More than rice and beans

More than rice and beans, Puerto Rican cuisine is a seductive stew of traditional and refreshing new flavors. From the humble beginnings of the Taino Indians to the most recent culinary boom, the story behind the local diet brings to life who we are as people and the realities that make us the resilient community we are today. It’s a reflection of our individual and collective dreams throughout time.


Every islander can tell this culinary story from a very unique angle. The traditions that our mothers choose to carry on, the family diners that we continue to celebrate, our exposure to new restaurants, the rebirth of a self-sustaining conscience and the migratory experience find a way into this larger woven narrative that illustrates the evolution and current state of our cuisine.

Within that beautifully complex spectrum of cultural connections and individual stories, we each create our personal interpretation of what this cuisine is. And of course, most of us have that key person in our lives who directly influenced our diet, the ingredients we believe to be ours, how we season our meals and the flavors that we associate with home.


In my life, that person is my grandma, which is curious because grandma Isabel wasn’t exactly the most sophisticated cook. She was a busy stylist in the Condado area back in the 50’s and 60’s, when it wasn’t considered a glamorous profession. Her life was practical, and so was her cooking. Her motto in life was that “there’s no reason to complicate things that don’t need to be complicated” and that also applied in the kitchen.

An avocado, a sweet potato or a few cups of gandules could easily become the star of any soup, salad or main dish with a drizzle of olive oil and garlic. She would focus her energy into quickly transforming ingredients into a complete meal, without diluting the essence of those ingredients. What comes from the ground was particularly sacred to her. All you really need to enjoy them is a “good dose of hunger”.

Needless to say, my grandma didn’t believe in canned items very much, unless you were talking about Rovira export soda crackers. Not sure why, but she obsessively loved those crackers in the green tin can! Real food, she would say, doesn’t come packed. It’s what you grow in a small plot of land or a tin can or what you get at the Plaza del Mercado. Isabel was a country girl and she grew up having to grow and find her own ingredients.


Her childhood stories in barrio Canovanillas are my favorite. While the kids of my generation could always count on a pantry stocked with Chef Boyardee spaghetti, Ritz crackers and Cheese Whiz, my grandma had amazing hunting and survival stories. Forget about Chapulín Colorado! My grandma was a true heroine.

Raised mostly by her dad in an agricultural sector north of the island, her family’s humble wood shack had no floor. Where the wall ended, there was dirt; her naked feet were always muddied. Yet, it wasn’t a sad childhood. At least, her memories were happy memories. The world back then was a very different one.

While her dad worked, she and her brothers would go out to look for adventures free of parental supervision. The river was their personal pool; the massive centenary trees were their hideout. And nothing was better than sliding down the hills on gigantic yagua leaves. She never lacked anything.


But of course, she would devour anything that was put on her plate. ("Comía con hambre"). Aside from snacking on fresh fruit from around the neighborhood, Isabel didn’t experience the abundance of food we take for granted today — which would somehow make ingredients "taste even better". Every fruit from the ground, every fish from the ocean, every bird from the sky was treasured.

Perhaps that’s why among her most precious belongings, she had an artisanal slingshot made by her brother Cruz. Isabel and Cruz would spend hours patiently peeking out the window, waiting for a family of pigeons to rest on a clothesline. When least expected, they would aim and shoot with expert precision, securing a decent meal for all of their siblings. It was time to pluck the birds clean and season them with salt, pepper and garlic —the “gourmet” specialty of the household.

Life could be deliciously simple if you fought for it.


Growing up with so many of these stories, you can probably understand why I couldn’t help to buy my very own slingshot at the corner hardware store.… not that I ever dared eating a wild pigeon in my lifetime! My mom, of course, wouldn’t allow it either. Life in San Juan in the 80s was worlds apart from my grandma’s. All I knew were microwaves and TV dinners and convenience, and just the idea of eating something remotely similar sounded pretty barbaric.

At home, many of our weekly meals involved a little help from our friends Lipton, Campbell’s, Chef Boyardee and a number of prefabricated meals for parents working over 60 hours a week. Shortcuts were already standard, and even encouraged.


All of the modern conveniences made me asked myself why would my grandma insist on growing gandules in the backyard when you could easily buy them at the store. Why spend the time to grow them, shell them, clean them and tenderize them? Her answer was always “we have to do it”.

Isabel had migrated from the country to the city, became a working woman, adapted herself to a new world, but still couldn’t and wouldn’t disconnect herself from the ground. Whether it was in a small apartment or her house, she would always find a way to grow something. Nothing would give her more security, physical and financial stability like a little plot of land.

She would say that regardless of the job you have, the amount of money you make or where you want to go in life, it’s that connection to the land and the food you choose to eat that’ll nourish everything you do. It's what keeps you balanced, focused, and grounded.



Your dishes and their flavors should also come organically. If you’re missing an ingredient in a given season, it’s the perfect opportunity to try something different and create a new combination. Your diet evolves accordingly, and it becomes more interesting with the ingredients that make it to your table year after year.

That was basically my grandma’s culinary philosophy and it’s the one I decided to borrow.

Like Isabel’s story, there are many great ones on our island. There are authors, defenders and legacies. I find them by following local chefs or by visiting great local restaurants, like Santaella or Casita Blanca. I find them at the local farmer’s markets, farms and stores. I find them through the amazing Puerto Rican food bloggers living on and off the island. Even when we travel, I find my fellow countryman and their unique stories everywhere I go.


Something good is happening, regardless of any obstacles that come our way. More than rice and beans, our cuisine has beautiful depth and meaning behind all of its ingredients and flavors. What better time than now to highlight everything it represents?... What’s your story?

Click here for the Spanish Version of this post.

Maxwell Street Market

Located in the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers, Maxwell Street Market is one of Chicago's oldest open markets. It's known for its bargains and international flavor. Many immigrants have come here to sell their goods over the years. The Germans, Irish and Polish came first, and more recently the Mexican community has a stronger presence.



We come here for the amazing food, like the delicious tacos and the tamales oaxaqueños that you'll see featured. It's a must stop if you are new to Chicago.

The 606

Very rarely in Chicago we get good weather at the beginning of Spring. But when we do, everybody and their lovely mothers are out and about and excited like a little girl at a premier of Frozen. Some people spend time on the lake shore, others head to the national parks, but a couple of weeks ago, we decided to check out the trendiest urban greenway in the city: The 606. Also called The Bloomingdale Trail, this trail is a revamped 2.7-mile elevated railroad running east-west on the northwest side of Chicago back in the day.


It's perfect for runners, bikers and urban explorers like us who like to get a taste of different neighborhoods in one shot. You'll love it. Check it out.

Music Time Capsule

I come from a generation of playlist curators. Music was a big part of life growing up, although there was no YouTube back in the day and Cable TV was simply a luxury, meaning no MTV or VH1 either. My friends and I had to wait impatiently for the local radio DJs to play our favorite songs so we could record each and every one of our tunes over cassette tapes. And didn’t you hate when the radio promos would end up in your recordings? Regardless, that tape meant something to my friends and I. It said something about that moment in time, like a scrapbook or a time capsule.


Years later came Napster and MP3 players and online stations. Pretty much nothing has been the same. The other day I was at Best Buy with a much younger coworker who called me “Old School” for buying a CD. And why is it that millenials can’t even remember the name of songs anymore? Even the good ones. They just listen and dispose of music like a pair of socks. I grew up memorizing lyrics and trying to figure out what they meant. I would buy an album for the one song and make myself listen and appreciate the rest... because $20!

I think a lot of my inspiration as a writer comes from music. Something I like to do is to go back and listen to the music from a specific period in my life. It helps me reconnect with who I was then and refreshes my perspective on how the world has changed. If you haven’t done it, try it. Make time to take in the songs, create YouTube playlists and keep going back to them. Here’s the playlist I created from my grad school days in Boulder, Colorado (2003-2006). Can't believe it's been 11 years.

Illustration by Evgeni.

Sixteen Microactions to Propel Female Creatives

It’s not about the amount of work or the late nights. What really stresses women in the creative industry is “being forced to do a job in a way that doesn’t feel natural to them.” It’s about having to work with people who have a hard time understanding their principles and perspectives, and it’s about the struggle to make sure they are included and their voices heard.


This was one of many popular preconceptions debunked by Cindy Gallop during her presentation on Thursday for IPG’s Women’s Leadership Network relaunch. She’s the founder & CEO of If we ran the world and Make love not porn and has decades of experience as a creative, advertising consultant and advocate. Needless to say, she’s a pretty tough leader. “I like to blow shit up,” she says. “I’m the Michael Bay of business.”

Gallop was brought by IPG as a guiding force to inspire women to continue fighting for gender equality and career opportunities. She believes that women and minorities are the driver of innovation for agencies, and that they should be empowered to explore their potential and help bring more business.

While it’s commonly believed that there are not enough women candidates or that their portfolio is not up to par, she says that diversity is truly what helps raise the bar. “Men are usually hired based on potential, while women are hired on proof. They’re simply not given a chance.”

For over an hour, she went over all of the myths that exist in the industry and provided a series of actions that women and minorities can immediately take to create a better future for themselves and help change the current environment for everyone.

Here’s her advice:

1. Say what you think. Own it and claim it. If you need time to formulate your thoughts, make sure you set some time with the parties involved to voice your opinion.

2. State your ambition. Make sure everybody knows where you want to go. Think about what your path looks like and make sure you communicate your goals.

3. Create a paper trail. Have a voice, comment on issues, let your values and dreams be known.

4. Take up more space. Make sure you sit where people can hear you. Be present where you can. And if you're always busy, your space should reflect it.

5. Understand how your company makes money and recommend how to make more money. For example, if women are the biggest consumer group, who better to recommend how to sell something to them than another woman.

6. Be your own filter. Start by defining what you don’t like or believe in, so you can better understand your beliefs and who you are as a creative.

7. Say yes. Say no. Offer yourself to participate in interesting projects that help you grow, and stop doing little things that makes everyone’s life easier but your own.

8. Make decisions visibly. Express your thinking behind projects and make sure people know what you are working on. Promote your talent and how you impact the agency.

9. Make shit happen. Take initiative, do things well, add value, become a resource.

10. Call out barriers. If there are attitudes or barriers that slow you down or unable you to have equal participation, call it out.

11. Volunteer to be tested. If you want to get experience in a particular area, ask for an opportunity to be tested. Get feedback and push forward.

12. Dress for presence. Do not dress as people expect you to dress. Dress to express who you are, to be comfortable and feel confident.

13. Build your own personal brand. People are bound to Google you. Build a personal site where you can state who you are and what your passion is. Provide value, insights. Identify what you want to bring to the table and offer something the industry is missing.

14. Make lots of money. Help create an environment where women can get paid what they are worth. Have an investment mindset and help support other women around you.

15. Find champions, not mentors. You don’t need people who listen to your challenges, but people who challenge you and help change your path.

16. Help change the numbers fast. Push forward to create a better environment for yourself and other women. Help create a workplace that reflects the world around us.

A taste of Poland in Chicago

Did you know that there are over 46,000 Polish immigrants in the Windy City? Our city center alone holds the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, the capital of Poland. They have brought with them a tradition of hard work and an incredibly rich culture that includes great food. Thanks to that, we are lucky to have access to so many great restaurants where you can enjoy a taste of Poland for an affordable price, like the delicious Red Apple Buffet in Logan Square. They have lots of different dishes and Polish beer.


Here's a quick video of a recent trip.