It’s rare I ever begin an interview in the field just drinking beers and floating flat on my back staring at a bright white sun- but for some, this is what they call home.
Cristina & I met when I approached her about going to Spain on a culinary trip with Jose- her husband & partner at Ataula. But once our initial lunch meeting evolved into a regular catch up, we spontaneously decided to adventure to her hometown in Puerto Rico to find a disappearing pepper she’d become obsessed with. And since I’m obsessed with obsessed people, well, I followed.
The caballeros, or gentleman’s pepper, used to grow wild everywhere. Cristina’s father would ask her as a child to go out back and pick some for dinner. They would burn her fingers until she learned how to pluck them from the stem. They were used daily. Now, her mother can't find any to send for her Puerto Rican pop-up dinners, Patria, in Portland.
I’d only flown through San Juan decades ago, when I spent a summer in Tortola, refurbishing an old 90-foot tug boat while helping my friend with her newborn. But mostly I was just trying to clean up my act after a debaucherous first year in NYC. (Note to self: island living amongst fellow pirates does not a clean slate make.) Flying through San Juan didn’t inspire a strong desire to return.
Now it seemed as though I was coming back to the Caribbean islands to overcome a severe case of fatigue. After filming in Alabama then flying straight to Colombia for a story and traveling to Portland for two days- I was slightly exhausted. A red eye into NYC and a connection to the island I was both tired of flying, quite confused as to where I was, and not completely prepared for what was ahead. When we landed in San Juan I had expected Cristina to have her little son Ethan holding a welcome sign- as she & Natty both had arrived days earlier- but instead I received a mysterious video message and a text to follow the man with the sign. (I did that last time I was in the Caribbean and 2.5 days of my life disappeared.)
Lucas & I followed, then whisked into a Mercedes town car (there was a taxi strike to protest uber) and driven to an undisclosed location. After twenty minutes of head scratching we came upon a tiny airport. Ah, another plane. A tiny plane. Is it a good time to tell someone I’m a nervous flyer?
The girls had us flying to the west side, Aguadilla, Natty’s hometown. They were taking me on a boat ride. The Caribbean Sea side- the warm waters called to me the second we touched down and I met my friends.
Driving to the boat, Cristina & Natty’s energy was electric. They were pointing out in long, hurried sentences the movie theater they used to hang out at, Natty’s favorite surf spots, the place that made maize ice cream which was “the best!”
By the time we made it to Natty’s boat and the fragrant smell of the Caribbean hit our lungs, the girls had added to our cooler of Coronitas: platanos, fried local grouper, and pastelillo. We made our way through the water to a cay to anchor, bathe, and float. We ate our snacks off the boogie board until little Ethan spilled it feeding some very confused fish. We let the current carry us on our backs beneath the mangroves. Fatigue melted away as the sea gently rocked chunks of platanos by.
It had me curious as to what I’d show them if they ever came to small town middle America. Here’s so-and-so’s cow pasture. I could point out the corn fields where we spent summer nights playing ghost in the graveyard usually becoming entranced by the brightness of the moon. The only road that ran through town, slightly paved, between our two churches, when a night’s bike ride revealed a hailstorm of frogs so thick atop the path, you couldn’t help but squish one as you tried to ride through.
As we spent the next week hunting our elusive caballero pepper, going deeper into island cuisine, learning terms like sabrasudo and tropicalaeo and boricua, I realized that Cristina & Natty’s plight of the peppers was really an attempt to fight back the mass consumption of mediocrity that our fine country has done so well sprinkling around the world.
Fast food chains littered the historic streets of Old San Juan, the shacks that served bacalaitos made by the locals were being replaced with strip malls that can easily confuse this road warrior, “In what city am I in again?”
It suddenly made my corn fields and frog covered streets and cow pastures feel a tad more special. Because while strip malls have certainly penetrated most reaches of our world, in a tiny county in Missouri we still have only one big box store— and it’s been there long before my family arrived and departed.
But I also realized why this fight was worthy of actions. What you have to know about Puerto Rico is— the food is incredible! If you don’t know the locals or are with a local you may miss real quesitos- puff pastries filled with cream cheese or mallorca- which we'd get with a fried egg, type of ham and cheese for breakfast. It’s pretty easy for a tourist to get trapped in the same mucky muck they can find in their own backyard. And once those peppers disappear forever, what other delicious details will follow?
Adventures are all about the details— without those every experience would feel the same or look the same, thus making you react the same. Life is too short for mediocrity. It’s too brief for repetition. Sometimes you have to start it lying on your back in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Beer in hand. And not completely sure of what really lies ahead.
Kelly joins Portland chef Cristina Baez on a journey to Puerto Rico to reconnect with the food of her childhood and solve a mystery: Why has the caballeros (or Gentleman's) pepper disappeared?