personal plantain-inspired word vomit
Yesterday, Munchies published a piece I wrote about how it's impossible to find organic, fair-trade plantains, and why that's not a politically or ethically neutral fact. I wish it could've been about 3,000 words longer, both so that I could've had more breathing room with all the information about its culinary importance, the symbolic importance of the plátano in art, and the historically fucked-up nature of banana farming and importation, and so that I could've added a deeper middle with my personal experience of Puerto Rican cooking, which is weird and tangled.
It wasn't until I started writing this piece that I decided to ask my mother where she learned how to cook plantains. It's my father who's Puerto Rican; his mother is my grandmother from Rincón. She told me that my grandmother taught her before she married my father, which brings up some patriarchal shit that I don't want to think too hard about. Other than fried plantains, my mother also often made what we called meat pies, which were later called empanadas, and which I found out after my first trip to Puerto Rico in 2009 were actually pastelitos. Their shell is flakier than that of an empanada, which is doughy. You would use butter or shortening or lard for an empanada; a pastelito uses oil. My mother used frozen, orange Goya shells for these, along with other Goya seasonings, and filled them only with ground meat and olives—I ate them like crazy as a child, but I didn't yet have the palate for onions. When I got older, and as I note in the piece happened with plantains, I began making the dough from scratch, filling them with perfectly organic-Adobo-seasoned kidney beans that I stewed with sofrito I made from all local, organic ingredients. I made them bougie. I sold these at Vegan Drinks back when I was baking, and someone from Park Slope's V Spot, which makes its own empanadas, complimented them, and I felt on top of the world. I haven't made them since.
I am not faulting my mother for using store-bought ingredients. When she was my age, she had two kids and worked full-time. I would be crying in a corner, not rolling out freshly made dough. She also had no real help in the kitchen, except for when my father would cook pancakes that were burnt on the edges and raw in the middle. He didn't really know how to cook, and I never saw my grandmother cook—except, similarly, for undercooked French toast, which I actually really enjoyed the egginess of as a kid—so I had no idea where my mother had pulled these Puerto Rican dishes from. Now I know. I don't know why it took me so long to ask, except that there were all sorts of strange tensions I felt as a kid but thought I shouldn't acknowledge.
When I was young, nothing my grandmother told me about Puerto Rico had to do with food. She told me she could walk across the street to the ocean. She told me that both her parents died when she was very young, and she was sent to live with her psychic aunt who saw ghosts. As a baby goth, it thrilled me to have this in my lineage; as a grown goth, I am wary of what mental-health ghosts are currently sitting quietly in the corners of my brain. There was a Puerto Rican flag in the house that I would stomp across the lawn in militaristic fashion waving around while wearing my bathing suit. No one liked that I did this. I had no idea at the time why I did, but now I see it as an almost too perfect foreshadowing of my current political interests. This morning, I started reading The War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson Denis and read that the flag was banned on the island from 1948 to 1957.
All of this is to say, if it must be wrapped up, that I am going to Puerto Rico in a couple of weeks on a specifically food-based trip. I am trying to prepare. I am always trying to understand who the fuck I am. It is always, and has always, been through my mouth and the food I make and that my mother and grandmothers made that I reach for myself.