[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for sharing this item.] Illyanna Maisonet (San Francisco Chronicle) writes about Navidad Borinqueña—a Puerto Rican Christmas dinner at New York’s famous James Beard House.
Four Puerto Rican cooks — three women and one trans chef — cooked a Puerto Rican Christmas dinner at New York’s famous James Beard House last month. As the first Puerto Rican food columnist writing about Puerto Rican food for a newspaper in the United States (at least as far as I know), I needed to be at this event. Not just to document the first trans chef to cook at the Beard House, Paxx Caraballo Moll, but to support an event that highlights Puerto Rican gastronomy.
With the help of my Instagram community, I managed to raise my money pool goal within 48 hours. I booked my flight and my room in the Lower East Side — so I could walk to Casa Adela every day — and I purchased my ticket to the dinner. I felt like I had the power of community behind me, and I was going to make it happen.
I had never been to New York City, though I had followed its arts from afar for years. My teen years were spent studying the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, ingesting the poetry of Miguel Piñero, inhaling the music of the Fania All-Stars, modeling community ideals after the Young Lords. My twenties were for fawning over Nora Ephron’s Upper West Side. Nueva York was the place where young Nuyoricans contributed raw art and seething prose to the landscape. What Nuyoricans were to the East Coast, Chicanos were to the West Coast. The Nuyoricans were the closest thing I could identity to in the Puerto Rican world of ni de aqui, ni de alla.
And so, during my visit, I sought out this Nuyorico … only to find that it seems to exist solely as a relic of itself. It’s there. But it’s immortalized in murals on 104th and Lexington. It’s there in the shadows on the bricks of the buildings in Alphabet City, where the corner of Fifth and Avenue C smells like rice and beans. It’s in Justo Marti’s black and white photos documenting Puerto Rican bodegas in Spanish Harlem, which are now in the archives of the Center for Puerto Rican studies. It’s in the cuchifritos where mangu and mofongo have become interchangeable with salami because the fondas are now run by Dominicans. It’s there, but not there. Tangible and intangible. It’s made room for new Latin American immigrant groups, adding to the salsa. But it’s not the flavor of fire, wild abandon, frustration and elation in carving out enclaves. As I explored the city, I felt like the salsa had gone mellow to be all-inclusive.
Meanwhile, the visiting chefs from Puerto Rico — Maria Grubb of Gallo Negro, Kelly Pirro of Mai Pen Rai, Paxx Caraballo Moll of Jungle BaoBao, and Natalia Vallejo — had been shopping and prepping for a few days. When I saw them the night before the event, they were elbow-to-elbow in the intimate kitchen, alive with the hum of familiar informality. Each passing person helped out to ensure the toothpick held a thinly sliced platanos for the piononos that Kelly Pirro was assembling. Natalia Vallejo tested her patience with frying rice cakes in a temperamental deep fryer.
And it seemed like everyone paused to watch bartender Ninotchka Daly Gandulla make coquito, a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas drink. Glugs of Don Q rum were poured into a large cambro filled with coconut milk, cinnamon and coconut cream. Evaporated milk was supposed to be added, too, as soon as someone could track down a can at the local market. The making of the coquito meant that it was definitely Christmastime. The kitchen was full of women talking loud, talking fast, talking s—, all in a Spanglish dialect in a campo cadence. And now coquito was being made.
In an instant, it was the closest I’ve been to my childhood Christmas holidays spent at my nana’s house. It was magical. [. . .]
[Photo above: Puerto Rican chefs and helpers celebrated Navidad Borinqueña by putting on a Christmas feast at the James Beard House in New York City. Paxx Caraballo Moll and Maria Grubb are at center.]
For more about the November 27 Navidad Borinqueña, see https://www.jamesbeard.org/events/navidad-borinquena-puerto-rican-christmas and https://www.jamesbeard.org/blog/these-4-chefs-want-you-to-rethink-puerto-rican-cuisine