Fourth of July in the United States of America is a day for standing out by a grill, eating burgers and hot dogs and, frankly questionable, potato salad while in your backyard. The food is really a distraction until you can blow fireworks up in your back yard while slightly drunk. While there’s nothing wrong with the standard fare, I am here to present additional – an unexpected – patriotic food that can be added to any American Fourth of July party. It’s 2020 and shouldn’t we find joy where ever we can?
Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean Sea, is part of the United States – believe it or not and this fact is not reflected in the cuisine of America much to everyone’s (read: my) collective dismay. I’m going to provide culinary tour that will take us through Puerto Rican history and give you amazing dishes that will take your tired Fourth of July menu to WIRED.
Puerto Rico was nation that was inhabited for four millennia by the Ortoroid and then the Arawak and Taino peoples. Because there was no big game on the island, they were adept at fishing, eating mussels and oysters from exposed mangroves. You know what else they loved? Yuca!
Yuca is native to Puerto Rico and was one of the main crops of the Taino peoples and their major god was Yucahu, which means “spirit giver” or “giver of cassava”. So this Fourth of July instead of eating your Aunt Becky’s tired ass potato salad – reach back into the rich culinary history of Puerto Rico and make Yuca en Escabeche. Having had this in many, many family gatherings I can attest to how delicious this is.
Yuca en Escabeche
(Adapted from my mom…so I know it’s good.)
- 1 pound frozen yuca (look, you could get fresh yuca, but like…why?)
- 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced or smashed with a garlic press
- 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 heaping tablespoons green olives stuffed with pimientos (but honestly, measure this with your heart)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and add yuca, making sure yuca is completely covered with water. Bring to a boil again, then lower heat and continue boiling for 20-30 minutes. As it gets closer to being done, it will look a little more…translucent? It should be a little softer than fork tender.
- While the yuca is cooking, grab yourself a medium pan and add the olive oil and set to medium-low heat.
- Add onions and simmer until softened, about 4 minutes – once the onions have softened add the garlic and be very careful to not let the garlic brown or it will be bitter. Season with some salt and set aside, but keep warm.
- By now the yuca should be done. Drain and – very carefully – slice in half, length wise and remove the stringy centers of the yucca and discard. These taste gross. Once the woody centers have been removed, cut into bite sized chunks.
- In a large bowl, combine the still warm yuca, oil, onions, garlic and green olives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Taste and add additional vinegar if you would like it with more zip.
- Let sit for at least 1 hour before serving, but it is best after 2 hours. Serve at room temp or warm. There is a lot of debate as to which is better, but I can tell you that warm is better. Trust my taste buds folks.
Colonial Puerto Rico
In 1493, Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico, following his homeboy Ponce de Leon. This could be characterized as resoundingly a NOT GREAT moment in history. With them, besides smallpox and measles, they brought items with them like pork, wheat, olives, cilantro and other items that became important to the cuisine but either couldn’t be grown or had to be imported to the island.
So instead of eating a lukewarm mayonnaise based macaroni salad that your Uncle Geraldo’s girlfriend Shelly bought to the party make alcapurrias. These fritters – like the yuca en escabeche – combine Taino foods and introduce pork and seasonings brought by the Spanish. Also, rumor has it they are a great food to eat when you’re drunk. But I wouldn’t know anything about this as my mother reads these posts, hi mom!
I would recommend The Noshery’s alcapurria recipe by Meseidy. In it she details how to make the masa out of taro root and green bananas. The Spanish part is in the filling – olives, capers and ham! Honestly, it’s a lot of work but what else are you doing? There’s a global pandemic going on outside, grind some taro.
Slavery Begins in Puerto Rico
Shortly after the Spanish arrived and the Indigenous peoples of Puerto Rico (…and the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, South America, Central America, Texas, California…) died due to the diseases and mistreatment the Spanish decided “Hey you know what would be great? Enslaved people.”
So they participated in the trade of enslaved human beings starting in 1513. The enslaved African folks didn’t just bring their bodies however, they also brought and introduced new foods. Coconuts, coffee, okra, pigeon peas (gandules), and my personal favorite as a Dominican – PLANTAINS. *insert airhorn sounds here*
There is so much overlap between the food that we eat in the Caribbean and what is eaten in Africa that every time I delve into the research I’m so excited to feel that kinship. The culture lives on in our kitchens. Anyway, I don’t care what you’re eating at your Fourth of July – you should one hundred percent add mofongo to the table.
Mofongo is a cousin to West African fufu, Dominican mangú (also, like all recipes that are national recipes I would like to point out that while this recipe is a good recipe, it’s not my mom’s recipe therefore it’s wrong), and Cuban fufu de platano. Mofongo is unique in that it’s the only recipe of this illustrious group that calls for frying the plantains first and then mashing them into a ball.
I have asked around for consensus on a Puerto Rican recipe for mofongo, literally none of them agree with each other. In the interest of going with a recipe in English, that looked good, and that shared most of the common elements, I present Kitchen de Lujo’s mofongo with shrimp recipe. I will leave it to people smarter – and more Puerto Rican than I – to determine what makes the most authentic mofongo, but really I don’t think you can go wrong with most recipes out there and that’s the gospel truth.
Hand off to the United States
In 1860, frustrated by the lack of political and economic freedom, and enraged by the continuing repression on the island, Puerto Rico’s pro-independence movement staged an armed rebellion in 1868 which was called The Grito de Lares. This attempt at autonomous rule failed and although some reforms came in the next 30 years, it didn’t stop the Spanish from handing Puerto Rico off to the Americans in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.
There’s nothing to add to the table after this part. America introduced convenience, processed food, and general shenanigans like the Foraker Act of 1900, nuclear Bomb testing on Vieques in 1914, Jones Act of 1917, unethical birth control testing in the 1950s, not to mention a terrible handling of Hurricane Maria that the island is still recovering from.
So enjoy these unexpected patriotic dishes, add them to your Fourth of July feast – and remember that Puerto Ricans are American citizens and we should introduce more of their cuisine into our world because it’s as American as apple pie is.