So much of our lives is seen through the lens of food, a snapshot of culture and circumstance. At times, both converge to offer a new perspective. An unwitting visitor to my maternal hometown, I'd soon find some welcome perspective in the form of Puerto Rican pork shoulder - better known as “pernil”.
As a self-proclaimed foodie (i.e. the only kind), I have the privilege of drawing upon a wealth of incredible culinary experiences when I choose to write about my favorite subject. After all, averaging three meals a day, you’ll have over a thousand meals in a year; tens of thousands in a lifetime. That said, amidst a multitude of meals, what differentiates a dish of simple sustenance from one of transformative edible art? My answer, albeit not in any way a definitive one is quite simple, “communication”, and few dishes speak to me like Puerto Rican pork shoulder (or “pernil” as it's better known to locals).
My first trip to Puerto Rico was at the age of 13, a literal trip to the “motherland” to visit my maternal hometown, meet family, and polish up my languishing Spanish fluency. An island paradise, the prospect of beaches, food, and novel cultural experiences is intoxicating for most - but in all honesty, I was far more concerned with the friends and game consoles left at home. Nonetheless, despite an abundance of adolescent protests, I was headed to “the island of enchantment” - whether I liked it or not.
Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island off the coast of Florida is a bit of an oddity. Unequivocally American, yet decidedly unique in its culture and language, Puerto Rico’s national identity is a bit ambiguous. Officially a territory, Puerto Rico is a part of the United States and yet not a state.
The matter of statehood is rather contentious, and in many ways acts as a foil for a greater unresolved island-wide conflict. As a tiny island, how do you thrive alongside a giant but not be consumed by it? Regardless of political identity crises, from the way they speak to the way they party - it’s quite clear upon arrival that you aren’t dealing with the version of America that people tend to imagine.
In fact, for American tourists arriving amidst the backdrop of strange, immeasurable fauna, bioluminescent beaches, and the ubiquitous trill of the coquí it might be difficult to believe you haven’t left the planet let alone the country. While most arrivals flocked to the coast as they navigated towards their resort of choice, our drive took us towards Puerto Rico’s mountain ranges instead. As we drove through the island’s narrow, winding roads I couldn’t help but take it all in - the pastel patchwork of colorful homes lining the mountain roads and beyond, the immensity of the surrounding greenery, the richness of the smell of the air.
Despite my Puerto Rican heritage, “foreign”, ironically sums up a lot of my feelings during my first trip to Puerto Rico. In many ways, I felt more like an alien exploring a new world than as if I was reconnecting with my ancestral roots. Though familiar with Puerto Rican cuisine, this was a whole new introduction. Suddenly my family’s obsession with Cafe Bustello and French baguettes was contextualized by seeing family members of all ages start their day with water bread dipped in morning coffee for breakfast. I developed a new appreciation for plantains when I watched my grandfather harvest a bushel fresh for what would become tostones later that day.
Still, for the early days of my Puerto Rican experience, the cultural immersion was largely passive, watching and listening and learning (and eating). It wasn’t until my grandmother announced that we’d be having a family reunion that I got to understand Puerto Rican cookery, and in some way culture, hands-on. A staple of large family gatherings (and thus usually saved for Thanksgiving or Christmas), it became very clear that pernil would be one of the menu’s central offerings. Naturally, as a new arrival, I was promptly nominated for “sous chef” duties. Simply put, when grandma asks you to cook, you cook, and so into the kitchen I went.
The process of preparing pernil is simple, albeit a bit laborious. A true labor of love, this is not a hastily put together fling - deciding to prepare pernil requires time and commitment. To begin, you must wash the pork in a citrus bath to cleanse it of its gamey taste before you can set the groundwork for the flavor profile to come. Next, you must prepare the pork shoulder to absorb the marinade by covering the skin in half-inch cuts which allow the marinade to permeate through the body of the roast, soaking through the meat as the skin’s fat layer melts, carrying delicious flavor throughout. As my grandmother recited instructions from memory I enthusiastically followed along, grinding citrus and garlic and salt and pepper into a mortar and pestle while salsa music blared unapologetically around me. Massaging the marinade into the skin I thought to myself, “I’m not just making a meal here, I’m making a moment.”
Growing up, when I thought of the pinnacles of cooking I imagined the surgical precision of Japanese sushi chefs or the refinement of well-executed French cuisine. Puerto Rico wasn’t even on my map, and yet as I prepared the meal I couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection to the place, to the people, to the process. As the music echoed themes of Afro-Caribbean spirituality and the cleansing of the soul, I was similarly cleansed of pretentious preconceptions of what made beautiful cooking so beautiful. Through the day and the next, we eagerly awaited the meal’s readiness, basking in the incredible and inescapable aromas released and I knew from the smell alone with certainty - to place something, anything on a pedestal above this is laughable. Those aforementioned examples are still excellent arbiters of culture and technique that I love, but in this pantheon of excellence, I simply found there was more. I found home.
With the first bite of pernil, every promise made by the hunger-inducing smells was delivered on. From the satisfyingly primal crunch of the roasted skin to the tender, juicy meat waiting underneath. My suspicions were confirmed, if creating great food is an art then I’d almost unwittingly stumbled upon an opus. The flavor didn’t just impart notes of the simple ingredients which comprised the meal, they were transformed and elevated into something else entirely. In each bite, I tasted a slice of culture executed in its purest form.
The meal was family bonding over games of dominos, it was a visit to waterfalls that my mother and grandmother played in when they were children, it was my introduction to the soulful crooning of Hector Lavoe, it was the sound of the coqui lulling me to sleep nightly, it was everything and more distilled into a bite of magic. It was special. In short, I got the message.
Decades later I can still recall that meal, still recall the feelings it invoked - and the way it changed the way I looked at cooking, and more importantly my own culture. Foreign flavors and esoteric techniques still fascinate the food nerd in me, but I look for something more these days. A connection to the chef, a story in the meal, an implicit feel for an appreciation of craftsmanship and authenticity, and so much more are all communicated to us in cuisine. These messages matter, and if you’re curious and hungry enough to seek them out, you too may find they’re closer than you expect.