• ¿Sabes? – On Illyanna Maisonet’s Diasporican

    Carlos Zayas-Pons


    As much as I love to cook, I’ve never been much of a cookbook guy. I found my footing in the kitchen primarily through my parents, both of whom are wonderful home cooks. My dad tends to improvise, invent whenever he cooks—whipping together a version of chicken adobo from the memory of tasting it thirty years ago when his friend, a Filipino medical resident, made it for him. Meanwhile, my mom does research looking for ideas online so that she can refashion them for her own tastes—taking a website’s salmon bowl recipe and baking the fish with garlic powder, turmeric, oregano, and black pepper instead of steaming it with lemongrass and ginger. I find myself somewhere in the middle, researching techniques and using them to create something new. Inspired by both of them in term of style, but also in terms of background, I’ve desperately sought out the ways in which I can learn Puerto Rican food.

    What makes that education difficult is twofold: my mother—while born and raised on the island like my father—does not consider herself Puerto Rican. Her mother was Cuban and her father, Spanish. She never felt like she belonged; even the island’s heat is too much for her. As a result, she does not really cook Puerto Rican food. (But I have learned how to make Cuban frijoles, picadillo, and ropa vieja, among so many other dishes, thanks to her.) Second, I wasn’t raised on the island. I’ve seen it in bits and pieces, on trips to visit with family. I haven’t eaten enough arroz con gandules, pernil, and bacalaítos to quite belong—not belonging being the root to my own cultural anxieties. You see, my sisters and I aren’t really Puerto Rican, at least according to the rest of our family. Cousins and aunts and uncles and even our parents tell us—never rudely, or diminutively, or in any way antagonistically—that we’re American, which is ultimately correct. We were born in Atlanta. We never spent more than a month at a time in Puerto Rico. Our Spanish doesn’t flow quite right. (It took my sisters only a little longer than me to break the habit of saying “yo sabo,” a grammatically incorrect version of “yo sé.”) But all the same, we are very much Puerto Rican to the Americans around us on a daily basis. It's a constant push-and-pull: being told what I am and what I am not, leaving me feeling not quite American enough, not quite Puerto Rican enough, not quite anything but one part of a three-person culture shared with my sisters.

    Obviously, the three of us don’t stand in true isolation—Puerto Ricans make up the second largest Latin population in the fifty states, and growing up in Atlanta, there were always big, loud Puerto Rican house parties going on; so we’re not truly alone. But I hadn’t heard anyone describe this particular kind of aloneness—the kind I often feel—like Illyanna Maisonet does when she calls us “ni de aquí, ni de allá”—not from here, nor from there—in her (cook)book Diasporican. I’ve been living in this book for a few weeks now—looking over recipes, reading the snippets of personal and national history, and admiring the gorgeous photographs that fill the book—and I newly find a cultural solace in its pages.

    Perhaps solace deserves a bit of clarification, a bit of nuance here. “Ni de aquí, ni de allá” is a definition by negation. The connection to here and there still exists, but the negation also highlights the separation it creates. In other words, the phrase examines a no man’s land between the United States and Puerto Rico—perhaps even the US and Latinidad as a whole. It’s a rift I feel between me and almost everyone I meet, especially Puerto Ricans, because no one’s sense of diaspora is the same. It doesn’t escape me that my whiteness and my parents’ economic stability have given me certain privileges that makes my relationship with diaspora asymmetrical with that of many others. In no way take this as a lament but rather as an example of the ways in which the circumstances of our societies—the inherent violence of borders, reckless economic speculation, the continued effects of colonialism—further distance people and their experiences.

    It did not take much digging to realize “ni de aquí, ni de allá” is not an invention by Maisonet. That six-word phrase, as it turns out, is a common expression among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Latin immigrants, being the title of numerous essays and films. But Maisonet’s book is the first place I’ve been exposed to those words. And in them, I’m able to understand myself a little bit more. It’s precisely this unmoored quality we call diaspora that Maisonet channels in this book to create a space of belonging: a kitchen full of sofrito and plantains and rice and beans, places set at the table for those hungry to learn.

    She builds an opening glossary that details how to make the fundamentals of a Puerto Rican palate: sazón, adobo (spice mixes with achiote and turmeric respectively), sofrito (a garlicy tomato flavor base), and all the others. I always imagined that there was some ineffable quality to the produce in Puerto Rico that made sure certain dishes never tasted the same away from the island. But when I tried the book’s recipe for habichuelas—beans in a tomato-based sauce—I saw achiote listed among a dish’s ingredients for the first time. I ordered some seeds online and followed the instructions in the introduction as how to make achiote oil: an infusion of lard or oil with the earthy, fruity savoriness of the seeds. While lard is traditional, I went with canola oil—it keeps for longer. Within seconds, the oil turned from an extremely pale yellow to a vibrant, inviting red-orange. Then I went about making the beans themselves—the variations from my own family’s recipe included no bell pepper beyond the sofrito, potatoes rather than sweet potatoes or pumpkin, and no cubed ham or turkey. Since this is one of the few recipes that I did learn before I read the book, I was thrilled to compare the Zayas version and the Maisonet version. But that achiote oil made all the difference. As soon as I tasted the dish, I found that flavor lost in translation, that missing link to the island and my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I thought unreachable.

    This personal rediscovery reoriented everything I understood about the food I’ve eaten in my grandmother’s house. The lost flavor that made everything Rafa (my grandmother’s helper and our unofficial family member) cooked so desperately delectable was not something totally unachievable, but a simple exclusion I wasn’t conscious of. Finally, I felt myself making progress toward this dream of belonging. In making the oil—imitating the attentiveness that Maisonet describes herself having when watching its colors change—I felt my perspective shift, I understood something a little bit differently about how my food can be in relation to the island’s food. I can come to mirror it, but still keep the things I like about how my dad makes his version. It’s a process of learning and synthesis. After all, food is the quickest, most comprehensive tool to learn about a culture. The ecology of a place, first and foremost, shapes what indigenous people—for Puerto Rico, the Taínos—ate. Then, migration causes people to bring new foods and flavors, the horrors and violence of Spanish colonialism transform cooking in an attempt to breed conformity, American colonialism robs the land of its resources forcing compromise in its cuisine. In short, history fashions the palate.

    But despite the perpetual brutality Puerto Rico survived, and the food that it created in order to survive is a treasure. Maisonet knows this very well, and gives historical context to many dishes in the book. The first one I tried, jamonilla guisada, is introduced by Maisonet as:

    a post-World War II creation, consisting of tomato sauce, sofrito, canned vegetables, and Spam. Like a number of Puerto Rican recipes, it was born from the island’s historical collision between government-imposed food sanctions and the imperative to make something out of nothing.

    This recipe operates as a culinary act of survival and defiance. No matter what changes, the food is a constant, a necessity. And the context of the Second World War echoes the way my parents explained how Puerto Ricans being named full citizens just in time to be drafted for the First World War factors into the island’s relationship to the United States government, a dynamic full of guilt and shame. But how can I claim to feel its repercussions when I don’t live there? I can’t really take responsibility; the foundation was there long before I was born. Yet I feel it, and in learning these recipes, I suppose, that I’m seeking a certain atonement.

    Other dishes in the book are derived from Maisonet’s personal history, from what could be made away from the island in order to call back to it. Her Nina DeeDee’s Beans recipe is made with cheese, which is not particularly common in a Puerto Rican bean recipe. But the way that she describes how it brought family and community together—how it is essential, life-giving stuff—makes me tear up:

    When guests line up in the warm kitchen, the frenzy of gathering and passing plates and utensils begins. . . . The beans are simple, only five ingredients. And yet, they are buttery, creamy, salty, and floral. They are meaty and melty. We’re all thinking, This is the single best thing I’ve eaten in a long time. . . . Toward the end of my grandmother’s life, after a few bypass surgeries, the doctors banned her from eating so many of the things she enjoyed. . . . But she never turned down a simple bowl of rice and beans. Rice and beans were life. It didn’t matter if they were pinto, pink, or red.

    The ritual of togetherness, of concocting a meal for those you love, even if it’s by yourself to soothe a homesick ache that I know will never heal—that’s how I’m pushing forward. It’s the only answer I know of to the confusion of diaspora; it’s impermanent and imperfect, a sense of belonging found with my sisters, with my best childhood friend, and for the most fleeting moment, beyond. That is a pure joy. It’s not pure due to any sense of permanence, but because it’s the only path to some sort of acceptance. In these moments of joy, I can start to accept this loneliness from being unmoored, from not living in a world that doesn’t quite know where to square me away.

    Maisonet taps into this fraught, lonely joy by virtue of her prose: its sense of humor and honesty and willingness to interrogate the past. And her own experience is complicated by further influences in diaspora. Since much of her life has taken place in California, her recipes are informed by both the ingredient limitations of the West Coast and the other diasporic groups she grew up with like Chicanos. But she refuses to let her perspective and understanding of diaspora be the singular example. The section introductions, recipes, and intercut mini-essays span oceans and hundreds of years to trace Spanish cooking traditions back to medieval Catalonia and Andalusia, visit Puerto Ricans living in Hawai'i, and visit the Chinese immigrants who sell ice cream in Ponce, meaning a handful of tenderly rendered recipes come directly from these wide-ranging origins. It’s a euphoria of influence that quells my own anxieties about identity: maybe if I understand how to make this food, I can understand how I fit into this world a little bit more.

    I’m making my own bacalaítos for the first time, ordering more achiote seeds, and truly learning what goes into adobo and sazón. The recipes in Diasporican aren’t just for dishes but for the intimate foundations of Puerto Rican cuisine—the specific mix of spices, the oils and sauces, the divine flavor that is sofrito. Maisonet even includes instructions on how to make what she calls Basic White Rice, because this book reaches for two dreams. One, a comprehensive nationwide understanding of Puerto Rican cuisine, its richness and importance, especially in the South where we wouldn’t have barbecue without the Taíno word and practice “barabicu.” But beyond that, it’s a lifeline to all of us on the island of “ni de aquí, ni de allá.” It’s a way to reconnect to our families’ roots and permission to accept our inner contradictions in terms of identity. And since the book’s recipes use Maisonet’s own ideas rather than strict tradition—sofrito added at the end, for example, rather than as the starting flavor base (heresy!)—and recontextualizations that use West Coast ingredients like Dungeness crab rather than blue land crab, I feel that the book can become a new thread in the braid of my culinary life alongside my mother’s ideas and my father’s spontaneity. And for me, that’s the most exciting part of this book: every new recipe might just give me a clearer picture of what it means to be “ni de aquí, ni de allá,” might teach me one more way I can make my food taste like my family’s on the island, might help me find that solace a little more often.

    About halfway through the book, in the introduction to the “Poultry” section, Maisonet writes about Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera and “Criollo Story,” his ode to Casa Adela, a famous New York City Puerto Rican restaurant. It’s a beautiful poem, one that relishes the physically and spiritually restorative powers of Puerto Rican cooks like Adela Fargas, and which now reads like an elegy for the lost gathering places for the Nuyorican school of poets. Even still, seeing Laviera’s name and work in this book brought me so much solace because I’ve long loved his poetry, especially one piece titled “Nuyorican,” which acted as the vehicle for my diasporic angst since I first read it. Not angst in that it made me upset, rather the opposite, I felt elated that I wasn’t alone in this sensation of diaspora despite its innate discomfort. Here are a few lines:

    entro a tu isla, me siento extraño,         ¿sabes?
    entro a buscar más y más,            ¿sabes?
                   pero tú con tus calumnias,
                   me niegas tu sonrisa,

    The repetition of “¿sabes?”—you know?—as it closes the first few lines from a distance makes for a plea to be understood, one echoed in my own experiences. But Maisonet’s book contains the understanding to peer inward and find that plea can be addressed to and by one’s self. While not simple or solvable, I found in this work of art a tonic for diasporic anxieties. Throughout, Maisonet clarifies that celebration is the constant companion of meals. And even if it’s difficult to accept not quite being from anywhere in particular, there’s always a bowl of warm food that can physically ground me, make me consider my tactile senses rather than my abstract thoughts, and in that corporeal return, find a portion of fulfillment.

    Carlos Zayas-Pons is a writer and editor who has worked with the Sewanee Review and the Paris Review.

    Read More

    Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing