A few weeks ago, I took a short trip to Puerto Rico. I was originally hoping to write an entry about what I ate there with particular focus on Guavate, an area known for its roast pig, but I didn’t end up making it to Guavate at all. I’m not even sure I ate any real Puerto Rican cuisine while I was there — I stayed with a Couchsurfer, and we prepared and ate mostly vegan and vegetarian food.
In general, my diet usually suffers when I travel (the major exception being a visit to Istanbul, during which all I did was eat). I don’t eat out for many meals because I’m usually on my own, and while I’m totally comfortable eating out by myself, it’s easier and cheaper to just grab convenience food or buy groceries. As much as I enjoy the idea of experiencing a culture through its food, I think it’s a pretty difficult thing to do in an honest way — I’d rather grab a random local pastry than eat a nationally recognized dish in a tourist restaurant, for example, and more often than not I end up living off of cereal, yogurt, and fruit.
I’m often told that I’m missing out by not eating local dishes, but honestly, I think it’s sort of a cheap way to have an “authentic” experience while abroad. Eating is something we do with so little intention and awareness, and I think most people take for granted that consuming something foreign to them is the same as noticing what makes it different, but it’s not. There are more emotionally and intellectually significant ways to try to understand unknown surroundings than eating local food, and while there is absolutely something important and unifying about sharing a meal and tasting a foreign dish, it doesn’t chalk up to cultural sensitivity.
Anyway, I didn’t have mofongo or léchon or even a piña colada in Puerto Rico.
What struck me most about food in Puerto Rico is where it comes from — 90% of Puerto Rico’s food is imported. From what I understand, even though the island is extremely fertile, agriculture is dedicated exclusively to cash crops, in part because the United States wanted Puerto Ricans to be dependent on American industry. As a result, Puerto Rico’s food system is totally unsustainable. If for any reason Puerto Ricans were unable to receive imported goods, it would be a complete disaster.
One thing I want to explore with this blog is the social side of food and the food system — especially where food comes from and how food affects communities. San Juan was the first place I’ve ever witnessed the relationship between food and community so explicitly, and it was totally inspiring — people are proactive about growing their own food and educating their communities about sustainability in a way that is both well-received and unpretentious. I’m a little enamored with it, honestly.
Still, I’ll be sure to try the léchon next time.