Un Pocito Sofrito
There is no room for cookbooks when you migrate. Memories are stowed away on planes like undeclared excess luggage. 1960s Spanish Harlem was freedom from the stifling hypocritical morals and antiquated class system of rural Puerto Rico. My mother wore skirts above the knee, had a beehive, and used black eyeliner like the other girls in el Barrio, a look that would inspire The Ronettes’ signature style. New York offered opportunities like jobs outside of lavanderias and servitude. You could buy pre-packaged ingredients so a modern woman could still be a mother, a wife, and still contribute to the family income. She never stopped making her own sofrito, though because it was in her blood. I would watch her as a kid, studying as she combined and blended the onions, peppers, garlic, culantro, cilantro (they are different) along with un pocito de olive oil. Has to be Spanish, though. “Siempre Espanol, me oyé Johnny?” She would say. It was like witchcraft before my very eyes. This green concoction, not quite sauce, not quite paste, but it was the foundation of every meal in our house, including my favourite: carne guisada.
Carne Guisada is a Puerto Rican Beef Stew, but more than just that. Beef and potatoes are slow-cooked in a Dutch oven for hours till all the ingredients are tender and swimming in a flavourful broth or caldo. It’s then served over rice and beans, your choice of color, but for me, always yellow rice and red kidney beans. Every Puerto Rican swears their mom’s is the best, and every Puerto Rican is probably right about that. Even as I watched my mother cut the carrots, dice the potatoes, season the meat, add the salsa tomate, olives, and season the dish, I knew I could never get it right. I hoped one day she would show me. We would cook it together.
That one day never came, and all we were left with were the memories of how her food tasted. It would take a couple of decades and the entire world stopping at once for the memories to come flooding back full fold. There were no new memories to make, only old ones to fill the days that blended into one. We were stuck in time during those monotonous weeks. The isolation brought on my anxiety. Anxiety is rooted in fear, according to my therapist. It was a fear that without traveling back to New York or to Florida, where my sister lived, I would forget my roots.
It has been over two years since I’ve eaten carne guisada. Casa de Empanadas in Orlando is the closest I have come to satisfying that craving that has lingered since my mother died in 1998. If you’re ever in Orlando, I recommend paying them a visit. Who knows, you might even get the same looks when you walk in as they give me. “What’s this white boy doing here?” That is until I speak and then they know I am one of them, sort of. One foot in each world is the story of my life. Not exhausting at all.
I know I can make carne guisada. I know I need to make this dish. I know I need to feel the connection to my people, my family, and my roots, but all I have is my memory of how it tastes and about 17 different “authentic” recipes from Google. All of them complete with a story of how their mother or abuela used to make the dish. You can almost hear the palm trees swaying in the wind and the distant sound of a bolero nearby as you read these. I can’t relate to them, though. The sounds I associate with Puerto Rican cooking are neighbours talking loudly over salsa music coming from Spanish radio stations and my mother saying to me, “ay nene, you ask so many questions.” Thing is, I know there are two ingredients I can’t get here for my sofrito and that’s culantro and aji dulce. This is Cornwall, not London, and if we were forgotten on the supply chain before, we no longer exist in post Brexit pandemic Britain. That is unless you’re talking property, but that’s a different conversation. It’s okay, though. Part of migration is improvising. Un poco mas cilantro, I can hear her say, it’ll make up for the lack of culantro. No aji dulce, that’s okay. Add some green peppers. This is no longer her sofrito but mine, just as the carne guisada that I make is my own version. I blend the ingredients, tasting as I go along. Un poco mas de ajo, garlic. Yes, that’s it. A little more pepper and it’s perfect.
I don’t own a Dutch oven, so I use my slow cooker. Cubes of beef are powdered with adobo and sazón before I add a spoon of the sofrito. It seems a lot of work for a spoon, but it will make all the difference. I add the chunky potatoes, carrots, onions, and salsa tomate. Then a little water in the tomate can get the rest out. Nothing is wasted. The rest of the ingredients follow: a little vino tinto because cooking with wine is something I enjoy. The fresh herbs follow along with some beef bouillon and a few Spanish green olives. I mix it together and think about how the recipe went from my mother’s Tía to her and to me. How it evolved. The distance it has traveled around this world.
We Puerto Ricans migrate. It is second nature to us. It is in our blood, but our souls remain Caribbean, at least some idea of the Caribbean. My granite barn here in Cornwall will soon smell of rich, tender beef in caldo. It’ll warm the halls as the cold rain pours outside. Puerto Rico will appear in my dreams as I remember it through my mother’s carne guisada, which is now mine
I love food. I love making it, eating it, watching shows about it, you name it. In my own writing, I aim to stimulate my readers’ senses so that they trust me as we journey through the story together. Taste is as important to me as sound, touch, and sight. Food also holds memory. I am a third-generation native New Yorker, a dying breed, and although I haven’t lived there for over 20 years, my memories of growing up there, as well as my experiences returning to the city, are often tied to food. Pizza is a great example of the New York experience. Every New Yorker has their “best pizza in the city” parlour and we’re all right and wrong about it at the same time. That aside, we have a shared memory of that triangle-shaped orangey/white, sometimes crispy, flat slice with the copper-colored grease that drips onto the wax paper or paper plate it’s served on. A “slice” is almost always folded in half which cradles the grease, and not a single one of us has ever escaped being burned by the marriage of cheese and grease. Even if you have never been to New York, you will have seen the characters eating pizza on TV or in films. When my characters are eating a “slice,” it’s that connection I aim to make. They may not know what NY pizza tastes like, but they know what it looks like. Others may be reminded of that taste and relate to the story on another level. Food and writing both have a nomadic power to transport our memories and stories across the globe. They connect us to one another. Writers are chefs, words are our ingredients, and stories are our recipes.
John Lugo-Trebble is a Bronx-born writer based in Cornwall. He is the author of Lu’s Outing and The Deadbeat Club; part of The Everywhere Series. He is currently working on the third instalment, These Are Days. His most recent story “Aquarius” was published in the chapbook Queer Writing For A Brave New World, a collaboration between Out on the Page and The Modernist in Manchester. His work has been published in Gay Life Magazine, Litro, Jonathan, and other journals. You can find out more about him and his work at johnlugotrebble.com or follow him on Instagram and Meta/Facebook at @JohnLugoTrebble