Reclaiming Puerto Rico’s Food Paradise


Jeff Gordiner (The New York Times) writes about “reclaiming Puerto Rico’s food paradise,” new practices in food production and sustainability, coffee production, and the island’s many gifted chefs:

Mr. [Jose] Enrique and Katie Savage, his chef de cuisine at the hotel, tend to wing it based on whatever baskets of fruit, bags of vegetables and buckets of seafood come their way. Dinner that night would overflow with lobster ceviche, a conch salad spooned into steaming pockets of fried bread, a dip spun from eggplants that had been smoked over the wood of wild mesquite trees, a pork chop brushed with sugar-cane juice. Toward the end would come a sweet, coral-hued sphere of guava ice.

Where did the guavas come from? Mr. Enrique motioned toward the window. The fruit tree stood right outside.

Mr. Enrique, 37, is a leader in a movement of loosely affiliated Puerto Rican cooks, farmers and activists who have arrived at the same realization over the last few years: There’s a juicy gastronomic paradise at their fingertips, and all they have to do is reach out and grab it. San Juan restaurants like Parcela Gastropub, La Jaquita Baya, Santaella, Marmalade and Jose Enrique (the chef’s namesake spot in the humming Santurce neighborhood); a pioneering farm-to-tote-bag enterprise called El Departamento de la Comida; and the Hacienda San Pedro coffee company are all promulgating a new way of thinking that reintroduces Puerto Rican diners and shoppers to the buried treasures of their home island.

That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. From a food standpoint, Puerto Rico represents a twisted paradox. Thanks to its balmy climate and rich soil, it has the makings of a gastronome’s fantasy island, a place where all sorts of natural delights sprout from the land, sometimes without much need for human coaxing.

In spite of that, decades of economic policy, kicking into overdrive with Operation Bootstrap starting in the late 1940s, led to an emphasis on industrialization and a shift away from Puerto Rico’s agrarian roots. This helped create a middle class, but a reliance on growing things was replaced by the canned-and-shrink-wrapped gospel of postwar America.

Before long, Puerto Rican supermarkets were dominated by the processed convenience foods of the “I Love Lucy”-era good life, crated in on boats and planes from the mainland. To this day, it’s hard to find fruits and vegetables that haven’t been hauled all the way from California and Ohio, even though comparable (or superior) harvests are blooming unchecked in Grandma’s backyard.

“Once you take out agriculture from any country, you can’t sustain yourself — you become dependent,” Mr. Enrique said. “So that’s what happened here.” He went on: “When you take that out, you end up importing everything. And you take away the beautiful part of it.”

It was this vexing disconnect that prompted Tara Rodríguez Besosa and Olga Casellas Badillo to create El Departamento de la Comida four and a half years ago as a way to bring local organic products from private pinprick gardens and farms to the teeming, street-art-emblazoned districts of San Juan. “We just kept having the same conversation over the dinner table,” Ms. Rodríguez Besosa said. “We were like, ‘Wow, there really is no access to good food here — to good ingredients.’ ” [. . .]

Today, visitors and even some islanders are surprised to learn that Puerto Rico has coffee beans so good that they were in demand throughout Europe during the 19th century. “People ask me, ‘Do you grow coffee in Puerto Rico?’ ” said Rebecca Atienza, a member of the family that for four generations has owned and operated the Hacienda San Pedro coffee farm in the mountain village Jayuya. “Many people don’t know.” [. . .]

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