What is Puerto Vegan Kitchen?
¡Hola! My name is Daniela Lugo. Although both my parents are 100 percent Puerto Rican, I’ve always felt like a fraud. I was not born in La Isla Bonita like my parents and all my ancestors before them, as far as we can tell, but in New York City. Like a gazillion others. While I remember always hearing Spanish being spoken — well, being yelled, really, if I’m being honest — I don’t remember speaking it much, although I must have. Us kids read and talked in English.
Now that’s not so terrible or unusual, even, given that we were being raised in an English-speaking society. OK, ghetto, actually. But apart from the use of Sazón Goya in the weekly arroz con pollo and the occasional pastel thanks to my sweet little grandma, mi linda Mamá, god rest her soul, we had no Puerto Rican-ness about us. Of all the family that started in New York and thereabouts, we’re the most gringo, without a doubt. Even though I speak and read more Spanish than some of my primos and primas who barely know three words, they are nonetheless infused with more sabor latino than my brother or me. These relatives of which I speak were born here from parents born in P.R, same as me. It defies explanation.
Well, if I examined our collective history enough I could probably point to this or that as a probable cause. But who cares? It’s done. What I prefer to focus on now is getting my Boricua back.
Food is as good a place to start as any.
But Puerto Vegan?
Oh, yeah. And I’m vegan. This fact doesn’t much jive with a people who eat enough pork that if they themselves were roasted would probably taste like pernil. But you can veganize anything. OK, maybe not pernil, but I have high hopes that someone will someday invent it the way some blessed person invented vegan haggis for the Scots.
Until that day, I’m perfectly happy to indulge on the endless variety of beautiful fruits, vegetables, beans, roots, rice and more that can be prepared with Caribbean flair.
I began this life eating carne guisada, pernil, bacalao, and pollo. Mostly pollo. I even ate beans until sometime early in my childhood, when at the age of four or five, I decided for some reason unknown even to me that I didn’t want to eat them anymore and my parents didn’t press the issue. You see? What self-respecting Rican doesn’t eat beans? I was becoming as gringa as rice is white.
So I ate the typical stuff. A common dinner was tortillas con jamon, pimienta y cebolla on top of arroz blanco. Or huevos frito on top of arroz blanco, and sometimes Ma’s homemade french fries to dip into the runny yolk. (Did I mention I grew up in a ghetto? Times were tough.) Tostones were and still are to die for (and they’re vegan). And I loved a plate of vianda — particularly if it included the scrumptious black-skinned, pink-fleshed ñame — drizzled with aceite de oliva. But pollo figured into many a meal, my favorite being in yellow rice.
Meant to be vegan?
And yet, it bothered me even when I was quite young to eat animals. I would wish that I didn’t have to, completely unaware that the need, in fact, did not exist. I always treated meat with respect, never wanting to waste it in any way because I realized a living thing, who wanted to live as much as our beloved pets or the birds singing in the trees do, had been sacrificed so that I may be nourished. I did not take this lightly.
Which makes it incredible for even myself to believe that I knew absolutely nothing about vegetarianism until fairly recently. I didn’t know any vegetarians. I didn’t really know what that word meant, not even enough to think of looking into it. It was simply not on my radar.
But about seven years ago when my husband declared out of nowhere that he wanted to be vegan, whatever that was, I didn’t need much persuading. He had picked up a brochure, from PETA I think, while on a trip and was intrigued by the lifestyle’s supposed impact on health. Recent blood work had revealed troubling cholesterol levels, and what with a family history of heart disease and an aversion to medications, which I wholeheartedly share, he wanted to do something about it. He thought this veganism thing might be the answer.
Just before he dropped this bombshell, I had stocked the fridge with all kinds of fish, pork, steak, chicken, turkey, cheeses, yogurt, you name it. He gets back, hands me the brochure, I get to page three and say, “OK, we’re going vegan.”
Turning Puerto vegan
Best thing I ever did. My only regret was not having done it sooner. I felt heartbreak for my unwitting part in animals’ suffering up to that point.
I have not once missed pernil, pescado (or pehcao, as we Nuyoricans seem to pronouce it), pollo and all the rest. All it took was a change in perspective, the knowledge that animal flesh is not necessary for humans to thrive, to completely change how I felt about these components of my previous diet. They now inspired in me as much disgust and repulsion as if they were my cats on a plate. Or rats. Or baby parts.
So what happened to the fridge full of food?
My mother, now widowed, god rest my daddy’s sweet soul, lives alone in a senior community not too far away. Many of its residents are low income. I knew Ma would know people who would appreciate getting free food, so I packed up coolers and headed to her house.
I had given her the heads up, of course, that I would be bringing “a steak or two” to give away so that she’d have a ready person to receive them. It did not escape her attention that I had hauled over a bit more than she anticipated. With narrowed eyes and an accusing frown, she asked me what was going on. Sigh. I explained what I explained to you above and waited for the sharp criticism that always lived on her lips. To my utter surprise, after several moments of deep thought, she said, “OK, so what do I eat now?”
By the end of my visit, she had emptied out her fridge of all animal products, and many of her friends and neighbors were flush with gratitude over all our offerings. Just like that, my mom became vegan.
I smiled. Could vegan empanadillas be far away?
They were not, in fact. And a couple of years later, Ma had a friend teach her how to make pasteles, because, sadly, she had never learned from the master, her mother, mi linda Mamá, and the secret had died with her. Nevertheless, mom’s pasteles are pretty darn good, too.
Recently, I realized I was in danger of having history repeat itself. I don’t know how to make empanadillas or pasteles, and mom ain’t getting any younger. I figured I’d better learn, and pronto. Which gave me the idea for a site on learning to make Puerto Rican food vegan. But then that feeling of fraudulence welled up in me, and I realized I could also somehow use this as a vehicle for claiming back my lost heritage.
Hopefully, this will include a trip! : )
Surely you can’t mean you haven’t been to PR?!!
Of course I have!
More than 20 years ago.
I remember falling in love with it. The palm trees, the sea, El Morro, the vibrant colors and colonial beauty of Viejo San Juan, the warm, salty breezes. I loved how clean Puerto Rico was. It may not have been, but compared to the grim griminess of 1980s New York City, it seemed positively sanitized.
I also remember lots of people chuckling when I spoke to them and telling me how gringa I was. Didn’t like that so much.
Still, those three weeks left me dreaming of moving to P.R. until time, as it does, clouded those memories little by little. Instead of bright alluring pictures, my vision of Puerto Rico blurred into the gray haze of a distant landscape, indistinct and unreachable. The memories now seem to belong to someone else. I know I was there, but I don’t know it in my bones, en mi alma. If I didn’t possess actual photographs, whose colors have in reality faded too, I could swear it never happened.
I can only imagine how my mom feels. She hasn’t stepped foot on la tierra de Borinquen in 60 years!
So I hope PVK can be a bit of a homecoming for both of us. But if nothing else, we’ll eat well trying.