A riot of rice

JAN Eating Puerto Rico COVEREating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture and Identity
Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra, translated by Russ Davidson
2013, University of North Carolina Press
400 pages, hardback

“Rice continues to be the number one problem here in Puerto Rico. Daytime thoughts, night time dreams, newspapers, the radio, conversations, everything seems to hinge on this fact. Until the supply of rice is adequate, it will probably be best to remember that Puerto Rico, translated into English, is RICE.”

So wrote Edward J Bash, the Caribbean director of the War Food Administration, in 1943. Bash was responding to a bout of rioting in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce, provoked by the rumoured arrival of a shipload of rice amidst rationing and a quota system that limited each person to a weekly amount of one and a half pounds of rice.

The wartime events in Ponce were not the first occasion on which Puerto Ricans had taken to the streets to demand their right to a free supply of rice. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, as a combined result of the San Felipe hurricane and the onset of the Great Depression, neighbourhood groceries were ransacked in search of rice. In 1973, despite the fact that food supplies generally were diverse and fairly stable, street protests flared as the population again went in search of rice.

Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra suggests, in this stimulating reflection on the dynamic relationship between the national cuisine of Puerto Rico and wider regional and global trends in food production and circulation, that the reason rice held such prominence in the national culinary culture was that, over a process lasting several hundred years, most Puerto Rican’s now felt that “to have rice was to have a meal, sustenance, the hope of satisfaction … rice was the symbol that kept the spectre of hunger away.”

How was it that rice came to take such a prominent position in the national culinary culture, especially given that by the 1980s and 1990s large-scale domestic rice production had almost ceased to exist, and is only now beginning to recover on the back of significant government investment? Rice itself was initially introduced into Puerto Rico by the Spanish. Indeed, rice barely seems to have existed at all in Caribbean agriculture prior to the arrival of European colonisers. However, although the Spaniards introduced rice as a crop, their own dietary preference was for meat-dominated meals. Yet despite this, the cultivation of rice expanded from the sixteenth century onwards. As Ortíz Cuadra shows, the primary reason for this was the role that the crop was to play in the diet of enslaved Africans, brought to Puerto Rico en masse during what has become known as the first sugar era, roughly between 1535-1580. Not only were the enslaved peoples themselves familiar with rice cultivation and cooking from their West African culture, but rice was also an affordable foodstuff for slave traders to feed enslaved peoples on-board ship, and to encourage them to cultivate for subsistence around the plantations.

Ortíz Cuadra’s book argues, following directly the work of Sidney Mintz amongst others, that “Puerto Rican cooking, like that of the Caribbean as a whole, was developed and continued to be refashioned by immigrants who introduced their culinary traditions into new or largely unfamiliar agro-ecological environments and also faced the challenge of surviving in colonial and slave society.” As such, and as the examples above serve to show, rice is an exemplary instance of these cross-cultural culinary interactions, delineated by the markings of colonial power. However, it is far from the only one, and Ortíz Cuadra also discusses at length the place of beans, cornmeal, codfish, viandas (vegetables, including yams, plantain and others), and assorted meats, especially pork and beef.

However, Ortíz Cuadra’s book is about much more than a series of isolated examples of specific foodstuffs. Using a remarkable breadth or historical and contemporary sources, and drawing on a conceptual framework that encompasses significant work on food histories and cultures written in a variety of languages, Ortíz Cuadra develops an account of the relationship between Puerto Rican cuisine and ‘worldly food culture’ that not only suggests the ways in which the national cuisine has been shaped by global forces that have grafted new culinary habits and techniques onto older ones, but that also remains attentive to the ways in which the supposed national culinary culture is itself dissected by lines of class, race and gender to ensure that what one eats can be read as a sociological marker of one’s particular position within a society.

More recently, a variety of factors – development of new technologies such as the microwave; abundance of food availability; the development of ‘fast food’, ready meals, canned food, and other processes of mass production across a globalised industry; the domestic introduction of state-sponsored food programmes for the poorest; and, most prominently in Ortíz Cuadra’s account, domestic time-pressures that cut short the length of time devoted to preparing and consuming meals – have seen dramatic shifts in the culinary culture of Puerto Rico, as in many other places. Ortíz Cuadra suggests that the Puerto Rico’s culinary culture presently finds itself in a transitional phase, still negotiating the relationship between historical modes of culinary inheritance and contemporary shifts in production and consumption.

At heart, although Puerto Rico is Ortíz Cuadra’s point of study, this book is in fact a prolonged meditation on the global geography of food; the ways in which particular foodstuffs travel, and the historical forces that have propelled their travelling and subsequent uptake in particular places. Stronger on the historical than on the contemporary dynamics of food culture in Puerto Rico, Ortíz Cuadra nevertheless knits the two together into an account that highlights the way that “before inserting themselves into gastroeconomic history as traditions – repertoires of food and diet travel a considerable distance and get defined, shaped, and remade by a host of influences and factors imposed from both within and without.”

The coexistence of and interaction between traditional and modernised culinary habits in Puerto Rico is, clearly, not an isolated episode specific to that location. This book is a delight to read, drawing on novels, cook-books, governmental and colonial reports as well as a range of other sources to produce an account that takes seriously the relationship between the diverse peoples of Puerto Rico and the food they eat. As an American possession with its own particular national culture, it is hardly surprising that the global ramifications of transformations in food industries, farming, technology and culture can be seen in amplified form here. How these transformations will play out in Puerto Rico, as elsewhere, remains unclear. However, amongst the strongest virtues of Ortíz Cuadra’s book is its insistence that such circumstances are nothing new. Supposedly national food cultures, particularly in the case of Puerto Rico, have long been in flux, and the balance between traditional methods and newer impulses has never been entirely settled.