January 19, 2021

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Staying Connected to Family Through Puerto Rican Recipes


When quarantine first began over eight (EIGHT!) months ago, I had no idea how to handle the immense loss of life going on, especially living in New York City, one of the epicenters of the pandemic at the time. I — much like every New Yorker — felt scared and nervous about coming in contact with those around me. I found myself growing depressed — and very irritated — far too quickly, enough that my partner and I almost ended things after two years because everything he did was suddenly the most annoying thing ever. While I was fortunate I still had a job, I felt like I couldn’t escape what was going on because I worked in news, and I was constantly either writing, hearing, or talking about the coronavirus. One thing that certainly helped distract me was cooking, though I didn’t feel good at it and we were trying to restrict ourselves from going to the grocery store too often.

At first, I was doing what everyone else on Instagram was doing: making banana bread. I made it until I perfected it and gained well over five pounds in a short amount of time. I also became an amazing mixologist. But as I started to comprehend that I wasn’t really going anywhere for a long, long time, I was resolute about learning the Puerto Rican recipes my mom and my paternal abuelita cooked constantly when I lived back on the island. If I couldn’t visit my home country or my favorite restaurants because of the pandemic, I was going to make the dishes myself.

By the time I was born, both my abuelitos had passed away and I was left with my grandmothers to pass down any family stories. One of them, Arminda, was already sick by the time I reached 5 and passed away by the time I was 9, so my paternal grandmother, Gonzala, took it upon herself to treat me to delicious recipes and have them ready for me by the time I got home from school. At the time, she lived with my parents and me, and she’d always make me gelatin desserts — four at a time — in these yellow-tinted glass bowls. They were the most delicious thing I’d ever had up to that point. I’d watch her move so elegantly in the kitchen as she wore these adorable print dresses that reached below her knees and made sure to cover up her chest, as she was a modest woman of 70.

I came to associate the smell of food as my abuelita’s smell.

Once she decided to get a house of her own to take care of my sick uncle, we’d travel one hour to her, where she’d treat us to abuelita-quality arroz blanco, habichuelas rosadas, and either fried chicken, beef, or pollo guisado. She’d give my parents salad as an extra side dish, while I, a growing girl of 12, got tostones, or fried plantain. If we got to her house before the food was ready, I would mainly follow her around the kitchen and help her serve the food or give my dad some cafecito while he waited. I came to associate the smell of food as my abuelita’s smell.

A few years later, my grandma developed Alzheimer’s and moved in with her daughter — an aunt that I’m not close with. I haven’t seen her in a while, though I know my dad visits her every week. Because cooking was the way we bonded, I’ve learned how to make the same meals she made for me when I was younger. Her love language — and most abuelitas’ love language — is food, and I intend to keep that tradition alive in my household, no matter if I go back to Puerto Rico or I move to the farthest country from it. I can’t say I’m anywhere near as good as her, but I’m getting there slowly.

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