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On Our Pantry
Considering our food shopping in San Juan.
The realities of food and its role in nationalist projects and empire-building, as a political tool of inclusion and exclusion, is always part of my work—it’s even part of today’s essay, on the ways in which we shop for food and which foods we shop for in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a colony of the United States.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the policing of Palestinian foragers as depicted in the documentary Foragers by Jumana Manna for Lux magazine. I offer a link to it today. I also offer my deepest condolences to all those grieving and scared, and my hope for an immediate end to the genocide and suffering in Gaza.
Putting a tupperware that has been emptied of its leftovers into the sink gives me a thrill. Running out of onions and garlic, the perpetual staples, present in nearly every dinner I cook, is deeply satisfying. Clearing the fridge before travel? There’s nothing better. I always think: This is it. It’s under control now. I don’t want to be someone with too much all the time.
When we returned from two weeks of a book tour plus a brief vacation in Montreal, I didn’t restock the fridge fully because I’d be off to Calgary in a few days for the Terroir Symposium. We had onions and garlic, local eggs, the spice rack, the go-to condiments, and a supermarket box of organic arugula. We were out of many items that usually add life to daily lunch salads: walnuts, dried figs. There were some pickled pepperoncini hanging around, part of a loaf of sourdough lingering—I made it work, and every time I opened the fridge to see it not stuffed to the gills (as it usually is, considering we cook most meals at home and I’m always working on a recipe), I felt relief. Wouldn’t it be better to live this way? What would make that possible?
After I got back from Calgary, we did stock the fridge and the larder. We began Saturday with the farmers’ market, per usual, where we got two bags of bok choy, three bags of arugula (the preferred salad green), the usual local eggs, some plum tomatoes, and carambola intended for a recipe I’ve been working on intermittently for over a year.
Because we’d found a good deal on a rental car, it was time for a visit to an Asian market for rice noodles, chili oils, and Sichuan peppercorns as well as the bimonthly trip to Costco for olive oil, locally cultivated mushrooms, a huge box of tofu, canned coconut milk, boxed soy milk, peanut butter, canned chickpeas, walnuts, the frozen vegan spring rolls, and more. (My Costco shopping list is here.)
We then ventured to La Hacienda, a specialty grocer where I tend to be a bit absurd—to indulge my most bourgeois food whims—for Vichy Catalan, Acid League vinegar, silken tofu, and various snacks (olive oil crackers, truffle chips, dark chocolate with Marcona almonds) imported from Spain. Kalamata olives are so expensive, as are most things here, but I am on a big Greek salad kick—it’s all I want to eat—and so I go for it.
It wasn’t the last stop, though, because we were out of Dolin dry vermouth (a tragedy) and had to head to a SuperMax with a liquor store atop it to reup. Oh, and we couldn’t find cornstarch anywhere, so that, too. (I’ll have a lot to say about cornstarch soon.)
What would the fridge and pantry look like if I weren’t a food writer? How much money would I find reasonable to spend on food if I weren’t a food writer? What role would food play in my performance and narrativization of self if I weren’t a food writer?
We use it all, eat it all, drink it all—and regularly, we cook for many guests—but I wish I could live differently, without all this stocking up, with more spontaneity and conviviality. I wish food were something that got me out of the house every day instead of something that keeps me in it. (There is coffee, at least—another essay.)
I wish Puerto Rico weren’t so car-dependent (it’s got the most cars per square mile in the world) and we didn’t feel so much pressure to get everything we’ll need or want for two months in one day. If there were demand for it, the possibility of it, I’d prefer to go to the farmers’ market multiple times per week. Or I’d prefer a grocery store here in Old San Juan that I could rely on for fresh local food, not exorbitantly priced, with a good bulk section of dry goods. If any of the wonderful local bread bakeries were open here? That would be life-changing. Instead, there’s going to the weekly farmers’ market, hitting up the local supermarket whenever the need for potatoes or onions or (yes, more) tofu arises, and every couple of months: the stocking up.
We’re lucky to be able to stock up, of course, but with the stocking up comes the pressure to use it all—it requires vision, and sure, I always have a vision. My mental cookbook ensures ample possibility and imagination. Infrastructure that doesn’t support a spontaneous ability to procure fresh food without a car or walkable access, an economy that doesn’t provide a proper salary or time for fresh food preparation—these are infrastructures and economies that support fast food. How our cities, our towns, our nations determine the ways in which we procure food is fascinating. So many decisions are made for us.
(I’m thinking about my conversation with MOLD founder and editor LinYee Yuan when I’m thinking about what kinds of food are considered “necessary” and my own obsession with eating salad for lunch every day, how much of our household’s food procurement revolves around the Daily Salad:
“…people were really excited about hydroponic greens grown in warehouses. And they were like, ‘That's the future of food.’ And I was like, ‘First of all, I am a person who doesn't eat salad, period.’ I mean, I do sometimes in the summer when I'm feeling a certain kind of way. But it's not part of my typical diet. And I'm sure, because I'm Chinese American, it's not part of a lot of people's diets. Basically, most of the people in the world are not eating salad every day.”)
What would you value and what would you desire if you could design your city’s foodways from scratch?
I’m asking myself this question regularly and trying to deepen my understanding of how food fits into urban planning. To that ends, I have been looking at the American Association of Planning’s “Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning” and the book Food Urbanism: Typologies, Strategies, Case Studies by Craig Verzone and Cristina Woods, which I picked up at the Canadian Center for Architecture’s bookstore.
The considerations we make around food living in Old San Juan, without a car, have shaped my cooking habits to be seasonal with regards to produce, yes, but also pantry-based: What are the building blocks, and how much will I be able to play with them? There are also times during the year when we will have much more produce, in more varieties.
(An aside: My husband, who works in an office a short walk from our apartment, grew up in Old San Juan, which has changed around him. Last week, a friend who also grew up here said they’re leaving because their rent is going up. We have fewer and fewer neighbors of our generation. We watch a neighborhood be drained of life by an unregulated tourism economy and greed.)
I’ve been thinking about this because of travel, yes, because of emptying the whole kitchen and pantry and having to fill it up again, yes, but also because I’ve felt the thrill of recipe development again these last few weeks. It might be simply the shift in the air, the dropping of humidity (it might be the deadline I had looming to turn my culinary tourism lectures into a coherent academic article). It’s also talking so much about what it looks like to deeply engage with one’s regional food system, and how that really looks on a tropical archipelago under the colonial control of the U.S. and with the residue of Spanish colonization. This particular regional food system, a desire not to have too much yet a need to cook most meals on top of a desire to create recipes that demonstrate a particular combination of seasonality and pantry: these are the forces behind our kitchen.
Today, I’m experimenting with a mushroom marsala, using the guidance of online recipes and the memory of my mom’s chicken marsala to guide me toward a vegan version using vegetable stock I just pulled out of the back of the freezer. We’ll have tacos tomorrow, with Primary Beans flor de junio that I recently cooked up with the odds and ends of my recent mushroom pâté. Thursday, a movie and pizza. Friday, I’ll make tortilla española for a dinner party. We eat tofu at least twice per week, in various guises, most recently with chili oil noodles I used this recipe to riff on. And when the pantry is cleared out once again, I’ll enjoy a couple of days of peace, of few options, of eating farinata with caramelized onion or pasta with marinara, before the stocking of the pantry begins again.
Inevitably, I’ll have an idea, a craving, an urge that will complicate my stated desire for simplicity. Inevitably, I’ll have to ask myself if simplicity is really what I want at all. The cycle, from complex-abundance to simple-abundance and back again, seems a necessary part of the satisfaction. I like knowing how to make do with both. They work different muscles.
It’s time now to make lunch—to dress the local arugula in the imported olive oil and vinegar, to toast the local sourdough made with imported grain. It’s only when I’m not hungry that I concern myself with these questions. I’m well fed.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen will include a spin on the Puerto Rican coconut pudding called tembleque—a Christmas staple—for which I make a spiced carambola compote. See the Recipe Index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
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I did a full hour discussing my book No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating on KQED Forum.
I was on KCRW’s Good Food with Evan Kleiman to discuss the book, too!
My small capsule jewelry collection with By Ren, whose designs are handmade to order in Philadelphia, is live through the end of 2023. There are cocktail picks with a pearl on them, which are my favorite thing ever! Perfect gift.
I had to write up an academic article on culinary tourism. I loved the book Philosophy of the Tourist by Hiroka Azuma in preparation.
See above! And if you want recipes, of course, become a paid subscriber.