There's a reason certain recipes are part of the Puerto Rican culinary vernacular.
Photo by Flickr user Mike Mozart.
By now you must know that Hurricane Irma ripped through Puerto Rico a few months ago, leaving a shattered mess in its wake. Just as everyone dusted off their shoulders and started to rebuild, Maria came through and pummeled the shards from Irma, leaving only pulp. Most are still without electricity and my family’s phone lines are still disconnected. I still call Vega Baja every day, only to be met with the staccato of the busy signal. The mainland diaspora is strong and we’re coming together in droves to help out our gente, but Puerto Rico is still short on supplies and running low on food. I saw a photo recently of the inside of a FEMA relief box that included two cans of Chef Boyardee. I thought, “Shit. We’re gonna have to rely on canned food again for a while until our agriculture bounces back.”
Processed foods showed up in Puerto Rico after World War II, during a time of hardship and government subsidies. The poorest communities in the rural outskirts of Puerto Rico didn't have refrigeration, so canned foods like Spam, and salchichas, otherwise known as Vienna sausages, and canned corned beef— were the perfect option to satiate hunger.
I can only imagine the look on my ancestors’ faces when they first laid eyes on those hunks of wobbly and gelatinous pink meat. Along with the subsidies, the government provided weekly “mothers'” courses to teach the mothers of the barrios not only how to prepare their government rations, but how to make them more appetizing for the Puerto Rican palate. Chop the Spam and mix it with tomato sauce, canned green beans, and sofrito, and serve over rice. Voila: Spam guisada.
WATCH: Puerto Rico Before the Storm
Times like this remind me of why certain recipes exist in the modern Puerto Rican culinary vernacular. My grandma always kept canned milk and canned tomato sauce in her pantry without fail. She was mostly a homemaker but always had side jobs, so most of my memories of her are of her standing over the stove—and when we cleaned out her apartment after she passed away in 2015, we found so many cans of tomato sauce.
And given my background, I'm not prejudiced against canned foods at all. Evaporated milk, canned green beans and instant mashed potatoes mixed together, Top Ramen? They’re not just my comfort foods, but a window into my own personal fear of going without. When I was a kid, my mother was just not that interested in cooking. It was mostly a chore for her, something she had to do to feed her only child on an incredibly restricted budget after long days of factory work when I was young, then, when I was older, 12-hour shifts at the local hospital. I never went hungry, but there were times when she did because there wasn't enough for the both of us.
So processed and canned foods made frequent appearances at our table. During summers I'd eat cold refrigerated hotdogs straight from their package, thick-sliced bologna with the red wax ring on the outside, fried chicken in gravy made from Campbell's mushroom soup served over white rice, the government cheese blocks we received at the neighborhood church that made the meltiest of grilled cheese sandwiches, canned spinach—which was always too slimy for me —and Albers grits with fried eggs and Spam.
MAKE THIS: Spam Guisada
I made that Spam guisada yesterday using fresh green beans, because they were available. And while I stood in my kitchen with one hand stirring the pot and one hand on my hip, I thought of how Puerto Rico, a country already steps behind, is going to have to start from scratch…again. And while the island’s landscape heals itself and food runs short, the island may have to receive canned foods as part of government subsidies and disaster relief efforts…again. But, we’re resilient. We’ll bounce back. Puerto Rico Se Levanta.