On San Juan
An attempt at exhausting a small city.
Caribbean almonds grow abundantly, continuously, along the sea here in San Juan. They are encased in a thick edible fruit, but it’s not easy to get to the nut inside. You need tools, a hammer. You could collect pounds and pounds of these, spend hours cracking them open, and have plenty of nuts for the cost of only your time and physical labor. It’s like coconuts: Free, abundant—just need the wherewithal and a machete. That’s why when I was drinking water from a coconut on May Day and walked through a communist demonstration, an old man asked how much I paid. “Cinco dolares,” I replied, and he was inconsolable. They are free! But I don’t have a machete and I did have $5. He’s right that I should change my ways, get a machete. Get a little mallet for the almonds.
Anyway, these things are a metaphor for the place. There’s so much here—to eat and drink for free, to see, to do—but accessing it all requires labor, schlep, and if not those, plenty of cash.
San Juan is an easy place to love and a difficult place to live. That’s just the truth of it. (The sea almonds are easy to find and difficult to open, to belabor the point.) This city will dazzle you, but living here comes with tedious troubles: paying the ever-increasing LUMA bills, figuring out which expensive internet provider will allow you not to embarrass yourself by cutting out over Zoom, lack of public libraries, stocking the kitchen through visits to multiple grocery stores and special online orders, the lack of places to easily pick up an affordable meal, the car-dependent infrastructure, the corrupt local government managed by a colonial control board. Yes, we protested in July 2019 and ousted a governor. Since then, conditions have gotten worse.
I worry always about “complaining”—I don’t see this as complaining; I see it as being honest about the ways people living here are structurally disadvantaged and deprived of basic functional utilities. This means that people living here, and especially people who have grown up here (I am by ancestry a piecemeal product of the diaspora), should have more space to write about and talk about these issues. Instead, most coverage comes from the outside and is paternalistic in nature—and certainly not holistic! We can’t say, for example, that expensive restaurants serving local food is having a broad, good impact on local food access or providing livable income to farmers. Yet travel pieces continue to do this.
We live in Old San Juan, on an island unto itself off of the biggest island of the Puerto Rican archipelago, which is a very small place that nonetheless provides most of the tourism imagery for the entire nation. I often describe it as a medieval village. We are wildly lucky here, for its beauty and safety and walkability, the latter of which is unique in Puerto Rico. We are also overrun by tourists much of the time; it can feel as though you’re conducting your entire life in Times Square, people walking slowly and stopping at random points on the sidewalk.
My husband grew up here, which is also a rarity, and works here, which is why we’re able to get away with not having a car. We simply do not leave often—a recent foray into Santurce on a Saturday night cost almost $30 round trip in an Uber, so that’s not a regular occurrence—which I would’ve thought would drive me a little nuts. It doesn’t. It lets me think.
I love to live here despite the difficulties and despite the fact that I’m a writer on the internet, leaving me open to constant commentary from people who don’t live here about my choices in ingredients or foods or ways of cooking. I buy azucenas from Don Saúl once or twice a week, and their fragrance in the living room stops me in my tracks every time I walk by them as they bloom—better than any $70 candle. We give nicknames to feral cats, get to know the patterns of roosters, watch the pelicans swoop into the bay for their prey with such grace. We are offered free soup or paella by the Franciscans—they want to insist, even when we are walking past with a box of pizza. (There’s a consistent thrum of the true notion, food should be free.)
I am jealous sometimes when I’m on the internet and see folks in big cities eating lots of different kinds of cuisines; it can feel like my palate’s education is falling behind. But I am also relieved when I see a list of 66 “new” restaurants in New York and know I don’t have the pressure on my shoulders to visit them all. (It’s telling that in last week’s piece about kitchens, I named none of the ones I had in Brooklyn.)
When I go home, I go to the same places, and it’s taken on the tenor of tourism—a strange feeling: Dirt Candy, soon again Superiority Burger, a martini and tiramisu at Dante, a martini and mushroom pate at Le Crocodile, the recent addition to the cycle of Lucia pizza in Sheepshead Bay. There are more places I want to go; there’s usually so little time, and I like more than anything to spend the days walking, walking, walking for hours and over bridges, spending money at bookstores because I love to browse without intentionality, pick up something surprising. What I miss most isn’t edible, when it comes down to it: It’s the infrastructure. The ability to go long distances cheaply, without driving.
A friend who lives in Brooklyn (born and raised) but visits San Juan regularly remarked that the best meals they’ve had in Puerto Rico have been in homes. My sister, on her last trip, said the best food she ate were the meals I cooked for her. There’s some sentimentality to this, sure. Food does taste best when it’s served in an intimate atmosphere, family style, eaten without shoes on. It’s also a matter of food costs here being very high, meaning rarely does the price of something you’re eating out really match the experience. When I realized it was consistently $50 before tip for us to have a beer each and some fried food at one spot, we stopped going.
I’ve never forgotten a moment when a bartender I’d become acquainted with asked me on one of my trips, “Is Puerto Rico still cool?” The tone of it, of expressing surprise at the fact that I kept coming back, has stayed with me over the three years I’ve lived here. Puerto Rico is still cool, even if it’s made hard. I understand better, though, why he asked: The sparkle of vacation wears off, calculations must be made, the sea almonds must be opened one by one.
Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris and Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus are two slim books on the city (in both cases, Paris) that I’ve read recently, as well as Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin. What’s interesting about them all is that they describe big cities, major cities, but they remind me that most of the time, even big cities are small in the scale of daily life. A relief! Not just because of my small city life but because yes, life isn’t lived on a massive scale. One life cannot swallow a city whole, though certainly it can be attempted.
The stand-out memories among my life in Brooklyn are the days I biked twenty miles, saw three groups of friends and colleagues, hit three boroughs, and so I have to remind myself of how that put me out, how I would recover through days spent on the couch, that toward the end, I was working myself sick in a seemingly endless cycle. Even if I were to return or go live in some other big city, the scale would be small. It would have to be in order to be livable. Here in Old San Juan, with the kitchen, the ocean, the feral cats and the azucenas and the bars we go—places where everyone knows your name—my life is just the right size.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch will be a list of the places I do recommend in San Juan—it will be honest, and it will include a Google Maps guide. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
Research for assignments—I’m really in deep right now working on three feature pieces simultaneously. How did this happen? I’m blessed but stretched a bit thin. Anyway, I’m into Larissa Zimberoff’s Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat and Doug Bierend’s In Search of Mycotopia. We will see what comes of it all!
I’ve been making a ton of okra, pictured above, perfecting a method. When the method is perfected, I will write about it in a From the Kitchen!