Listen to writer and radio producer Von Diaz talk about her native Puerto Rico, the inspiration for her 2016 cookbook “Coconut and Collards,” and you’ll get lost in what she describes as the magic of the island. It's the tiny frogs who sing “the soundtrack of Puerto Rico at night,” the house covered in what “must have been a thousand conch shells,” and, of course, the food.
On Milk Street Radio, Brooklyn-based, Atlanta-raised Diaz dove into the stories behind her book. She recalls the food she ate in her grandmother’s kitchen and the ways her mother reinterpreted certain dishes, as well as the island's long road ahead after Hurricane Maria.
Get a taste from the excerpts below, and listen to the full episode here on Milk Street Radio.
On the cuisine of Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican food is, in its essence, a hybrid of a lot of different cultures. I think you would be hard-pressed to—as you can in many other cultures in the world—kind of say “this is the original indigenous cuisine of Puerto Rico.” It is a hybrid of indigenous Taíno—those were the native peoples of Puerto Rico and many other islands in the Caribbean—ingredients and techniques combined with the ingredients and techniques of enslaved Africans who were brought to the island. Then the flavors and ingredients and techniques of Spanish colonizers. Then combined with American ingredients and cooking techniques, which came in the 20th century. So it’s this mish mash of, I would argue, these four cultures that are very distinct, all coming together with the ingredients that were available on the island. I would also say it’s expressly designed as a cuisine not to be sort of the delicate, celebratory at times, kind of small plates you associate with Spanish cuisine, but big, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs home cooking that is sustenance and meant to fill you.
On an everyday sauce
Often called mojo caliente, it’s a super typical kind of simple quick and easy sauce that you might make for boiled or fried root vegetables, or to pour over steamed vegetables. Or maybe even to dip in your bread. My grandmother used to make it in this really beautiful and interesting way. A lot of times garlic is smashed in a pilón, which is a large mortar and pestle that’s made of wood, and my grandmother would make her mojo calienteinside the pilón. So she would smash the garlic in there with the salt, pepper, whatever she’s going to add, and then she would heat olive oil on the stove and pour it into the pilón so the garlic would cook just in this residual heat from the olive oil.
On the island’s favorite snack
Bacalaítos are, in my informal surveys with other Puerto Ricans and people who have been on the island, really a favorite fritter. They’re just the simplest roadside snack. You really want to buy them from a roadside quiosco, or stands along the highway and small roads, where folks might make one or two typically deep-fried snacks, which we call cuchifritos. And bacalaítos are, in essence, salt cod that’s mixed with a batter that I identify as being like a funnel cake. It has the same kind of levity and that same kind of subtle sweetness that I associate with funnel cakes, which of course, I had plenty of growing up in the South … You pour that onto hot oil and it forms a pancake. People make them all different sizes. They might be as big as your face, they might be as big as your hand. It’s just the most decadent and at the same time funky snack.
On “Cocina Criolla,” the cookbook every Puerto Rican cook has at home
My informal survey of Puerto Ricans has shown that every Puerto Rican has that cookbook on their shelf. I have literally never met a person who I asked if they had it say no, and it is just the simplest cookbook. I compare it to the "Joy of Cooking” because it’s all entirely text. It was written by Carmen Valldejuli, who was a home cook herself. She and her husband cooked together a lot, and she learned a lot of cooking from the woman who cooked in her home. The cookbook opens with some recommendations on things you should keep around the house to make a quick meal should people stop by. It has some recommendations on etiquette and table placement, and then it’s separated by sections, so there’s a beef section, a pork section, a poultry section ... It is, I think, a really significant and important cookbook for Puerto Rican people because it is kind of the most comprehensive set of instructions for making what we think is traditional Puerto Rican food.
On Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
In Yabucoa, where a whole chapter of “Coconuts and Collards” is set, is my friend Berto, whose restaurant I talk a lot about at the end of the book. Yabucoa is in the southeastern corner of the island, it’s very mountainous there, and it’s where the eye of Maria hit. And I can tell you anecdotally from him and from videos and images he sent me that his town was completely destroyed. I believe that they have power back now, but a few months ago when I checked in with him, he was still running his home and his restaurants on generators. I think it’s easy to identify power loss in Puerto Rico, as obviously that’s a problem. But the economic toll this has taken on Puerto Ricans is really tremendous. My friend Berto is spending his personal money to generate this electricity to his home. My sense is that there’s really a range of experiences there, and that a lot of folks have come to the U.S. mainland since the hurricane hit. I think we’re going to continue to see people coming here to join their families who are also here, as basic human services and social services don’t meet the needs of the people who are still there on the island.
On the magic of the island
Puerto Rico is a really magical place. It’s an incredibly beautiful island, and I think we know about the bioluminescent bays, and Fajardo outside of Vieques, the beautiful rainforest in El Yunque, the waterfalls and gorgeous beaches—those are all things that are beautiful and unique to the island. But there’s a really interesting place near Cabo Rojo. There’s a natural salt preserve that runs down into this archipelago. I went and visited there on one of my last trips to Puerto Rico, and as I was coming back, noticed this house that was covered in conch shells. There must have been a thousand conch shells around this house. They had sort of created this little fence around their house—this little, decorative fence—and they were all on the roof and the side of the house … This is such an iconic image of this island, and there’s a reason why things become iconic—because they’re from there.
Check out the latest from Milk Street Radio here.