cattle. Dry salted cod, or bacalao, became an important staple protein in the diet because it was non-perishable.

Enslaved people from Africa influenced food preparation in Puerto Rico, especially the practice of frying foods. Food stands offer fried foods because they can be prepared ahead of time, and can be easily eaten with hands. Sofrito, a basic seasoning, blends some native herbs with other seasonings to form the basis of many recipes. For Puerto Ricans, food means family, community and island identity.

Tammy: How is Puerto Rican food different for those who have moved to the mainland? For instance, has Puerto Rican food fused with other traditions in New York city?

Carmen: Puerto Rican diaspora communities have always been able to get their ethnic foods in their neighborhood, especially the Nuyorican community, so the influence of American cuisine on Puerto Rican cooking is small. But a dish of fries, whether potato, yuca or plantain, is accompanied by a dip of mayoketchup, a blend of mayonnaise, ketchup, and garlic and sometimes a bit of hot sauce.

Tammy: What is one of your favorite Puerto Rican dishes, and could you supply us with a recipe for our website?

Carmen: One of my favorite dishes is arroz con gandules. I am happy to sharea recipe that I found on the internet, because as often happens with ethnic cuisines, the recipes are filed in my head. Our families never wrote them down and we preserve them by teaching them to each successive generation.

Tammy: Sincere thanks to Carmen for talking with us about her delicious food history. Join us later this month for more Eating the Past in these United States.

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.