In the wake of natural disasters, Puerto Ricans have had to turn to the land for sustenance—rediscovering a rich heritage in the process.
It’s not even 10 a.m. when I arrive at Frutos del Guacabo farm in Puerto Rico, but when Efrén David Robles asks if we should open a bottle of wine, I say, “Why not?” I’m feeling all bohemian and free in this moment. There are bright yellow baby ducks at my feet waddling around in a kiddie pool, and the sun is high in the sky, singeing away the morning dew.
This is my first stop on a culinary exploration of Puerto Rico after devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, when food became scarce and the locals learned a hard lesson about self-sufficiency and fortitude.
Frutos del Guacabo is a 100 percent Puerto Rican–owned farm on one acre in Manatí, a municipality on the northern coast, which was severely battered by Maria. Many Puerto Ricans felt abandoned by the U.S. government, especially when it came to food relief. And while their hardships have been many, the situation has forced islanders to reacquaint themselves with their own land—rich in nutrients, and populated by springs, lakes, and lagoons that lap up against dense, green foliage. On this journey to self-sufficiency, Frutos del Guacabo is one of the Puerto Rican farms leading the way.
“Ten years ago, no more than 25 percent of the produce eaten on the island was grown here in Puerto Rico. It was scary how much we imported from the States, especially when our land was made for farming. After Maria, Puerto Ricans realized how important it was for us to have our own and be self-reliant. The hurricane shook us up and scared us, but it also made us get creative. We’re now producing 65 to 70 percent locally,” Robles explains.
Robles and I take seats at a large wooden farm table surrounded by a tangle of tropical plants. He motions to Angelie, his wife and Frutos del Guacabo cofounder, to bring the wine. She rises from the nearby hammock, where she has been swaying, and shuffles off to the on-site test kitchen, where James Beard semifinalist Gabriel Hernández, along with his team from plant-based San Juan eatery Verde Mesa, is preparing the meal we’re about to share.
Hernández and other local chefs are really responding to the shift away from sole reliance on imported goods. “Frutos del Guacabo’s role in this work is to be a canvas. We want (industry) people to come here and play,” Robles told me. It’s not uncommon to see chefs from Puerto Rico’s premier restaurants “playing” with produce at Frutos, in part because the farm’s mission is to transform Puerto Rico’s tourism and gastronomic sectors. As one of the island’s most versatile local suppliers, Frutos distributes seeds to larger farms across the island. What’s harvested is then cooked in the kitchens of Puerto Rico’s premier hotel chains, like the Marriott, and at esteemed restaurants, like José Andrés’s Coa. Andrés is the Spanish chef who led the charge to feed Puerto Rico post-Maria through World Central Kitchen, a food service initiative meant to help stabilize communities after natural disasters.
“We want (industry) people to come here and play.”
A few moments later, Angelie brings out a tray of champagne flutes and fills them with a chilled white. We raise our glasses in the air. “Salud.”
Chef Hernández of Verde Mesa emerges from the kitchen with chayote, our first of six courses. The traditional squash, usually served stuffed or in a sancocho, is prepared here like a ceviche: pickled and sliced thin, with a healthy garnish of cilantro and black sesame. That it doesn’t require heat surely made this dish come through in the clutch post-hurricane, when access to electricity was limited.
Verde Mesa was one of the first plant-based restaurants in San Juan in 2009, when it opened with the intention to create “a new culinary identity” for Puerto Rico. A decade ago, the local produce was even more scarce—they couldn’t get much more than lettuce. Undeterred, the owners went full-on guerilla and started growing crops in small gardens installed on the rooftops of friends’ homes.
“It’s ironic, because 60 years ago, farming was the norm. When we first opened Verde Mesa, we really had to deprogram the Puerto Rican palate. People had had so many traumatic experiences with vegetables, because so much of what they’d been eating had come in a can from the States,” Loyda Rosa, co-owner of Verde Mesa, later told me. “Efrén and Angelie are pioneers. They have completely shifted this landscape by creating an ecosystem that can be duplicated across Puerto Rico.”
“It’s a rebel act to teach people how to grow their own food. When you produce your own food, you’re free.”
The ancient practice of locally growing what you eat may be coming full circle as people all over the world return to small-scale farming—largely for the sake of sustainability, but sometimes just for the sake of being trendy. But, as Rosa adds, the movement in Puerto Rico “is a new revolution. It’s a rebel act to teach people how to grow their own food. When you produce your own food, you’re free.”
The meal continues to roll out: oxtails with handmade naan; potato salad with chopped quail eggs; an endless replenishment of crusty baked bread with berry jam and fresh goat cheese, courtesy of Frutos’s own goats; and, my favorite, a salad of edible flowers and mango—brightness in a bowl.
A slight rain starts to fall as we savor Verde Mesa’s critically acclaimed passion fruit crème brûlée, our last course.
“Ah, the witch is getting married,” Robles says, looking up at the sky.
I laugh. “Huh?”
“It’s just a thing we Puerto Ricans say during a sunshower. I don’t quite know why, it’s just tradition.”
Back at my hotel that evening, I sit out on my balcony and watch the sea lap calmly up onto the shore. I think about tradition. Even in the wake of evolution, when Puerto Rican foodies are playing with produce and creating new delectables, tradition and culture remain. That becomes evident when I venture closer to downtown San Juan, to the Santurce district. I link up with Pablo Garcia of Spoon food tours, a “food anthropologist” who curates gastronomic tours of the island. In Santurce, we sample five restaurants on Calle Loíza, a strip sometimes called “the Brooklyn of Puerto Rico” because of its hip restaurants and street art. The eateries we visit were intentionally selected because their menus reflect Puerto Rico’s complex history and culture, from its indigenous Taíno roots to influences from Africa, introduced during the slave trade. There’s also, of course, the Spanish impact, a result of colonization, and all the flavors absorbed from distant empires that passed through San Juan’s bustling port.
“Even in the wake of evolution, when Puerto Rican foodies are playing with produce and creating new delectables, tradition and culture remain.”
We start at Kasalta, the iconic Spanish repostería where former President Obama dined when he visited Puerto Rico in 2011. There we taste a frittata-like tortilla española and pan de Mallorca, a sweet bread named for the Spanish island.
We then do a loop through an open-air square of well-loved, well-Yelped spots, including Chef Mario Ormaza’s Cafe Tresbé, a laid-back eatery housed in a shipping container. Tresbé serves tacos and burgers, alongside daiquiris made from local fruits like guanabana, which Garcia describes as having a “comforting flavor, like home.” Tresbé is one of three restaurants on the island owned by Ormaza. His most recent, Azucena Fonda, features heritage dishes from the cookbooks of grandmothers from the 1800s.
“He is rescuing these recipes,” explains Garcia. “Funche is on the menu, which is a dish we’d eat at home, but I haven’t even had it at my own house in so long. And of course there’s pegao, which is the best part of the rice. It’s the crunchy bits at the bottom of the pot that you always ask your grandma for.”
At the nearby Dospalillos raw bar, which shuttered after the hurricane and recently made its return, pegao takes the place of sushi rice. I knock back a few rolls before we’re off to Cocobana, a vegetarian restaurant where we eat heirloom black-bean burgers on pumpkin and turmeric bread. I wonder if Robles had a hand in this.
Next up: Ana’s Cafe for shrimp Creole and mofongo, both quintessential Puerto Rican dishes. The shrimp Creole is simmered in tomato sauce with sofrito, a blend of peppers, onions, culantro, and garlic that serves as the base for most Puerto Rican and Latin American cooking. Mofongo, meanwhile, is a mashed and fried garlicky plantain dish that takes its cue from Africa.
“We weren’t even frying before West Africans came here,” Garcia explains. “Even the word ‘mofongo’ comes from the word for ‘to pound’ in Upper Guinea.”
I see the African influence firsthand in Loíza, a municipality on the northeastern coast that is home to the island’s largest population of Afro–Puerto Ricans. As an African-American, I’m anxious to get there—I can’t wait to be amongst us. I slide into the backseat of an Uber, headed away from the San Juan most tourists know. In the late-model car, I’m immediately hit with a cool blast of air-conditioning and a frenetic drumbeat pulsing through the speakers. It’s the kind of rhythm that talks to me, instantly conjuring memories of the African dance classes my mother shuttled me to every Saturday afternoon as a kid. My head instinctively jerks when the rhythm spikes; I can damn near see hardened hands slapping the sun-dried animal hide of the drums.
“You like this?” the driver asks with a little smirk. “This is my band. That’s me on the drums.”
“It’s fire!” I say. “That’s why I’m on my way to Loíza, actually. I want to hear some drums, see my people.”
“Right on,” he nods. “All the heritage is in Loíza.”
The drive should be no more than 20 minutes, but we get caught up in the Sunday traffic. Everyone seems to be making their way to the chincherros, or fried-food stands that serve up different varieties of alcapurrias, or fritters, depending on the township. Chincherros are hotspots on weekends and holidays; it’s common to see groups hopping from one to another, sampling fried delights, drinking beer, and dancing.
“In the preparation of these meals, their hands will nourish a nation.”
My conversation with the driver turns to food when I tell him I’ve come to Puerto Rico to eat everything. I start gushing about the meal at Frutos del Guacabo.
“Man, I love that. I can’t do the imported stuff, you know? Like, why am I drinking Starbucks or Costa coffee when we have the best beans right here? Why am I eating fish from Indonesia? It’s just an insult, man. I’ve been growing my own food for years, either on my roof, or in my mother’s backyard. My salad is my salad, because it’s the salad I grew.”
In Loíza, I spend the afternoon in the community center, which is buzzing with people who have just finished marching in support of the mayor. I meet a group of women and compliment them on the head wraps they’re each rocking, and they insist on gifting me one. Afterward, I sit in on a drumming lesson, where people of all ages have flocked, each one noting the importance of learning to drum to stay connected to their African ancestors.
The tía who runs the food counter at the center tempts me with her crab alcapurrias and sweet plantain pasteles. I watch her firm brown hands meticulously wrap the pasteles in banana leaves before taking them over to the grill to be smoked. It reminds me of how Robles touched the delicate leaves of his plants with a tenderness that could only be called love. And it strikes me that in the nurturing of these crops, in the preparation of these meals, their hands will nourish a nation.