As a young man born in the eighties, but growing up in the nineties, I was part of an almost normal statistic of young people that belonged to a single parent family unit. I do not remember my parent’s divorce because of how young I was, but I do remember that in lieu of having two parents I had close to seven. My grandparents became my surrogate mom and dad figures while my mother worked countless hours at her job, and the neighbors became aunties and uncles to me. The neighborhood that I grew up in was full of history, it was one of the first in Puerto Rico covered under the urban expansion under FDR’s New Deal. The folks on sixth street knew each other, their kids played together, so did the grandkids.
The mentality of “it takes a village” was very well used in all the houses. Everyone could be punished by each other’s parents or grandparents; however, it was this familiarity in which we all learned who was best at cooking what. For example, my grandmother was the best at fry cooking things. Mazola, a very popular corn based oil, seemed to never run out in our household. I think my grandmother had stock in the company. The daily salty smell of hot oil along with the soft yet rapid crackle once anything was applied or thrown into the cast iron skillet was never absent day in and day out. From fried eggs, chicken, pork chops, to my all-time favorite, SPAM, and everything in between, there was nothing that skillet didn’t touch. It became the soundtrack to most of my afternoons. Every so often, my symphony of crackles would be replaced with the hissing and whistling of the pressure cooker which meant the outcome would be, beef stew, lovely, life giving, beef stew. Everything in this stew felt like manna from heaven. From the soft tissue of the beef that dissolved in your mouth once a bite was taken, full of flavors from all the different spices, along with the secret ingredient, love (I know kind of cheesy, but hey it’s what I was told it was made with). The starchy potato, the partner in crime to the beef tips, although presented on the plate as a piece, it became mashed once a fork would slice through it. And as side dishes you couldn’t not go wrong with a good helping of grains and stewed legumes, or as they are commonly called, rice and beans. Simple yet satisfying. There were no worries back in the day about carbs, sugars, or cholesterol, if it tasted good, is was good for you.
Our next-door neighbor, who I endearingly called “abuela” Blanca (she let me call her that, even though she had grandchildren of her own), was the resident neighborhood chef. Her specialty was the making of pasteles. Pasteles are the Puerto Rican version of the Mexican tamales, however, instead of the soft outside dough being made of corn meal, it was either made from yuca (cassava) or plantain and wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. The filling was similar, seasoned chicken or beef, but, a big difference from my Mexican cousins is that the saltiness that comes with the queso fresco gets replaced with the sweetness that raisins bring to this unique flavor profile. The dough is the part of the whole package. As mentioned before, a pastel’s dough is mainly made from yuca. Salt, adobo, sazón, garlic, along with other spices and flour, turns this dry root vegetable in to a delectable paste that after either boiling or steamed in a pressure cooker, it congeals to a consistency that its neither to soft that it feels like a pile of mush, nor too stiff like a piece of bread.
Although I was a very lucky child to grow up with these flavors and wonderful food around me, unlike other children from an ethnic background, I was not allowed to put a foot inside of the kitchen. My ban from this part of the house had nothing to do with being inexperienced, or fear that I would set the rest of the house on fire, it had to do with the fact that I have a Y chromosome. As the only grandson, a very high pedestal was the place where my grandmother would always place me. “Its woman’s work”, a very old school way of thinking to which my grandmother held until the last day of her long life.
My grandfather did not share this way of thinking. My introduction into how to use a natural gas stove was through the careful instructions of a blind man. My first lesson, something that has been called one of the best skills a young man could learn, how to make a cup of coffee. Yes coffee, the great equalizer in most societies, both rich and poor can talk over politics, philosophy, sports, and a myriad of other topics, while sipping this hot bitter nectar of the gods. His favorite method of brewing was through a chorreador, a cloth filter where the grains would be put and hot water would be poured into it, also known as the sock. The aroma of the grounds mixed in with the dew of the morning would turn anyone from grouchy smurf to being able to take over the world.
As a teenager, as was known as the pit, as in the bottomless kind. Around this time is also when my mother remarried. Nice guy, and a great cook. It was nice to meet another guy who knew how to cook other than the ones I saw on T.V., or Chef Boyardee. So, in order to not bother anybody with my constant pleas of hunger, my stepfather took this as an opportunity to teach me how to cook and be self-sufficient. He started with the basics, first lesson, eggs. A versatile form of food that is given to us by the generous chicken. Just like Bubba in Forrest Gump, he knew a slew of way on to cook them: boiled, scrambled, sunny side up, over easy, omelets, the list went on.
After mastering eggs, we moved on to the big leagues, lasagna. Building a lasagna is a process suited for an engineer. From bringing the water to a boil, cooking the meat and adding seasoning it, adding sauce to the meat creating a marinated protein that was neither to savory nor too sweet, just right balance. I was also taught how to add the pasta to the water, and more importantly, when to take it out and how to check if it was done (throwing it against the wall and seeing if it sticks method as with spaghetti worked every time). Lastly, I had to build the dish. Knowing how to build the perfect layers became more of an art than procedure; pasta, beef, sauce, cheese, pasta, repeat. Everything stacked together like floors in a building, one of top of the other, complementing each other, great partners to one another but each flavor easy enough for the taste buds to be identified.
Once I moved to Florida, and started working, attending college, most of my meals and diet followed a very Hispanic/American way of eating. While still living at home or visiting other relatives I would get the standard fare of rice, beans, protein, and salad (usually just lettuce tomatoes and perhaps a hard boiled eggs), while I was on my own, my meals were composed of what I could get i.e. burgers, pizza, Taco Bell, etc. This was the place my palate called home for quite some time, my skills in the culinary arts have faded away due to not having enough time to craft meals, or that I was given food to take with. This all changed once I was on my own.
When I moved out, unheard of in my cultural background unless you get married, commuting to my mother’s house was not an option. This is when I also came down the pedestal, and everything I was taught came to play. But alas, man cannot simply survive on egg recipes, coffee, and lasagna. Publix became my favorite place to be at. The friendly employees taught me how to tell if something is too green by noticing how firm it is, or if it’s just perfect when wile gently applying pressure it felt soft, but it “bounced back”. The recipe cards where a life saver, although as absent minded as I am I would sometimes forget what I had in the oven, turning some chicken breast into charcoal. This trend has not continued with me, currently I am my family’s resident cook, and enjoying every bit of it. You could say I’ve been “bitten by the culinary bug”.