The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

Ménage à Fongo

by Kathryn Miles

January 2013    

It is easy to fall in love with Puerto Rican street food. Pinchos: the fatty chicken thighs skewered and then glazed with red sauce so unctuous it will dribble down your chin and seep into your shirt, no matter how hard you try to swallow demurely. Papa rellena: fist-sized balls of potato that, when pressed, yield the undeniable tang of queso blanco. Bacalaitos: enormous salt cod fritters fried hard but not so much that they lose the musky scent that can only come from the dark recesses of the sea. Their sister, the empanada: a yellow pocket of cassava dough stuffed with meat or jellied guava, a hint of vinegar, then cooked until it is perfectly, indefensibly oily. Pasteles: the lascivious brother of the tamale, an inescapably suggestive mosaic of yucca and taro, raisins, olives, peppers, and shredded meat, molded into a formative log, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled until firm. And, of course, lechón, the slow roasted pig served with sour garlic sauce and black peppercorn buds, splayed on a table or counter, where licentious passersby can ogle its every inch before laying claim to their own favorite part: bronze skin, an exposed shoulder, tongue, a strong back.

It is easy to fall in love with Puerto Rican street food.

Here, there are no expectations, none of the accoutrements that bind, no formalities like reservations or tables or utensils or checks. It is a tryst that flirts with the illicit. You approach the woman sitting outside the fish stand on the hood of her car, the guy leaning against the palm tree on the edge of the beach, the truck parked on the side of the highway. These vendors do not want you to know about them—their specials, where their food was sourced, what wine might complement your dish. They do not want to know about you, your tastes and preferences, how you like your meat cooked, what you hope and dream. There is an attractive anonymity here—the way street food forces you to pull off to the side of the road, to duck out of traffic and approach the man in the van or the girl posing with her grill. The way you cast your look sideways, the dismissive stare you receive in return that says they’ve seen your kind before, they know what you want, and they are far from impressed. The words not spoken as they take your sweaty dollar bills, already anticipating their next customer, hoping you won’t embarrass yourself by trying to make conversation as you finish eating what you came to buy. And you—you exit as quickly as you arrived, without a parting mint or chocolate, without receipt or change, without the promise of return or any evidence that you were there at all, save for the vestiges of this afternoon dalliance: fingers still sticky, the memory of warmth on your lips, a faint smell in your hair.

It is easy to fall for Puerto Rican street food, as it asks nothing in return.

Mofongo, on the other hand, offers a different kind of culinary eroticism. Mofongo demands commitment and labor—the steady building of familiarity, the recognition that this will be work for both of you. That, through gradual, imperceptible degrees, you have built a comfortable attraction, one that accommodates the pull and tug of discord, eventually happening upon a blending at once connubial and heterogeneous.

There is passionate debate amongst Puerto Ricans about whether or not mofongo might be considered their national dish, and that alone is probably enough to make it so. So too is its marriage of the three cultures that make up the island: tomatoes and cilantro from Spain, shellfish and pork from the Taíno, plantains and oil from Africa.

These ingredients alone don’t make mofongo special. After all, dishes like tostones—what you might think of as the Puerto Rican french fry—begin as, mofongo does, with fried slices of plantain. A tostones maker will then take the browned plantain slice, smash it into a disk by pressing it between two plates, and fry it again, before letting it go into the world, where it will be taken away to the beach or the bbq outside, maybe dipped in ketchup and mayonnaise or garlic and olive oil (because what twice-fried anything does not yearn for one more bath in oil?). But these are just cheap accessories really. And with or without them, the tostones will still be held naked in the hand until, two bites later it is gone.

Mofongo goes deeper. Mofongo asks more.

To begin with, there are the special tools it requires, most notably the pilón, a large wooden mortar and pestle that defines every Puerto Rican kitchen. No self-respecting cook there is without several, at least one of which was probably handed down, like a trousseau, from a mami or abuela, the shaft of the pestle seasoned and grooved by that woman’s hands and still smelling like the spices and herbs she loved over a lifetime. Probably, when you were old enough, she taught you how to use it, first whispering instructions, then coaxing your hands under hers, then watching as you tried yourself. Next to it is the larger, more elegant pilón given as a wedding gift, carved from a single piece of wood as if to remind a young couple about the unity of their new lives together. Maybe there is a cheaper pilón as well, perhaps purchased like the drinking glasses and the bed sheets, from a big box store, for their utility, knowing that in time blood and sweat and hard use will wear them, that arguments and crises will tarnish them, that they will want to be replaced.

But that is not the pilón used to make mofongo. No, instead you will turn to the abuela’s loose and weathered mortar or to the new pilón that still needs breaking in. And these vessels will still be made as the Taíno have done for centuries: a tree trunk or branch is hollowed into a vase-like bowl through a sweaty process of burning and carving and burning some more. It, like a classical nude, is made through what is taken away.

And it is the intercourse that happens in this emptiness that gives mofongo its carnality.

Mofongo is all about the act of comingling. Its very foundation is built the moment those oily plantains are not flattened between plates but instead massaged in the pilón with whatever other paramours you happen to fancy on that day. There will no doubt be some garlic. Maybe some salt and a little more oil. And pork, but what kind depends upon your affinities and attractions. Cracklings—no more than cheap convenience store pork rinds, really—are traditional but considered too seamy by many. Bacon is the kind of choice you’d be willing to bring home to meet the folks. Bacos says you’ve all but given up.

You can pretend that what goes into your pilón – and what goes on there – is your own secret bedroom tale, but mofongo knows otherwise. Because after you have worked your plantains and company into a gorgeous mash, after you have slicked it hard against the wall of that hollowed-out tree, it becomes its own pilón – a vessel for yet more comingling. Plantain starch is adhesive and does not want to be rent asunder. And so, when the cook slides this knitted union out of the wooden pilón, it keeps its shape; it becomes an ewer that invites more.

And because we are hedonists one and all, we submit. We fill the mash with more. With more pork if we are feeling randy, shellfish for the libertine want-to-bes among us, chicken for the staid and chary. We can be all of those things with mofongo, knowing that they will be veiled, tempered, adorned by a red gravy—garish and flamboyant, threatening to be vulgar if it weren’t for the fact that it is expected if not demanded of the dish.

And that of course is how mofongo is served—a hollow of thick plantain, a hidden treasure of flesh, the tawdry overflow of sauce.

Nothing about the affair on this plate is transient or evanescent. Mofongo cannot be secreted away, eaten in the back of a car or behind some bushes when no one is looking. Mofongo demands that you rest there, that you meet it head on. And from the first bite, mofongo will stay with you, rich and cloying. Almost immediately, you will feel full. But you will keep eating, no doubt even long after you are sated. You will keep eating because you have seen what is both tempting and captivating about mofongo, despite its excesses, despite its incongruities. Made heavy by the complexity of this meal, you will find, perhaps inexplicably, that you want to linger—over the plate, in the place where you are, with the people near you. Perhaps you will still be barefoot. No doubt you will feel the Caribbean air wrapped around skin you rarely expose. And because no one here cares if you lick your plate, you will. And that’s when you will realize: this is what love tastes like.

  Kathryn Miles is editor-in-chief of Hawk & Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability and professor of Environmental Writing at Unity College. Her recent essays have appeared in Best American Essays, Ecotone, Flyway, Meatpaper and Terrain. She is the author of two books: Adventures with Ari (Skyhorse/W.W Norton) and All Standing (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster).

Photo used under Creative Commons.