Puerto Rico is an island in the middle of a chain of islands that run from just below Florida to just above Venezuela. It has a north coast that faces the Atlantic Ocean and a south coast that looks out on the Caribbean Sea. It’s 100 miles long and 35 miles wide.
The old section of its capital city of San Juan was built by Spanish explorers during the early years of the 1500’s. It’s the oldest city constructed by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere.
Just to the south of San Juan are a series of high mountains that run lengthwise from one end of the island to the other. As the rain clouds of the Atlantic try to pass over Puerto Rico, they are stopped by the peaks of this range. The summit at the eastern end is capped with a dense rain forest that pulls over 100 billion gallons of rain each year from the passing clouds. Because almost all of the rain clouds are brought to a halt at the mid-point of the island, much of Puerto Rico’s south lies in what is known as a “rain shadow,” an area that rarely gets any rain. As a result, the southern half of Puerto Rico is almost always warm and sunny.
The largest city in the south is Ponce, which likes to call itself “The Pearl of the South.” It’s named after the great-grandson of the explorer Juan Ponce De Leon. Juan had sailed with Christopher Columbus and became the first governor of Puerto Rico. In the late 1980’s much of Ponce took part in a giant restoration project that was part of its three-hundredth birthday party. The government had a very straightforward objective. It wanted to restore the city to a point where it was as beautiful as possible. They buried the telephone and power cables. They recovered the streets. And they restored hundreds of buildings in the historic sections of the city.
While you are in Ponce you’ll want to stop in at the King’s Cream Ice Cream Parlor. Their specialty is making fresh ice cream form tropical fruits like mango, papaya, and tamarind. King’s Cream is one of a number of shops in the southern half of Puerto Rico that have become famous for their ice cream. Which, in a climate like this, does not strike me as any great surprise. What I do find somewhat astonishing is that these ice cream parlors were all started during the middle of the 1800’s by Chinese immigrants. No one seems to know how or why it happened, but the end result is that the people of Puerto Rico associate great ice cream with the Chinese community.
To the west of Ponce and up in the hills is the town of San Germán. It’s the second oldest town in Puerto Rico founded by the Spanish. The oldest is San Juan. San Germán was originally put up on the coast in 1512, but it was moved inland about 50 years later. The original site was right in the path of the ocean storms and it was a difficult location to defend. The present San Germán contains some the earliest structures built by Europeans in the New World. Many of the old buildings have been restored.
Doris Maza is a director of the historic district, and very much involved with its preservation.
DORIS MAZA: As you can see, this street is very representative of what San Germán is, because in a very short street we have like four different styles [of architecture], four different materials, from two or three different periods of time in history. First house in the corner is from the beginning of the twentieth century, but it’s a very big, articulate, fancy wooden house. Then we have two smaller houses, they’re the common type of the vernacular architecture in Puerto Rico. Then we have the brick house with all this neo-classical detaillings, and the fluted columns and the railings and all that stuff. And we have one that needs badly to be restored, but it’s also a big -- mid-sized wooden house. And then the last one is a concrete house with some neo-classical detailling also, from the beginning of the twentieth century, maybe even 1920s, 1930s. So on one short street we have different scales, different sizes, different materials, different periods of time. That’s what San Germán is all about. . . . This door is one of those examples where you have in San Germán something that is practical and functional made beautiful. And it works with the weather. You see, all this lace work is open, so you have ventilation, and also you have a painting, a three-dimensional painting. And it’s something that does work as a door. It’s how function and art come together in the architecture of San Germán.
It was King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain who put up the big bucks for the explorations of Columbus. When Isabella died, Ferdinand remarried Germaine de Foix, and it is for this second wife that San Germán is named. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were deserted beaches on the south and west coasts of Puerto Rico that became home to a number of pirate clans. The beaches were far enough away from the central government in San Juan to be an ideal spot for the pirates of the Caribbean.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): During the first few hundred years of European exploration of the Caribbean, piracy was a major occupation, and much of it had been organized by the European powers. A king or queen would give a particular pirate captain a letter that basically said, “Feel free to steal whatever you like from any ships that you want, but not mine; give my warmest regards to your charming wife, and please say ‘hi’ to the kids.” The result of this is the pirates plundered the Caribbean, doing quite well by doing lots of bad, and always able to say, “Hey -- I’m only following orders.”
It’s hard to find something nice to say about the pirates who sailed along the coasts of the Caribbean during the 15, 16 and 1700’s. They ravaged everything and everyone that got in their path. The one positive aspect to their history seems to be in the area of gastronomy. But like everything else, the pirates looted it. In this particular case they took it from the native Arawak tribes.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The Arawaks, who had been living in the neighborhood for about 3,500 years, would build their beds by weaving together a rectangle of green, bendable twigs. They ended up with something that looked like the metal frames that often go under our modern mattresses. The Arawaks were actually much bigger than this; I just made this little model so you can see what I was talking about. They called this a Barbacoa. But they also used the same word to describe their cooking techniques.
Meat was tied to the frame and placed near a fire. Often the fire was confined, protected and controlled by placing it in a pit. The bed-like barbacoa could then lie over the open trench and act very much like our present-day grills. Interesting system. You could sleep on your recipe before you cooked it.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The French pirates who were working the Caribbean loved the cooking technique, and used it as often as they could. They called it boucanee. They eventually became known as boucaniers, or in English, buccaneers.. The original word barbacoa came into the English language as barbecue.
A good deal of the North American barbecue culture got started in the late 1940’s, just after the Second World War. The men coming back from the war had been greatly changed by the experience. And they were coming back to women who had many new ideas about their own roles. Some sociologists believe that the barbecue sprang from the needs of the suburban family with their backyards, and that it gave men a chance to re-introduce some of the distinctions between the sexes. They showed up with special equipment that was different from the gear that was normally used inside the house. Big masculine aprons. Oversized utensils. It was a time when men and women were adjusting to new relationships, and the outdoor barbecue became a testing and display ground.
Over the years the barbecue became a very specific form of gathering, with its own set of rules and expectations. But it all got started here on the shores of the islands of the Caribbean. This particular shore is on Puerto Rico’s west coast, and it’s the beachfront of a property called the Horned Dorset Primavera Hotel.
A horned dorset is a breed of sheep that is usually raised in the southwest of England. And there are little statues of horned dorsets carefully situated throughout the grounds. The owners of the hotel, Kingsley Wratten and Harold Davies, once raised horned dorsets and liked the idea of using the old name in the new business. Saved a lot of work. This is a small, secluded place that was once the home of a local plant specialist, and the four acres that surround the buildings are filled with his work.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): There are only thirty rooms, all of which have been carefully restored and improved. Most of them look out directly on the Mona Passage, which separates Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic. Whales like to come down to the Passage during the winter to get away from the cold and breed. Ah -- there’s an interesting idea!
Some of the rooms have their own private pool on their own private patio, with their own private view of the channel. If you’re willing to give up the extraordinary level of privacy offered here, you can go over to the fresh water pool. Or the main building. The first floor has a lounge were guests meet for drinks. The breakfast and lunch patio is here. And there is a very pleasant small library. The second floor has the dining room that is used for the evening meal. During the dinner hour, Kingsley’s wife Roberta will often play her harpsichord. And she does a nice job of it too. All of the decorative details at the Horned Dorset have received a great deal of attention from the owners, but there is a little touch in the dining room that I feel obligated to point out.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Anyone who grew up in the middle of the island of Manhattan in New York City during the 1940’s, as I did, might remember a wonderful little ice cream parlor and restaurant called Schrafft’s. I thought they made some of the world’s great hot fudge sundaes. They also had some of the most beautiful chandeliers and sconces. When Schrafft’s closed, I think it was the late 50s or early 60s, Harold Davies bought their chandeliers and sconces, and eventually installed them here.
They still cast the soft and romantic glow that made Schrafft’s a favorite meeting place.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Soft and romantic are important concepts here. Their rooms are free of radios, televisions, and telephones. Children under twelve are not invited and anyone who is over twelve but acting like they were under twelve will not be invited back. The owners have gone to great efforts to keep this place peaceful. Their own brochure describes it as an establishment “without activities.” What they mean is if you want to go sailing, or diving, or tour the area, they’ll make arrangements for you.
They’ll also make arrangements to keep you well fed. Example: here’s Chef Vijay Raghavan with his coffee flan.
VIJAY RAGHAVAN: Okay. I’m going to put two cups of milk and then two cups of cream into this pot, and I’m going to add half a cup of espresso coffee. Put it on a high heat and bring it up to a boil -- just a boil. Don’t let it come to a full bowl or it’ll overflow. Okay, here in the mixer I have six eggs, to which I’m going to add three egg yolks. You want to mix this together, but not too hard. If you do that, you’re going to create a lot of volume and beat in a lot of air into it. This is not an airy dessert. You want a nice, solid custard, so the air is pointless, and you’ll end up with a lot of foam on the top if you beat the egg yolks too hard. Once the yolks are broken, and it’s starting to mix together, slowly add in one and a quarter cup of sugar. Let it break so there are no lumps, so there’s no difference between egg whites and egg yolks, and that’s good enough. We’re going to strain out the coffee grinds...
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): This particular form of strainer is called a “Chinese Hat,” or, in French, a chinois, and it reminded the old French cooks of the kind of coolie hats that the Chinese would wear, and so they used the name to describe the piece of equipment.
VIJAY RAGHAVAN: So now we go back to our egg mixture. I’m slowly going to pour in the coffee mixture. Do this gently; don’t toss it in in one lot, because if the coffee is very hot, the egg will cook immediately, and you don’t really want that to happen. We’re going to let it mix while we prepare our ramekins in which we’re going to bake our flan. I’ve got a pot here of sugar that I’ve melted down to this stage. It has not burned; it’s just liquified, caramelized, and I’m gonna pour a little bit into the bottom of each of my ramekins. I don’t have to have the bottom completely coated; when it bakes, it will melt and cover it uniformly. At this stage I want to take my custard, fill up each of my molds, each of my ramekins, and I’ll put it in the oven. And once it’s on the rack, I’m going to pour some hot water on the tray. This is going to even out the temperature so that it’s not such a harsh temperature that it’s baking under. And this is going to bake at a temperature of 300 degrees for an hour and a half, possibly two hours, possibly as long as two hours. We bake it at a very low temperature so that we get a very smooth finish in the end -- no bubbles, no boiling occurs. I find the nicest garnish for this, Burt, is just some orange segments. A marvelous taste combination. Give it a little dusting of cocoa powder, and there you have coffee espresso flan.
He also makes some pretty good pineapple upside-down tarts.
VIJAY RAGHAVAN: These are non-stick tart shells, but you can use normal tart shells; it really doesn’t matter. Now I have my caramel sugar, my melted sugar that I’ve browned...
BURT WOLF: About a quarter cup in each?
VIJAY RAGHAVAN: Uhhh... yeah. Just about a quarter cup. I’d say a little bit less, actually. I’ve got this pineapple here, which I’ve cut; I’ve cored it and we’ve cut out these slices. As long as you end up with this donut shape, you’re fine. This is the same size as the tart shell. Okay? So I’m just gonna lay it inside. What we’re gonna do now is we’re just going to season it. And it might sound funny, but I’m going to put salt and pepper on it. I think salt and pepper with pineapple, it brings out the sweetness and it brings out the tartness. It really enhances the flavor. When you eat it, you won’t taste any pepper, it won’t be hot, it won’t be salty --
BURT WOLF: It’s just gonna wake up your tongue.
VIJAY RAGHAVAN: Exactly. Exactly. And now I’m going to put some puff pastry on top. After you cut out the shapes, make sure you let it sit for a couple of hours. Let the dough rest and get used to that size. If you pop it in the oven immediately, you’re going to cause tremendous shrinkage. All right, and into this oven here, right in the middle, and that’s it.
BURT WOLF: 350?
VIJAY RAGHAVAN: 350 --
BURT WOLF: For how long?
VIJAY RAGHAVAN: We’re gonna leave it in there, probably for about half an hour, but we’ll check on it after fifteen minutes. We’re looking basically for the pastry to cook and get a nice golden color. That is all. All you need to do is to take this and invert it on a plate. I like to serve it with a little scoop of ice cream on the top, and you’ve got a very simple, elegant dessert.
Not all of the great craftwork in Puerto Rico takes place in the kitchens. The southern and western parts of the island have a long tradition of craftwork.
This is the town of Moca, just off the west coast. It was never a rich town, and most of its children could only afford to go to school for a year or so. They would learn to read and write, and then, often by the age of seven or eight, the girls would go off to learn how to make lace. It was the fastest way for them to start earning a living.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The making of lace appears to have first become an art form during the 1300’s in Italy. It evolved out of embroidery, and it was quite expensive until the 1800’s when the British came up with a lacemaking machine. Since then the art of hand-made lace has just about disappeared. A town like this, and its sister village of Isabela, are two of the few places in the world where hand-made lace is still produced.
The lace of Puerto Rico is called mundillo, and it’s like a fine crochet. It’s also known as “pillow lace” or “bobbin lace.” Threads are wound around bobbins and worked over a pattern that is held in place on a pillow. Leonides Lopez is manipulating thirty-eight bobbins! I wouldn’t want to play Find The Pea Under The Shell with Mrs. Lopez. This type of lacemaking equipment is found only in Spain and Puerto Rico, and the general theory is that the skill was brought here from Spain about four hundred years ago. The baby dresses, handkerchiefs, the rolls of lace -- they’re all completely made by hand, and very inexpensive.
The southern part of Puerto Rico is also home to a group of maskmakers. Most of them live around the city of Ponce and do their work at home. They usually lead modest lives in terms of their material surroundings, but there is nothing modest about their wealth of imagination, which appears to be unlimited. Miguel Caraballo is one of the most respected practitioners of the craft. The material of choice is papier mache. Strips of newspaper are dipped in a paste made from flour and water and then molded over a form to dry. The materials are inexpensive and the final mask is light enough so that it can be worn in the tropical heat with a limited amount of discomfort. Unfortunately, the paper, flour and water mixture constitutes a favorite meal for some of the smaller life forms on the island, which makes it very difficult to find any antique examples of this art. Miguel adds a little vinegar to his paste which appears to make it less attractive to insects.
Another great craft tradition in Puerto Rico is the santo. The word refers to any holy image used in the church or at home. It’s similar to the word “icon.” In Puerto Rico it has come to mean a wooden statue carved by a folk artist and representing an aspect of the Roman Catholic church. The artists have no formal training and their work is not under the control of the church. Historians who have studied the tradition of santos, however, point out that the images are taken from religious works that were created in Europe during the Middle Ages. The artists work at home, and their helpers are almost always family members learning the art. Domingo Orta and his family work in a small house just outside the city of Ponce.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): During the early history of Puerto Rico, most of the peasants lived up in the mountains and worked on coffee plantations or small farms. They were pretty much cut off from the cities and had very little contact with the medical community, the educational facilities, or the formal churches. As a result, they developed their own religion based on the saints, saints that they hoped would show up and meet the needs of the family. One of the things that the family needed was some physical element that would receive their prayers. And that job was taken over by the santos.
Once the statue has been blessed by a priest, it becomes the receptacle for the supernatural spirit of the saint. In each home, a special place is selected as the shrine for the santos. It is the dwelling place of the holy energy. The saints are now available to the family for direct intervention and assistance.
One of the ways that the early European explorers in the Caribbean prepared for their food needs was to drop off a few animals on a deserted island and let them go back to the wild. The sailors would note the location of the place and then return, year after year, to hunt for meat in the herd that they had started.
Throughout history and all over the world, men have insisted that meat was their thing. Men do the hunting for meat. They get together in groups, and incorporate ancient rituals and as much drama as they can. They go out for days at a time and if they are successful, they return in triumph to the women and children who had been left at home.
Men also respond to fire as a male element. To this day, in most western societies men typically start the fire for any outdoor cookery -- guys cooperating with other guys in an age-old task. The more most men are removed from their traditional roles, the more they turn to those activities on their own time.
Along the roadsides of Puerto Rico you can find a modern remnant of this ancient form. They are called lechoneras, which means “the place were the pig is roasted.” There are hundreds of them all over the island, but the world epicenter for lechonera is the town of Guavate, which is about midway between San Juan and Ponce. The hunting trails have been replaced with highways. The clearing in the forest is now a parking lot. But it’s still men grilling meat over an open fire. Much more dramatic than steaming vegetables. Though it’s only appropriate to point out that the food supply produced by the women, who did the gathering of plants, was more dependable and fundamentally much more important to the overall diet. Each lechonera has its own slightly different recipe and its own slightly different approach to the technique. And when you take a look at the lechoneras, you see that women are still taking care of a major portion of what’s on the plate. And actually their role may be more important than ever.
BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Well... that’s a brief look at the gathering we call a barbecue, and a number of places in Puerto Rico that have been practicing it for about four thousand years. I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations, rituals and recipes that mark the passages of our lives. I’m Burt Wolf.