There is a story I’m not ready to tell about why I moved to Puerto Rico, though I’m sure it can be deduced. From the air, the story looks like someone being sucked in over time; from above, the move looks inevitable. And because it had a momentum, an inevitability to it, I didn’t consider the changes it would bring to how I live, how I work, how I eat. I thought it would be easy to be back in New York once a month; I thought my family would regularly come see me. These were the optimistic thoughts of someone in the throes of something. These were the optimistic thoughts of someone who, like most, couldn’t see what was coming.
My trips to Puerto Rico before I came to live were always a few days or a week long, and I’d eat out for every meal and stay up all night hanging out. A manic furor would come over me; my hair would curl better and my skin would glow, despite the restaurant food and copious booze. “You’re so different here,” a friend said to me on one trip, his face awestruck, watching me vote to continue the night at two in the morning. Back in Brooklyn, that would happen begrudgingly. I had my reasons.
The first months I lived here, my then-new boyfriend (now husband—have you heard?) was still bartending and I had two very good editorial contracts, and so that lifestyle continued pretty much unabated. He’d find me at El Batey after his shift with the brand-new puppy Benny asleep on my chest, finally calmed down after hours and hours of walking and play. (Sometimes I would be crying because I thought the dog did not love me; I know better now.) When Israel once again joined the “day walkers” at the start of 2020, we ate at home more; we rented cars cheaply to get out of the city on weekends. On March 1st, we moved into the apartment where we still live—a dream space for us both, big and bright with beams on the ceilings and Spanish archways—and a couple of weeks later, we got locked in. My hair and skin got accustomed to the proximity of the sea; they toned down their performance.
It’s only lately that I’ve come up for air enough—since lockdown, since wedding planning, since writing a whole book, since creating a newsletter that became my job—to notice how different everything is from when I moved. This also has to do with the wildly increased costs of food, of fuel, of rental cars. Things aren’t easy right now, for any working person. This is why, as I type, teachers and firefighters are out protesting in the streets for better wages and benefits. When you read this, there will be a hospitality worker protest. It’s not just Puerto Rico, though; this struggle of inequality is reaching a boiling point, and I think most people can feel that. Here, living so close to the governor’s mansion as well as experiencing excess costs because of the Jones Act and tax structure, it feels more acute.
Those who are more green express disappointment to me about the farmers’ market, the one I go to every week and cherish. “Well, I guess it’s about expectation,” I say, both defensive of the market and suddenly questioning my own expectations. Do I ask too much? Too little? Probably, I just know much more than anyone without my job about how the local food system and infrastructure works. I don’t know how to expect different any more, or why I would.
There are certain things I wish I had easier and cheaper access to, like high-quality and diverse flours, a variety of mushrooms; I wish I could order good Chinese or Indian food, eat a big fat sesame bagel when I’m hungover. These are my comforts, of course. When we go to New York, I appreciate the bialys smeared with hummus and my beloved Lorenzo slice at Delfiore and my Peconic Bay oysters with a shitty shaken martini—I savor them. I don’t want to bring bagels back to freeze because I want the bagels to stay where the bagels are best. We eat Chinese food almost daily when we’re on Long Island, from the Chinese-American vegetable lo mein at the place around the corner from my mom’s to the really good Szechuan that’s popped up around SUNY Stony Brook. We go to Hicksville for dosa and samosa chaat. We eat the food where it’s good.
I have more of an appreciation for that now, and of course eating the food where it’s good was something I thought I intellectually appreciated more than anything. In Puerto Rico, there is so much that is good—so much more than anyone might think from a brief visit. Every weekend at the farmers’ market, we get cherry tomatoes, maybe plum tomatoes, eggplant, bok choy, kale, arugula, plantains, bananas, various herbs. I get okra when Israel isn’t looking because he’s gone off to pick up a loaf of sourdough and a baguette that we’ll eat with aperitivo hour. I always want to buy fresh cúrcuma, turmeric, and figure out something to do with it, but I haven’t made the leap yet. For the local portobello and cremini mushrooms, we have to walk down Calle San Francisco to the U Go market, which I call a bodega, because SuperMax only carries imported mushrooms that are on their last leg. But SuperMax does have tofu and tahini regularly now, thank God, and so how can I complain? We go to Costco for olive and coconut oil, because between feeding ourselves and recipe testing, I go through enough for a family of five. There are occasional treks to FreshMart in Condado when I want fancier health-food-store items, like agar powder and canned jackfruit. I live for a run to Hacienda in Miramar where one feels like a rich housewife, but I just buy DeCecco pasta and my preferred Dijon mustard (Fallot) and this organic ketchup from Spain that we’re obsessed with—and so, I have everything a person needs. All of this is before there’s a surprise glut of mangos or pumpkin or carambola or parcha dropped at our door.
I wonder to myself, Is my life smaller now in a small city? I ask because when people move here with more consciousness, without the fog of new love, they seem to experience a real shock, a shock I’m not immune to sometimes (who doesn’t crave New York or Mexico City or Madrid on occasion, especially if one of these places is your home of origin?). It is endlessly frustrating, the scale of governmental carelessness for such a beautiful place; the extraction can be palpable. But I don’t think my life is smaller—it doesn’t feel that way, even when we go weeks without leaving the tiny neighborhood of Old San Juan. If anything, the turn inward—into the home, into books, into myself—has let me have peace to write and to cook, to form easier-going friendships. Life here can feel as fresh and open as childhood, full of dreaminess and possibility. (I’m speaking, of course, as one of the luckiest people alive: a creative worker.) It can also feel like the exact opposite, depending on one’s day, disposition, income, desires. It’s a city, both like and unlike any other.
I read other food writers and watch their Instagram Stories from New York, though, and I wonder how I would respond to a bigger city now, with my changed brain and different expectations. How would I respond to all the stimuli, the daily inundation of new things and new people? How would I write? Would I care about restaurants more again? Who would I be if to get oyster mushrooms, I didn’t have to text a friend who cultivates them and see when he can bring them to me? (My life revolves around mushrooms.) How would I cook if eating out were as easy as it is in New York—as plentiful, as diverse, as often quite cheap, comparatively? Would I cook at all?
It’s good to ask the questions. It’s good to have a new point of view. As it stands, I have two places I call home, places of different types of abundance and perspective. A food writer doesn’t get any luckier than this, to have so much to interrogate, so much tension to navigate, so many things to eat.
I wrote this last week, and then the weekend came and my sister arrived for a surprise visit. To boot, when we went to go make a wine pickup from El Vino Crudo—a new wine bar and shop we’re very excited for in Old San Juan—the owners from Long Island had saved me a bottle of Floral Terranes, a land preservation cider and winemaking project, a subtly frizzante and smoky blend of Cabarnet Sauvignon, Cabarnet Franc, and Merlot. One home came to me in the other, in many beautiful forms. I was so emotional to be gifted the bottle, and to drink and share wine that is such an expression of care for where I come from.
Last Wednesday’s podcast featured chef Preeti Mistry. This Wednesday, I’ll be speaking to Jenny Dorsey, chef, writer, and executive director of the nonprofit think tank Studio ATAO, focused on equity. We talk about going from business school to culinary school, how to seek real change in food media, and why she wrote about cultural appropriation in fast-casual restaurants. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will feature a recipe for hearts of palm fritters, a really adaptable and fun little snack. Here’s an index for all past recipes, categorized by type.
Programming Note: I’ll be off next week, returning on February 28 with a new essay, new podcast episode, and a new recipe for plantain upside-down cake.
I was on KCRW’s “Good Food” to talk about nutritional yeast, for which I had to try to pronounce some science words. When do I get to be called an NPR regular? Like fashion media, public radio loves me.
My Struggle Book 5! I’ve also got other stuff that I’ve yanked off the shelves lately, including Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin.
We made Sohla’s adobo-style eggplant but subbed mushroom for pork (add more oil liberally as needed to compensate for lack of fat!) and ate it with pegao. It was fabulous. Also, a kale and mushroom savory galette. Big mushroom moments happening. For Valentine’s Day, we’re doing tahdig!