Ajiaco, Cuban Sandwich, Masa Carnica and Other Cuban / Caribbean Thinking Foods, Part 3, by Luis Martínez-Fernández
Throughout the history of African slavery, masters and overseers largely determined the basic diet of slaves, which was often regulated by the codes of slavery. But like many other impositions, the slaves resisted. They have modified and supplemented their diet, adding their own recipes and ingredients, such as okra.
In Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other slave societies of the past, the diet of slaves was a combination of two opposing forces. On the one hand, taxation; taxed foods consisting mostly of imported staple foods such as dried and salted cod, tasajo (dried beef), locally grown rice and plantains, cornmeal and chicharos (split peas).
On the other hand was the force of resistance, the foodstuffs produced by the slaves when, and if, they had access to supply grounds, where they raised pigs and chickens and grew plantains, okra, corn and other vegetables. The slaves lobbied their masters, often successfully, to gain access to the supply grounds and free time on Sundays to work on these plots.
A Cuban historian colleague shared with me a humorous (but also sad) story of the day he visited a Cuban sugar factory to give a historic speech to an audience of workers. Everything was going well until he cited Manuel Moreno’s book Fraginals “El Ingenio” (“The Sugar Mill”). The average daily diet of slaves, my friend told the audience, consisted of 200 grams of tasajo or salt cod, 500 grams of cornmeal or rice, 70 grams of other animal protein, and 13 grams of fat.
When the workers heard this – it was probably lunchtime – they exploded into choteo, the Cuban practice of African origin – according to Fernando Ortiz – of intense mockery, shouting phrases like “bring back slavery!” ” and “I want to be a slave!”
It was the early 1990s, the start of the Special Period economic crisis. Beef was scarce, as it had been for decades – only people diagnosed with cancer and other debilitating illnesses were prescribed prescriptions allowing them to purchase small amounts of beef; the cod was only a distant memory; plantains were rationed, when available, as were small quantities of lower quality Vietnamese rice. An item of the slave diet was still reasonably available in ration bodegas, chicharos, the unwelcome staple of the special period.
Of all the Caribbean ‘dark foods’, none is more ubiquitous than plantain. Immigrant peasants from the Canary Islands helped popularize plantains in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, turning them into the staple food of a predominantly white peasantry.
The plantain has become a symbol of Creole identity and even of nationalist feelings. “Aplatanarse” which roughly translates to “become bananified” is a metaphor for creolization. One of Puerto Rico’s most iconic paintings, “El Jibaro” by Luis Paret (The Peasant, 1776) is a self-portrait in which the painter appears dressed in a peasant costume, carrying a bunch of green plantains on his back. right shoulder. “El Jibaro” is the certificate of bananefication of the painter of Spanish origin. Jose Marte, the chief martyr of the Cuban War of Independence, used the symbol in a lyrical and political way. He wrote about Cuban wine made from plantains – another metaphor for Cuban food. “Even if it turns sour,” he said, “it’s our own wine.”
Plantains are a versatile food that can be eaten when green, half-ripe, or ripe. Just as the human body turns starches into sugar, ripening turns starchy green plantains into sweet plantains. Unlike fruit bananas, which are eaten ripe without processing, their larger cousins must be cooked either by frying or by boiling.
Fried slices of green plantains are iconic foods in Spanish-speaking Caribbean cuisine. Tostones are made by frying small pieces of green plantain which are crushed to make them flat and fried once again. Pieces of lightly fried green plantains are also crushed and mixed with salt from fried pork rinds (chicharrones), garlic olive oil and cooked onions to create the round shaped mofongo, one favorite Puerto Rican dishes. Their counterparts in Cuba (fufu) and the Dominican Republic (mangu) are similar but made with half-ripe plantains.
Let’s talk about transculturation and bananification… The Cubans creolized the Spanish tortilla (omelet), replacing the potatoes with fried slices of ripe plantains; Puerto Ricans are fond of pastelones, essentially lasagna with elongated slices of fried plantains in place of boiled lasagna noodles. Another Puerto Rican dish, pionono (a ripe plantain fried and dipped in dough stuffed with ground beef), appears to be named after Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono, in Italian), but a more plausible explanation is that Puerto Rican pionono takes its name indirectly from a Grenadian pastry of the same name.
The Cuban / Caribbean banquet continues in next week’s column.
Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of “Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba”. Readers can reach him at [email protected] To learn more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read articles from other Creators Syndicate authors and designers, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.
Photo credit: mygraphx at Pixabay