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Cooking Was My Way Back to My Puerto Rican Roots

Published:
February 15, 2024
November 13, 2023
Read this reflective narrative about cooking cultural foods to connect with family history and heritage.|Read this reflective narrative about cooking cultural foods to connect with family history and heritage.

For Branan, cooking helped her get back to her Puerto Rican roots — and it was a way to connect with her grandma who was once the keeper of all their recipes. Here’s the story of how she worked to rebuild her family’s collection of Puerto Rican recipes after they were lost to time and memory.

When I was growing up, my grandma made almost all of our family dinners. A five-foot redheaded firecracker of a Puerto Rican matriarch, Grandma Zoraida made the best pastelillos, beef stew, pernil, and, most of all, rice. Arroz con gandules, yellow rice and red beans, white rice and pink beans, just white rice topped with ketchup — it was a staple. In true Hispanic family fashion, a ten-pound bag was kept surreptitiously in a repurposed Halloween popcorn tin sporting a black cat and yellow moon. I loved eating it — until I didn’t. At some point in middle school, after a straight week of various rice meals, I decided I was tired of rice altogether and hated it. 

While my aversion certainly did not stop my family from making and eating rice, it was an internal attitude of taking my grandma’s cooking for granted — which hit me in the gut when her Alzheimer’s began to steal the family recipes that were never written down. Eventually, all of them were lost along with her memories. Being half Puerto Rican and half white, I was mainly connected to my culture through my grandma and her cooking, so much more was at stake than just a family recipe.

When I was in college, all of this caught up to me. I was sitting alone in my apartment, hungry for any taste of home, especially rice. My mom, who had also never learned the tricks of the trade from my grandma, sent me a link to an online recipe for white rice. I clumsily made it in a regular pot, and it came out way too amogollao — mushy beyond repair — to be good. All the same, it filled me with pride because it was a small step connecting me with my family and Puerto Rican heritage when I felt like I was losing more of that part of myself each day.

After that, I was hooked. My mom and I kept looking up more recipes, making them and comparing them to our memories of my grandma’s meals. We asked my Titis for their recipes for pernil and pastelillos, trying to write it all down and assign measurements to things that were never measured. We scoured the internet, finding Facebook groups and websites that showed us our quest was not unique: Puerto Ricans throughout the diaspora were looking for recipes that died with their forebears, with Titis and Tíos all over the internet sharing their favorite meals and bites of wisdom. There were pockets of the internet where every comment ended with a celebratory “WEPA!” when someone posted a picture of a successful dish, which gave me hope that I could still be a part of this wider community I loved despite feeling like I didn’t belong.

Other than my grandma’s meals and extended family gatherings, not much of my upbringing felt “Hispanic enough” for me to claim my heritage. I went to Catholic schools outside of Baltimore that were predominantly white, with hardly any other Latinas in my classes — let alone my friend group — until college. I struggled to understand where I belonged in the wider picture, but I knew I belonged in my grandma’s kitchen, doing homework at the dinner table while she cooked and sang, filling the air with the smell of sofrito and garlic.

Being able to cook Puerto Rican meals from my childhood helped me rediscover my identity as a Latina woman and reconnect with that space of family, culture, and love. When I moved back in with my mom after college, I became the primary cook. I started making carne guisada for her on cold nights in the winter and serving it with white rice that I was slowly perfecting. I made arroz con gandules at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when my cousin gave me the recipe he had found for coquito — a new tradition for us as a family since my grandma never drank more than a few sips of alcohol in her life. When I prepared for marriage, I put calderos on my wedding registry and excitedly told stories about my grandma’s cooking when I unwrapped them at my bridal shower. Finally, once I had a kitchen of my own, I placed a copy of Puerto Rican Cookery that my mom had gifted me in a place of honor, using my tiny, TJ Maxx-bought pilón as a bookend. 

I recently made pork chops and yellow rice with pink beans for my mom and husband (who has loved my Puerto Rican cooking since we started dating). I crushed garlic for the pork in my pilón and made the rice with my gifted caldero, and it came out perfect — not a bit amogollao. As we sat down and said grace, I kissed my knuckle at the end of the sign of the cross, a habit I picked up sitting next to my grandma at the dinner table years before. Even though we don’t have her with us anymore, pieces of Grandma Zoraida live on in the dishes my family shares and enjoys. It can be daunting taking on her mantle, but I truly learned from the best when it comes to providing for others with confidence and love. As my husband and I prepare to host our first Thanksgiving for my mom and his siblings, I have the assurance she and the spirit of strong Puerto Rican women before her will be with me every bite of the way.

Creators:
Branan Thompson
Published:
February 15, 2024
November 13, 2023
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