SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Roasted chicken in San Lorenzo. Fresh mofongo in Arecibo. Heaping plates of arroz con gandules in Yabucoa.
Thousands of homes remain without power and uncertainty still reigns under a sluggish federal recovery, but one thing remains constant in post-Hurricane-Maria Puerto Rico: invigorating, spirit-lifting, delicious food.
In three trips to the island over the past six months to report on Maria’s impact, I’ve experienced more delectable dishes than I ever imagined could arise from a disaster zone — and discovered that food is truly at the heart of recovery in Puerto Rico.
My first taste of this came in November. With much of the island still in shambles from Maria, I visited the small mountain town of Jayuya, where volunteers were checking blood pressure and handing out insulin and bottled water at the local community center. As lunchtime neared, a woman working in the back of the center offered me a heaping plate of homemade arroz con gandules — rice mixed with pigeon peas and what appeared to be tiny Vienna sausages. She had made a military-sized portion of it in an enormous cast iron pot, and was handing it out to visitors.
I declined several times, focused on my reporting and not feeling right about eating food from a town that, at the time, still lacked electricity and running water. But she finally cornered me on a back balcony and shoved the plate in front of me again, so I ate. And it was delicious.
From then on, I learned it was safer to accept offered food than try to adhere to some imagined rules of etiquette. Those rules don’t apply here.
Food was a major factor early in the disaster, as supermarkets remained closed and people struggled to feed their families. Spanish-American chef José Andrés shed a light on this issue when he found a way to cut through the federal bureaucracy and mobilized mobile kitchens to feed more than 2 million people across the island.
Jose Enrique, chef and owner of his namesake restaurant in San Juan’s La Placita neighborhood, lent his gas-powered kitchen to Andrés and the two began feeding neighbors in the area within a week of the storm. They started with huge pots of sancocho — Puerto Rican beef stew with floating chunks of chorizo and pork butt — then added huge vats of paella and ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
They fed around 150 people the first day. As word spread of the free hot meals, the number quickly grew to 2,000 then up to 20,000 a day, before Andrés took the operation on the road. “It just started growing and growing and growing,” Enrique told me. “It was beautiful.”
Besides filling bellies, the meals were getting people out of their hot, powerless homes and reconnecting them with an important aspect of Puerto Rican life.
“Food reminds me of family. It reminds me of friends. It reminds me of home,” Enrique said. “It provides a lot of feelings when you sit down to eat it. People needed that.”
On the last day of my November trip, I headed to Jose Enrique’s for dinner. A strong thunderstorm had swept through the area and San Juan had lost power again. The restaurant was operating by candlelight and with a limited menu. Still, somehow, I ate one of the best picadillo and whole fried red snapper dishes I’ve ever had. “We live in the Caribbean,” Enrique told me later. “We’re built tough to deal with this.”
During my most recent trip to the island last month, I wanted to visit the “Pork Highway,” a stretch of open-air lechoneras along Hwy 184 in the island’s mountainous Cayey region. Tucked into foothills, I feared that Maria had mauled the eateries, which symbolize a very unique part of Puerto Rico cuisine.
I was encouraged by the scent of marinated pork as we approached the area and was happy to see the eateries had survived intact. At Rancho Original, one of the first to open 35 years ago, a whole pork was slowly spinning on a spit, as workers carved cracklings off its back and served plates of congri, fried plantains and other sides.
Photographer Carrie Cochran and myself ordered towering plates of lechon and a side of arroz con gandules. The lechon was just as I remembered as a kid at Christmas dinner in Miami: warm and garlicky on the inside, crispy and salty on the outside.
Owner Carlos Santos told me that though Maria pounded the area, clogging roads with downed trees and knocking out power, they managed to reopen within days, using gas-powered roasters to serve pork and other dishes to area residents.
“Many of them were surprised,” he said. “But we had to reopen.” People haven't stopped coming since.
Restoring electricity and jobs remain top priorities for Puerto Ricans, as the island continues to recover from Maria. But their true happiness remains via their stomachs.
And that, it appears, Maria couldn't touch.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.