Before Hurricanes Irma and Maria plowed through Puerto Rico in late 2017, Natalia Quiles Deyá was a full-time lawyer with a new hobby: growing papayas and root vegetables on land she rented in the island’s green, fertile interior.
But once the storms passed and the extraordinary level of devastation became clear, Ms. Quiles Deyá, 32, decided to quit the law and participate in regrowing the island — from the ground up.
“My father used to say that agriculture is the heart of every country,” she said. “I saw that the island needed something big to make a difference.”
A passionate local-food movement in Puerto Rico — cooking from island traditions, eating native ingredients and supporting producers like bakers, ice-cream makers and butchers — has been growing for more than a decade. Many people say the movement was hitting its stride just as Irma and Maria arrived — and indiscriminately wiped restaurants and greenhouses, food trucks and fish farms off the map.
There are still produce shortages and power failures. Many farmers, chefs and other producers have not returned. And much of the lush, arable soil remains underused. But Ms. Quiles Deyá and others have rebounded with an even stronger commitment to self-reliance, local food and pride in Puerto Rico itself.
The movement has come back “with a vengeance,” said the chef José Enrique, whose San Juan restaurant is a destination for lovers of cocina criolla, the local mix of Spanish, Taíno, African and Caribbean cooking.
“People are bringing in things like honey and chiles and goat cheese from all over,” he said. “My farmers are growing root vegetables that no one wanted before, and I can buy fresh butifarra and longaniza,” traditional sausages that are finally being made on the island instead of being flown in from the mainland.
Mario Juan, a chef who grew up here, trained at the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at Momofuku Noodle Bar and Blanca in New York City before returning in 2014. He spent three years cooking elaborate pop-up dinners in his apartment, but his plans to finally open his own place were upended by the storm.
“The hurricanes felt like a message” that he would never succeed as a chef in Puerto Rico, he said. But after diving into the relief effort, he realized that food and cooking would be integral to rebuilding the island.
Now, he is proudly making pork sandwiches in a permanently parked Airstream trailer while he considers his next move. (Occasional side dishes include cured mackerel with sea purslane, and orange salad with pickled chiles.) Pernil, slow-roasted pork shoulder perfumed with garlic, is one of the talismanic dishes of the island: The slogan painted on his signs reads, “Pernil es Patria.”
“Pernil represents our homeland, our heritage, our ancestors,” he said.
Gabriel Mejía Lugo, 30, grows greens and herbs in the interior of the island, near Comerío. A university-trained botanist, he started his own farm in 2016; Hurricane Maria took his entire crop. “I didn’t know if we would ever come back. We lost every plant we had.”
Like many, he evacuated to the mainland for several months, staying with friends in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He picked up occasional work helping farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket, and waited to hear that power had been restored to Comerío.
He is now farming again, but “a lot of the older people took their checks and never came back,” he said. Agricultural relief programs were handled by multiple local and federal agencies. All 2018 totals are not yet available, but the Natural Conservation Resource Service of the USDA awarded almost $24 million to 828 farmers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Before the hurricanes, many people in Puerto Rico were already working to reduce their dependence on imported food, which made up 85 to 90 percent of the food supply. Islanders pay high prices for frozen, canned and generally tired ingredients from the mainland.
The island’s agricultural potential itself has long been frozen, by food regulations and limitations that also come from the mainland. For example, the Jones Act, passed in the 1920s, constantly slows shipments from the mainland because only American shipping companies can legally transport goods from one United States port to another. (Briefly suspended after Hurricane Maria, it was enacted after World War I in order to boost the domestic shipping fleet in case of future naval invasions.)
“You know where we chefs used to get our ingredients?” the chef Paulina Escanes said, in a near-whisper. “At Costco.”
After the storms, established food supply chains were snapped in the urgency of feeding hungry citizens. And as restaurants, farms and vendors came back online, new links were forged.
“All these new connections were made,” said Mr. Enrique, who was among the volunteers who fanned out across the island to feed communities that had lost their entire food supply. Mobile kitchens, including hipster dumpling trucks and beachside cuchifritos vendors, were pressed into service to make sandwiches and sancocho, the chunky soup that is the island’s most basic, filling comfort food.
The mainland chef José Andrés, who started working in hurricane relief in Haiti in 2010, famously mobilized a network of cooks, farmers and volunteers in Puerto Rico days after the storm, when the food chain seemed paralyzed. Erin Schrode, one of Mr. Andrés’s top lieutenants at World Central Kitchen, has been living on the island since a week after Hurricane Maria struck.
She coordinated the relief effort long after news coverage subsided, moving trucks, cooks and food as roads were cleared and power restored. “We were purchasing thousands of pounds of food every week, and everything fresh had to be local — nothing was coming in.” she said. “I started linking chefs who needed eggplants, avocados, collards to those who grow them.”
Two months after the hurricane, Ms. Schrode began allotting grant money from World Central Kitchen to help replant farms, rebuild bakeries and reopen restaurants. “I was hearing from farmers and chefs who were looking to claim their identity and give back to the island,” she said. The grant program, Plow to Plate, is now run by local employees, and has awarded almost $600,000 to farmers and other food producers to rebuild their businesses.
Other links in this new network were formed not on the ground, but on social media sites. Food leaders like the owners of Frutas del Guacabo, who both grow and seek out local ingredients for restaurants, and the two women behind El Departamento de la Comida, a pioneering plant-forward restaurant, maintained web pages that became informational hubs for chefs, artisans and growers.
Farmers are trying to work out what sustainable agriculture will look like in the age of climate change, which threatens to create new problems like bigger hurricanes and greater temperature swings. “Everything grows in the tropical ecosystem,” Mr. Mejía said — good for growing cash crops, but terrible for fighting off fungus, weeds and pests.
At his True Leaf Farm, he depends on chef-friendly ingredients like edible flowers, micro cilantro and squash blossoms, which grow quickly and reliably in greenhouses fitted with hydroponic technology. Before a storm, he can quickly dismantle the operation; even if he loses all his plants and the soil is full of salt water, with power for the well he can be up and running again in a week.
But rebuilding most farms is a slow process, and neither public nor private relief funds have been sufficient to restore the momentum that local agriculture had before the storm.
After Puerto Rico’s financial crisis in 2006, local agriculture officials began to offer new incentives for farmers, out of concern for the island’s food security. The Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture helped establish about 1,700 new farms. In 2017, agricultural imports still stood at 80 to 85 percent, but progress was being made toward the official goal of 70 percent.
Since the hurricanes, forward-looking farmers are stepping up efforts to close the gap. And chefs say that what is now available is better and more diverse than ever before.
New restaurants like Vianda, Caña, and Paulina Escanes’ bright new cafe are highlighting traditional dishes on menus and using newly available local ingredients. “Eggplants with thin skins, persimmons that are silky and sugary, organic eggs, local bread,” she said. Her agricultural and artisanal suppliers are listed on the menu — a routine sight in trendy culinary destinations, but a revolutionary one on this island, where farming has a complicated history shaped by exploitation.
“Puerto Rico is an incredibly fertile, lush place, but because of its colonial status, it was organized for industrial agriculture,” said Von Diaz, a writer who was born in San Juan and raised in Atlanta.
Her cookbook, “Coconuts and Collards,” published last year, tells her own story, flavored by the Caribbean and the American South, and that of the island’s food. For generations, vast tracts of the island were used by outsiders to grow profitable crops like tobacco, sugar cane and coffee — none of which provided food to those who live here.
Local people served as slave labor on those plantations, alongside Africans brought by Spanish invaders. “What Puerto Ricans may have wanted to grow did not matter until very recently,” Ms. Diaz said.
In 1947, the United States government began a wholesale effort, called Operation Bootstrap, to replace Puerto Rico’s impoverished agrarian economy with light manufacturing and other white-collar work. “They wanted us to make pharmaceuticals instead of pineapples,” Mr. Enrique said. “And we all know how that worked out.”
Since Puerto Rico’s government-debt crisis in 2015 and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s much-criticized early response to the natural disasters of 2017, skepticism about help from the mainland seems to be feeding a new pride in local culture.
“Younger people are trying to have a different way of life that isn’t connected to tourism and the mainland,” Ms. Diaz said. That means staying away from fast food, cooking traditional dishes, buying local products and eating less meat.
New farmers like Ms. Quiles Deyá, the former lawyer, are growing things like kale and arugula, but also bringing back native plants and herbs. Many have been used for healing as well as for seasoning: curcuma (a form of the newly valuable rhizome, turmeric), oregano brujo (strong, “witch’s” oregano) and recao, a pungent native herb that is a fundamental element of the Puerto Rican palate.
Sofrito — the slow-cooked mix of onions, peppers, tomatoes and seasonings that is the base for innumerable dishes wherever Spanish gastronomy is an influence — is called a recaíto here, and perfumed with the pleasantly grassy, brisk essence of recao. (Elsewhere, it is called culantro or ngo gai.)
The robust vegan community in San Juan reflects the local-agriculture movement, and dovetails with the island’s oldest culinary traditions. Oil, not butter, is the cooking fat of choice. Filling, starchy vegetables like plantains, name, malanga and yautia are not profitable crops, but they were staples long before the arrival of mainland restaurant chains in the 1950s.
“I’m originally from that fast-food generation” said Ms. Quiles Deyá, who said she didn’t even like to visit the island’s rural interior when she was young, much less contemplate working as a farmer. “Now people here are much more aware of where food comes from.”
Pedro Álvarez Cortés, who makes the sausages prized by Mr. Enrique, was the first artisanal meat processor on the island to receive the agriculture department’s approval, in 2012. Like other young chefs, Mr. Cortés left Puerto Rico for years in search of culinary education and opportunity. Having trained in hotel kitchens around the island, he said: “I thought there was no other future here.”
He moved around kitchens in Italy, mastering the arts of fresh pasta and salumi, cured meat. On his return in 2007, he said, it seemed like everything had changed — “the food, the mood, the vibe of the restaurants.” Local products and traditional dishes were in demand. Now, he says, he can’t turn out product fast enough: loncino (loin cured in salt for three months), morcilla (blood sausage flavored with herbs and ají dulce, tiny sweet peppers) and carne ahumada (chunks of pork rubbed with salt, pepper, paprika, oregano and sugar, and smoked over wood from almendras trees, a traditional method of preservation).
“I love that I’m making something the old-timers in the mountains knew how to do, and bringing it to the city,” he said.