Food and Drink: Give me plain home cooking, not foreign stuff
Saturday 29 January 1994
Much the same sort of thing goes on in our restless times in the world of gastronomy. It is a rare person who could have predicted 40 years ago, when we were emerging from our culinary Dark Ages, that we would be seeing a series about African cooking on American television. Interesting to gastronomic voyeurs as this undoubtedly is, it is fairly impractical. You cannot make a civette of kudu if you have not got a kudu, and trout wrapped in vine leaves just isn't the same as the river fish of Zaire steamed in banana leaves.
But we are eclectic these days. 'Choice' is the word; we pick and choose among the things we think we can be, and no tanner's son is now a tanner. In gastronomy this means tradition is being engulfed by a kind of artsy-fartsy dipping into everyone else's cuisine. Forget that cuisine has roots binding it to its own culture and materials; there is nothing we cannot imitate.
The cuisine of Latin America - Ha] As though there were one - is currently in vogue, and the sociological roots of that are not hard to discern. Californians, those experts at self- publicity ('The Most Expensive Earthquake Ever'), have long been gastronomically weightless. If you had eaten in California before the Second World War, as I did, you would have been served very ordinary stuff. In those days, Mexican cuisine was subversive indeed: of the digestive tract as well as of the taste buds. It had not yet been 'filtered' into California, its violent tastes tamed and its spices homogenised.
Thus I note with no surprise at all that the newest item on the gastronomic scene is Puerto Rican cuisine. Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean, 110 miles long and about 40 wide, that exists in an uneasy and unstable relationship with the United States. Its principal export, besides rum, is people. I lived on the island for three delicious years, and still go back regularly, so I have a clear notion of what Puerto Rican cooking is: in terms of the materials available, a paradise; in terms of the cooking, pretty routine.
Our diet was rice and black beans, a bife encebollado (steak in onions), sometimes an asopao (rice soup with vegetables or fish, heavily flavoured with coriander), plantains (which I love, both ripe and green, the former fried to sweetness, the latter tied to pepper or stewed), land crabs, lechon (the baby pig we would buy at road stands on the way to and from the beach), and arroz con pollo.
Terrific was the bread, the Spanish pan de agua, baked by a Spanish republican baker in Hato Rey. Wonderful, too, was the fruit: every kind of citrus, splendid avocados, four or five varieties of mango, guava . . . On lucky days, someone on that blissful island might have gone fishing; the sea was teeming, but sailors were few.
One did not eat out. Restaurants in San Juan were for tourists and were vaguely Swiss or as vaguely Italian. Puerto Ricans are not a restaurant people. They are munificent, generous, noisy, wonderful home eaters, hospitable to excess. Forced to drink the strongest Spanish wines that could survive the steamy heat - Marques de Riscal was on every table - one ended all meals with one of the three great coffees of the world (the others are the Italian espresso and the Brazilian cafezinho).
Now Puerto Rico is nouveau chic in New York. It must be something to do with a new form of cooking poor, since the basic dishes of this island are simplicity itself, heavy, not a little fattening and - if you want to be critical - somewhat crude. The overwhelming flavours are of coriander and achiote (a sort of poor man's saffron), and of salt, which is often (even in a hot climate) abused. As almost everything that Puerto Rico produces is available in New York's many food shops, not to speak of supermarkets (there are nigh on a million Puerto Ricans in the city), one can eat excellent Puerto Rican food there.
It will not, of course, be as good as in Puerto Rico itself. It is a sunny cuisine, to be eaten in sweat and good conversation and in contemplation of hibiscus. But this is an old story: that we ransack the gastronomic treasure-chest of local traditions (look at the number of 'regional', 'peasant' Italian and French cookbooks) and miscegenate. I fear the day when someone opens a fancy Puerto Rican restaurant (the island knows none such) offering a Franco-Chinese-Mexican rice 'n' beans cuisine.
Like explorers, we are basically predators. We think we can own the cuisines of others. It ain't so. Cooking is inseparable from place, inseparable from the culture that produces it.
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