My Culinary Journey
Why do I write cookbooks? Easy enough — because I avidly enjoy good food and drink and I want to share that experience.
I consider myself a gourmand, not a gourmet, which means that I know my way around a kitchen but I am not professionally trained. Back in Spanish Harlem when I was growing up, I watched my mother as she prepared the evening dinner, and I discovered that mixing all those things together and spreading them around in a pan was fun. Sadly, in the 1950s and 1960s a male of any age in the kitchen was not culturally acceptable so I found myself fighting collective norms from an early age. Then came my bachelor years and the realization that I was not going to be able to survive on canned spaghetti and Coca-Cola. Reality, however, took a decidedly positive turn when my beloved Uncle Phillip, himself a great cook, told me that cooking great meals was the best way to impress a date. “You want to impress some young lady? It’s as easy as pie…make her a great meal.” I ignored his pun and expanded my repertoire.
Initially, my cooking reflected standard Puerto Rican cuisine, which is obviously my heritage. Puerto Rican cooking is a potpourri of various elements encompassing Spanish, native Caribbean and African influences, and all of them use more spices than are found in Anglo cooking.
Actually, the question has been asked as to whether there such a thing as traditional Puerto Rican cuisine and my answer is “yes and no.” From the Spaniards we acquired arroz con pollo (rice and chicken); from Africa we adopted such savories as mofongo (a plantain dish); from the Caribbean we embraced dishes made of tubers and root plants and every imaginable type of seafood, and all this is before we add the Nuyorican dimension to the mix.
Nuyorican is a term applied by native islanders to those Puerto Ricans either born or raised on the mainland. The first great migration of islanders to New York occurred in the 1950s and these immigrants were originally called “Neo-Rican,” a pejorative expression used to describe Puerto Ricans who settled in New York during this time. In response, we countered this discrimination by making it a point of pride, a cultural pattern that is also reflected in our cooking. In both cases, we took what was out there, incorporated it, and celebrated the result.
For example, Wednesday night was spaghetti night, but my mother’s adaptation was different from the typical Italian-American version—she would serve it with pollo guisado (stewed chicken). In my neighborhood, hamburgers became “hamburgesas” replete with all the spices and condiments of Boricua cooking, and we added lettuce and tomatoes as well. Keep in mind this was long before McDonald’s made hamburgers chic with lettuce and tomatoes. The “Boricua” tag was the result of the name “Borinquen” given to Puerto Rico by the native Taino Indians.
My first cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America: Nuyorican and Bodega Recipes, defines all these cross-cultural connections. It was my intention to describe a cuisine that has evolved by creatively combining elements of traditional Puerto Rican cooking with the infusion of novel ideas inspired by the urban milieu of New York City. Today, of course, Borinqueños have expanded nationwide. For example, in 2015 Florida’s Puerto Rican population surpassed one million, rivaling that of New York.
Just as the Nuyorican population continues to grow so has my interest in food, as easily witnessed in my blog www.oswaldatlarge.blogspot.com. I now crisscross the world, writing about tastes that intrigue and inspire me from Asia, Africa, India, the Mideast, Polynesia and Europe. My new definition of heaven is coming across an unfamiliar recipe from anywhere in the world. I am equally excited by a traditional Passover Seder meal or a Muslim Eid al-Fitr feast marking the end of Ramadan. Food unifies us, filling out our individual identities and enhancing our cross-cultural spaces in a way that unites neighborhoods, communities, nations, and the world. As it turns out, good cooking, no matter where or what, is what brings us all to the table.