What I Learned About Living Well In My Mother’s Puerto Rican Kitchen

When I was growing up, the conveniences of modern life took over my mother’s kitchen, and our health declined as a result. Here’s what happened when we went back to the way our ancestors dined.
Bananas photo by Jirka Matousek

Photo by Jirka Matousek.

When I was a little girl, I loved sitting in the kitchen and watching my mother make the masa, a dough made of green bananas that is the base for the dumplings (bollitas) and a Puerto Rican version of tamales (pasteles) that we ate at least once a week. She hand-peeled the bananas and vegetables and used a knife to cut them into smaller pieces before mashing them. The process would take hours, and I would wait anxiously for a chance to use the pilon (a mortar and pestle) to blend the spices together for the masa.

The pilon was a special instrument to me. I was convinced that it was an ancient relic, and it reminded me of my grandmother. When I used it, I would pretend that I was a Taíno princess by the Borikén coast, mashing cassava and spices together to make bread.

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As the years passed, the conveniences of modern life took over my mother’s kitchen. Boxes replaced fresh ingredients. Preblended spices replaced the pilon, and the days of making pasteles and bollitas were relegated to a special occasion or holiday treat. As we began eating more boxed food, I noticed a decline in my family’s overall health—symptoms like poor digestion, bloating, and low energy. I began to do research on healthy living, and I found connections between the change in our diets and the illnesses. But as a student working full-time, I still relied on some pre-packaged foods.

At age 27, I learned I was pregnant and re-examined my food habits. I got rid of all of the boxes. I had been a vegetarian for 17 years and a vegan for 13 of those years, but I was not eating as healthily as I should have.

Becoming a mother had a dual impact on me. First, I wanted to ensure optimal health for my daughter. Second, I wanted her to enjoy the foods that nourished me as I grew up and that had fed my mother and her foremothers. I thought I could create recipes that would bring together my love of vegan food with my family traditions. I hoped that doing so would help my family return to healthy eating and reconnect with our culture. These recipes became the material for my book, L.I.V2.E. (Latin-Inspired Vegan & Vegetarian Eats): Local & Organic Recipes to Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle.

Writing L.I.V2.E. required a trip back to the kitchen with my family. My sister and I worked together to make pasteles as my mother watched us alter her traditional recipe into a vegan one, incorporating varieties of vegetables, like sweet potatoes and kale, that she had never used. She often exclaimed, “That’s not the Puerto Rican way, Melinda.” My sister and I would roll our eyes, laugh, and say, “Okay, Mami.”

On another day, my mother joined me in the kitchen to make my favorite recipe, bollitas. The process of mashing the bananas and preparing the ingredients evoked stories from my mother’s childhood. She recounted the days when she helped her blind grandmother pick vegetables and herbs from the family garden in Puerto Rico. I learned about my grandmother’s original recipe and discovered that my mother had tweaked it one day and forever changed the way the entire family would enjoy bollitas. I teased her and said, “That’s not the Puerto Rican way, Mami.”

As we prepared our traditional foods and made them vegan, we opened up a discussion about what it means for food to be Puerto Rican, the sanctity of ingredients, and the need to change our diets in order to heal our bodies. Cooking has always been one of the fundamental ways that human beings interact with their environment; using fresh and local ingredients helps us know our land and mark our culture.

My journey into my mother’s kitchen is a reclamation of life, health, and tradition. I look forward to the day when my daughter sits at the table begging to use my pilon and we make our own stories and memories about bananas and culture.