Puerto Rico, from without and within. 🇵🇷
This is the fifth lecture in my Culinary Tourism class at Boston University’s masters of gastronomy program. I will be sharing these and reading suggestions throughout the semester, interspersed with my regular missives. Here are the first, second, third, and fourth. This was in preparation for the students’ visit to the archipelago, happening now.
I put the flag emoji here in the title of the lecture because oftentimes, this is a comment that people will make when they come to Puerto Rico: The flag is everywhere. From 1948 to 1957, the flag was banned—known as the Gag Law, it made it a crime to own or display a Puerto Rican flag, to sing a patriotic tune, to speak or write of independence, or to meet with anyone or hold any assembly in favor of Puerto Rican independence.
As in week two we began with the video "Visualizing Sovereignty" to understand that we are not very far from times of colonial rule in the Caribbean, which is related to why it is the most tourism-dependent region economically in the world, we begin today with this reminder that Puerto Rico remains a colony of the United States, and that with its independence movement violently stifled, the question of its status is one that is endlessly complex. This has a direct relationship to its gastronomy, its place in the touristic imaginary, and the ways in which its gastronomy is understood abroad.
What's interesting in terms of Puerto Rico's status as a colony of the United States (which officially calls it a "territory") is the way that creates a false sense of camaraderie or comfort that could be termed "ownership" on the part of non–Puerto Ricans from the U.S. This is evident in the recent campaign from Discover Puerto Rico, a taxpayer-funded Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), called "Live Boricua." Borikén is the indigenous name of the archipelago, and Puerto Ricans refer to themselves as Boricua as a way of distinguishing their identity from colonialism (Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port,” being a name given by the Spanish).
This is an ad in a recent issue of the travel magazine Suitcase. The idea that anyone can try on the Boricua identity (as well as the paternalistic flattening of Puerto Ricans into a "proud, passionate, and full of life" population that lives to serve abundant tropical fruits) is a strong neocolonialist perspective, especially in contrast to the "Gringo Go Home" movement against gentrification, displacement, and tax breaks that are mainly benefitting non–Puerto Ricans. It is a convenient time to say that to "live Boricua"—while it is an increasingly unlivable place for Puerto Ricans—is open to anyone for the price of a plane ticket.
Journalist Bianca Graulau recently discussed the “Live Boricua” campaign in light of her recent work in Hawaii:
Local artists have parodied this campaign. Garvin Sierra, known as Taller Gráfico, and Fernando Norat, known as Tropiwhat, both have used the form for pointed political commentary. The Tropiwhat graphic shows a power center blowing up and cutting off electricity to the whole archipelago, as happened most recently in April 2022. Tropiwhat shows dogs and a rooster as well as a man on a typical porch of wrought-iron, tagged with a common graffiti.
These show the power of social media and in particular the power of art-as-meme as an anti-colonial strategy. Discover Puerto Rico has capital, but this no longer means—as it may have in the time of "Fiesta Island"—that there will not be a response.
As Derek Walcott says in his extremely significant 1992 Nobel lecture "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory" of the Caribbean: The escapist tourism, the flattening, requires "the seasonal erosion of their identity." Now, Puerto Ricans, in tourism imagery, are not even allowed their identity. It is up for grabs.
Walcott also writes, "Every endeavor is belittled as imitation, from architecture to music." This also applies to restaurants—what is not appealing to the tourist is belittled; what is appealing is an imitation of something from somewhere else. It calls back to last week's discussion of the Condé Nast Traveler piece, which spoke of "greasy tostones" and the ubiquity of rice and beans in favor of high-end fine-dining experiences.
"Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice..." bell hooks
In "Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance," bell hooks writes, "To make one’s self vulnerable to the seduction of difference, to seek an encounter with the Other, does not require that one relinquish forever one’s mainstream positionality. When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other."
As we've discussed in previous classes around consumption of and interaction with "other" cuisines, tourism provides a route to "try on" what can be new and exciting—including food, and "Live Boricua" suggests that the identity itself is fully available.
"In the cultural marketplace the Other is coded as having the capacity to be more alive, as holding the secret that will allow those who venture and dare to break with the cultural anhedonia," writes hooks.
The use of "eating" in "eating the other" and the idea of "live Boricua" are both about assuming a posture—that through these experiences, one becomes more interesting, more distanced from white Western cultural hegemony. They are very strong, very essential verbs—to eat, to live.
We have circled Anthony Bourdain in this class so far, but today we actually engage with his television work. I wanted to look at both his episodes in Puerto Rico, one in 2006 on the Travel Channel show No Reservations and the other in 2017, shot before Hurricane Maria, on CNN's Parts Unknown.
The first episode haunted me on my first reporting trip to Puerto Rico in 2015, because my editor at a website asked me to write about piña coladas, and there's a very depressing scene in this 2006 episode where he goes to Barrachina, a restaurant in Old San Juan that claims to have invented the drink (but did not) and serves its rendition frozen out of a vat.
Bourdain claims in the beginning of this show not to want to show the kind of vague Caribbean notions of Puerto Rico that other travel hosts have focused on. He wants to have an "authentic" experience—how authentic can things get with a camera crew? I don't know. It's interesting how insistently he sets himself up in contrast to those on cruise ships and the "fanny-packing gringos"—it's truly in line with the idea that there could be a distinction between a "traveler" and a "tourist" that we discussed in our first class. Bourdain here wants to "live Boricua," in a way.
The episode focuses mainly on pork and boxing, which brings into focus how much has changed in Bourdain's approach and in the ways in which food is talked about by the time he returns about a decade later.
He starts the episode by talking about the hurricane having devastated "the American island of Puerto Rico," which had already (and continues to) suffer an economic crisis. He calls the Caribbean vacation "the American dream," harkening back to Urry's The Tourist Gaze by saying it's why we "sell our labor." He then flips the narrative to ask: What is this place like for Puerto Ricans? He meets journalists and talks to them at a popular Santurce dive bar, who tell them that Puerto Rico is indeed a colony.
This is the marked difference from the earlier show, a prioritization of political-economy, with culinary tourism as the vehicle and backdrop of discussion. Even the U.S. Navy's bombing of Vieques and the significant environmental and social effects are prevalent. To me, the episode marks an evolution in the discussion of the archipelago from a U.S. perspective—it isn't perfect, but it gets beyond some stale narratives.
I think this is reflective generally of a U.S. change of tone on Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria—not a tone of indignation on behalf of a colonized people, but a tone of paternal care, the sense that the U.S. just hasn't done right by its colony.
Parts Unknown also, while still extremely enmeshed in a consumptive culture that commodifies travel and culinary experiences abroad, represented a push beyond what we discussed last week about "glossy depictions." Perhaps. There's also the nagging notion that Bourdain's shows use other cultures as an "alternative playground," per hooks.
That's certainly the case for the writer and artist Tunde Wey. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018, he excoriates Bourdain's episode in his native city of Lagos, Nigeria.
"Ostensibly Bourdain is a translator, but at that he is mediocre, as evidenced in the frequent flatness of his subjects, their narrative arcs bending conveniently either to victimhood, or victory through gluttonous eating. Bourdain’s magic lies is in his capacity to formulate the most updated representation of readily consumable alterity," writes Wey, continuing:
"He doesn’t need to know Africa to do his work; he just needs to understand his customers, America and the appetite for a revamped experience of darkness. They want to touch, taste, smell it, watch it burn and then stand under the shower of its exfoliative ash, feeling it fall gently on their skin, cleansing them of all guilt except curiosity."
This is an analysis akin to hooks' and, to Wey, Bourdain cannot overcome himself and the only way to truly learn about, in this case Lagos, is to go through the gaze of one who is on the inside looking out, rather than remaking the world in his image (which, Wey says, Bourdain cannot help, as he cuts the figure of the colonizer).
We can compare Bourdain's depictions of Puerto Rico to La Mafia's, La Mafia being a local organization dedicated to documenting Puerto Rican gastronomy.
For this series, “Eat Drink Share,” they made videos about a few iconic restaurants in Puerto Rico. El Buren de Lula in Loiza is significant for its maintenance of Afro-Boricua culinary tradition; El Rancho de Apa is an iconic lechonera; and Orujo is chef-driven fine-dining focused on locally sourced ingredients. Chef Carlos Portela brings up the tension between what is considered "traditional" Puerto Rican cooking that tends to be made with imported ingredients versus his locally sourced food that doesn't look or taste the way it is expected to.
In these videos, Puerto Ricans are speaking for themselves and in their own language. This presents a very different perspective than Bourdain is capable of—it is a perception not intended for the U.S. consumer, or to assuage cultural anhedonia, or to provide readily consumable alterity. Instead, it is a celebration of one’s own culture, with the depth such a perception allows.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will be a formula for vegan panna cotta, in order to make dessert with whatever is around, as I recently did with a corn-coconut panna cotta. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Continuing Anya von Bremzen’s forthcoming National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home, as I’ve been quite distracted preparing for my students’ arrival. I need a vacation to read for a week or two. I feel very behind!
I made some fabulous quesadillas on homemade flour tortillas filled with dry-rubbed and roasted mushrooms—this will be discussed in a future From the Kitchen! I have big plans for the next month of From the Kitchen.
you know, this really really seems, four lectures read now, like such a great class!wish we could hear as well as read your lectures (maybe when the course is over?) - I have lots of questions... how is it going with the students? how are they responding? do you have many opportunities in your virtual course environment to have discussions and debates? having never taught a virtual course (and knowing well how challenging, sometimes maddening, it is to teach and really reach folks when the students are ...physically.. right in front of you!), I am keen to learn how you are doing things....