It’s no secret that my family and I like to eat. Much of our days revolve around food. We talk about it, we think about it, we plan it, we shop for it, we grow it, we cook for ourselves, and we cook for others. It is part of our activism, encouraging others to embrace compassion and abandon the use of animals in our food supply. It is part of our community service, as we cook vegan chili every week for people in need of a warm meal. It is part of our identity, the vegans, the Puerto Ricans, the urban homesteaders.
As an unschool family, cooking took a new center in our lives. It is a math lesson, a chemistry lesson, botany, nutrition, health, meditation, mindfulness, medicine, politics. At four years old, Ollie already knew how to turn on the stove by himself, how to put a pot of water to boil, and how to make himself some pasta. He enjoys rolling up lasagna noodles with a tofu, home-grown basil and garlic pesto, and he experiments joyfully with different smoothie blends. His hands are still too weak to hold heavy pans, and I am still not confident enough to hand him a large and sharp cutting knife, but he peels potatoes for the vegan chili for Chilis on Wheels with gusto, and even as he journeys through picky-eater phases, he will join me in the kitchen and encourage me to do the eating. Cooking and food are more than sustenance, it is a game, our own intimate “us” time, how we help others, how we express gratitude and joy, how we connect to ourselves and the world.
It comes as no surprise then, that as we experiment with our cultural identity, as I unfold the layers of ethnicity that envelop us and show Ollie our raw ancestry, that this holiday season we set out to make and sell vegan pasteles. Pasteles are a traditional dish in Puerto Rico (and several other Latin American countries, but for our purposes, we concentrated on Puerto Rican tradition). It is similar to a tamal in its elaboration. The masa is made of green bananas, yautía (sometimes translated as taro or eddoe), plantain, and a touch of squash. We made the filling with a cauliflower and walnut ground meat cooked in our homemade sofrito. This is placed on a plantain leaf blanched on the stove, and covered with achiote oil, and everything is wrapped and tied with parchment paper and string.
According to Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, a professor of the History of the Americas, the pastel is a blend of the cultures that came together in Puerto Rico. It has no point of origin. The filling comes from the culinary tradition in Spain, the use of animal meat, chickpeas, raisins, and a variety of peppers. (none of which we used in our filling, thereby ignoring the culture from Spain. As vegans we made our own plant-based substitution) From the indigenous culinary culture, we have the use of achiote oil placed on the plantain leaf and used in the batter. From the Arawak culture, we also have the use of squash in the batter. And finally, from the African culture, we have the concept of grating, the technology of boiling, and of wrapping the batter in plantain leaves.
How perfect then, that this became how we spent the majority of November and December- exploring the three cultures that dance inside us. As we found ourselves attending Black Lives Matter events every Monday, immersing ourselves in anti-racism activism, we found that making pasteles was a form of battling racism too, of processing the helpless anger that comes from watching the police murder black people with impunity and of hearing the inexcusable litany of defense for this systematic violence. By making pasteles, Ollie and I fought against racism in our own kitchen as we came home from fighting against it on the streets. Ortiz Cuadra explains that “in the first cookbook of Puerto Rican cuisine, the pastel was omitted for its connection to African culture. In a blatantly racist society where people are defined by what they eat, the pastel was not allowed to be included in a publication.” It wasn’t until 1931, that the first recipe for the pastel was published.
“It was also considered a gift”, Ortiz Cuadra says, “because it is hard to make and requires a lot of time. This is why it has such a powerful tie to Christmas, because the holidays are a time for joy, for food, for giving.”
Because we did everything by hand, Ollie and I, peeling and hand-grating all the root vegetables, making the sofrito, chopping and cooking the cauliflower and walnut, blanching the plantain leaves, assembling, and tying, and freezing, it would take us a long time to make just one dozen, (and we sold a couple of dozens) time that we spent practicing salsa steps (though neither of us are dancers), time that we spent talking about what we experience in protests, hearing Ollie’s insights and questions “Why do the police think we are bad guys?”, time that we spent talking about Puerto Rico, from theory to memories. Ollie asked me about everything from the color of the walls of the house, to the names of my family, to what I used to play with as a kid, to what I used to eat as a child. He finds it fascinating that I was not vegan as a kid, and often asks me to tell him the story of how Piolín, our beloved rooster set off vegan bells in my head. We spent those long hours telling stories, and after the few first dozen, I felt my fingers loosen, muscle memory, perhaps a few centuries old, wrapping and tying plantain leaves with ease and skill. I imagined the coarse hands of working women blending and folding the plantain leaves through me, their strength and resilience supporting me through my own battles. I felt them guide me, imbued me with power and determination.
Food is everything. Food is life, and identity, and culture. Food is language, and art, and science, and activism. Food is politics, struggle, meditation, strength, and determination. Food is unbiased, but food is also struggle. Food is battle. And our pasteles, reaching Denver and Connecticut, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and upstate NY, and corners in Brooklyn, Washington Heights, and el Barrio, are battling racism, are struggling against the oppression of animals and people, are celebrating old traditions and yet building new ones. Celebrating my blend of cultures, and yet imparting my sense of justice. They carry the hands of those that came before me, and in Ollie, the hands of those that come after me. ¡Buen provecho, my friends!