On Flavor

and questions of identity.

Plantains were Puerto Rico to me as a kid. It was also what we called “meat pies” that are actually pastelillos, filled with ground beef and green olives stuffed with pimento. My mom made them with the orange Goya wrappers and a lot of sazón, and I would eagerly seek each bite that had an olive in it. Olives were a flavor I was born loving, just like plantain, just like lamb chops, just like lobster, just like mashed potatoes, just like the skin of fried dumplings from the Chinese-American spot down the block, just like a plain slice (or two) from Gino’s. I was born loving so many flavors, and so I was born blessed.

I started coming here to Puerto Rico to report food stories in 2015. It wasn’t about my grandmother being from here, but it wasn’t not about the only clear ethnic root I had either. The first piece was about a chef I had come to admire through Instagram named Paxx; they’d been photographed for a New York Times piece but not quoted in the writing itself, and so doing a profile became what I saw as my entry point to a bigger idea of what food writing was. I wasn’t ready to do such a thing and didn’t have enough experience, and the piece I wrote in the airport while awaiting my flight was published just as I wrote it—no copyediting, no fact-checking. I’m ashamed of that now, though it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Nonetheless, it began years of many trips here to where I now live (the fact that I didn’t want to come on the last one, that I thought I was done writing about this place, is the one on which I met my now-fiancé, is another essay). I wanted to write about the political nature of food, the ways in which food policy can influence cuisine and burden human beings, especially under colonial conditions. This is the place to do that.

The flavors of the archipelago expanded with every visit. Pana, alcapurria, mamey, a vegetarian trifongo at 6 a.m. while drunk with a bunch of people I’d just met. I would eat pastelillos de jueyes in Piñones and then feel guilty when I saw the jueyes themselves, innocent and undeserving of death. The flavor palette expanded, and the knowledge expands all the time. If I do a whole phone call in Spanish, guessing at how to say the letters in the alphabet while I spell out my email address because none of my teachers ever taught me, I feel like no one can touch me. A victory for me, alone in my house, a quarter-Rican who didn’t grow up with anyone speaking Spanish around her. In my paternal family, you only became fluent by going to jail. My father’s only Spanish was commands: sit down. Shut the door.

For years, I haven’t really said anything about being Puerto Rican—aloud, in writing—because I’m not, because it’s a minuscule amount, and while I grew up with some of the flavors, I didn’t grow up with the culture, and these are connected but distinct. To be something is more than just blood and food; it’s about common experiences and understandings.

How much of an ethnicity isn’t minuscule? I’ve always figured half; my dad’s half Puerto Rican. And so it struck me as better, easier, to say nothing to anyone because I have no claim to any ethnic identity, though inevitably someone takes a long glance at me and asks, “Are you Latin?” 

*

I was asked at the dog park whether my hair is “Jewish hair,” even though my fiancé and so many others here have gorgeous curly hair that goes unquestioned for its origins. The origins of theirs are understood as obvious. Mine, though—mine could be anything. All it is, all I am, is “ethnic” to people. That’s always been the case. Are you Greek? Are you Italian? Maybe you could be Dutch? “You don’t seem American,” a man told me. “You seem more mystic.” No one knows but everyone likes to ask. It wouldn’t matter except that it matters seemingly more than anything else exactly what I am. I am a Catholic from Long Island. Can that be enough?

*

I was thinking about identity as expressed through flavor last week while making a sweet plantain-rum cake, with coconut milk and coconut oil, as well as two teaspoons of Burlap & Barrel’s Floyd Cardoz Goan Masala. It was inspired by Paola Velez’s plantain sticky buns. She’s Dominican, from the Bronx, and obviously the Goan Masala takes its flavors from Goa in India. I gave the cake a maple-walnut-oat streusel; the maple syrup is from Vermont. How these flavors meld together, the fact that they do, is always an easy comment on globalization, on the meaning of appropriation, on what belongs to whom. There’s no use parsing it when you’re in the kitchen, when the goal is just to make something flavorful, something that tastes good. I’m a professional, though. It’s my responsibility to try, to make sure each origin is given its due when I write down the recipes for others to make. Who owns each ingredient? Who can claim each flavor?

The easy way for me to express the flavor of the cake, as so many people express the flavor of the piña colada, would be to say, “It tastes like vacation.” This would center the Global North gaze; it would center a specific kind of person for whom these flavors are exotic and foreign. The cake, to me, is simply an ecstatic expression of what I love and what I keep in the house: plantains, coconut milk, various spice mixes, rum, maple syrup, oats, pounds and pounds of all-purpose flour. Could I too be an ecstatic expression of something simple, like love?

*

I am aware that no ethnicity in my blood adds up to a majority, much less a whole. I am white, but people sometimes don’t think I am—is that my fault? To some with fascist tendencies and an obsession with purity, the lack of immediate racial and ethnic legibility is bothersome; it’s interpreted as trickery.

I am aware that because I have no clear ethnic identity, because of being a mutt from New York, I don’t know what flavors I have a claim to—oysters could be it. I am aware that people don’t know what to do with me, where to place me. White mom, brown dad, strange looks, incessant inquiries from strangers—what are you? People ask what raza the dog is and we say, “Sato.” I want an ethnic equivalent.

I am many things, with a claim to none, and I’ve got it good. I’m not marginalized in any way but by gender. All the inquiry has just made me think about why people ask, why it’s important to them to categorize other people. (Do I feel the need to categorize other people? Do I wonder what people are before I consider who they are?) It’s not compromised my safety. It’s not stalled my career. It just means I have one true home—New York, where my ancestors from various nations converged—and it’s stolen land.

*

Every Christmas, my family tries to make kransekake, a Norwegian Christmas tree made of almond cookies. We always fuck it up. Thanks to my new interest in Knausgaard, I asked hopefully whether we’re Norwegian. We’re not; my grandmother just read about it in a magazine and it became tradition. Nothing to claim but genetic curiosity.

*

I love being Irish-American the most, maybe because it’s the easiest; it asks nothing of me but to go to the pub, to take a shot, to tell a story. I sing the Pogues; I’ve played the fiddle. My mom says my natural strength is owed to being German. There’s Swiss, too, but it’s almost Italian, a quirk of borders—I wish I were Italian! There’s English, of course, somewhere. Each piece its own blend of history, of migration and conquest. Being one quarter Puerto Rican gave me a new life as a writer when I needed it, and kept pulling me in to find my love and my dog. I will say it’s the only part of my DNA that’s given me anything tangible, and that has always felt tangible because of its flavors. The rest is so lost to time that it can’t even give me dual EU citizenship.

*

I know if my dad were white no one would ever ask me what I am; it would never be a question on their lips. No one would think I’m pretending to be something I’m not. When my Irish great-grandfather married a German, it was a family betrayal, but we’ve long been at a point at which whiteness is all that matters, is all that doesn’t get questioned. How do we push against that? How do we use food to do it? Where does flavor come in, as a weapon, as an offering? Am I advocating for fusion cuisine? I hope not. All I’m saying is that food is as complicated as we are and deserves the same care.

*

I am an ecstatic expression of the hope that I would be worth more than the sum of my parts. I was born myself, and so I was born blessed.


This Friday, the paid-subscriber interview will feature Emily Gould, the author of the memoir And the Heart Says Whatever and the novels Friendship and Perfect Tunes. We talk about how food is used in her writing, the price of honesty, and more. She also gives me very good advice to how to handle being a woman writer on the internet, even though I was trying really hard not to ask her for advice.

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Published:
I thought nada! “Nada” is truly the best word of all for “nothing.” I was thinking recently, too, that “takk” is the best “thank you.” Feel free to tell me which words you think best embody concepts in any language.

Oh, but then my episode of “Talking Breakfast” for the Philadelphia Contemporary went out. It was filmed months ago, before the blonde highlights, and my commitment to veracity had me doing it right after a shower, so my hair looks… bad.

Also, please sign up for this event, “On Food Writing,” that I will be doing with Pineapple Collaborative on Wednesday, March 10!

Reading:
My life has been a bit of a mental disaster, which isn’t conducive to reading, but I’m onto Transit, the second in Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” series.

Cooking:
Jackfruit tacos. Arugula and chickpea tacos. Sweet plantain and chickpea curry.