If you find yourself in Old San Juan and you follow the right cobblestone street, down the proper narrow alleyways, past the correct two-story, Spanish-style, a-touch-too-bright-but-not-quite-gaudy orange apartment building you will see a park. It is unassuming in the purest sense. Literally, it assumes nothing. It can’t because assumptions are a luxury only afforded to sentient beings and this park is simply a diminutive but well apportioned arrangement of trees and benches with a gazebo and some ivy thrown in for good measure.
Upon entering this park one passes a small population of slightly cheeky but otherwise apathetic lizards. These graceless reptiles, one may assume, are likely the last vestiges of a once considerable community of scaled rodents which, one may further assume, by-and-large abandoned this area of San Juan right around the time the Spanish claimed the island and gave it the name “Puerto Rico” in place of “Boriquén,” which was preferred by the indigenous pagans from whom the Spanish graciously relieved the burdens of life, liberty, and property. Perhaps the lizards feared the efficiency and disinterest with which the Spanish exterminated the other native species, or perhaps they simply took umbrage with the a-touch-too-bright-but-not-quite-gaudy colors with which the Spaniards decorated but, irrespective of their entirely hypothetical histories and motivations, the fact remains that there are not many lizards left in the area but there are lizards in this park and they are slightly cheeky but otherwise apathetic.
Beyond the small population of slightly cheeky but otherwise apathetic lizards lies an even smaller population of wrought iron, nouveau-style benches cleverly arranged such that any occupant of any bench could have a view unencumbered by the undoubtedly displeasing form of any other occupant regardless of his counterpart’s selection of bench. With this unencumbered view one can, if he so chooses, look directly into the front window of a small restaurant as proportionately unassuming as the park from which it is viewed. This restaurant is called El Jibarito (approximately, “The Little Hillbilly”) and not long ago, my family members were seated inside discussing their preferences among the subset of the menu they found least adventurous.
Our trip to Puerto Rico began less than twenty-four hours prior and already we had amassed several small disappointments. “Small” in the sense that two hotel rooms are smaller than three and three beds are smaller than six and a slice of pizza stolen from a discarded pizza box in a hotel hallway is smaller than a whole dinner. Notwithstanding the fits and starts with which our vacation began, it had begun to recover its footing thanks in large part due to our present excursion to Old San Juan.
The outing began adventurously enough with our party exploring ancient nooks and crannies of the beautiful cobblestone streets and narrow, timeworn alleyways but the First Law of Thermodynamics mathematically limited our group to a finite amount of bravado and our reserves were running low. Needless to say, the food at El Jibarito had not been deemed worthy of our rapidly diminishing tolerance for excitement, a fact that precipitated the current impasse between my family and the irredeemably un-American menu.
As an enlightened member of the cult of authenticity I found this behavior objectively repulsive—though I must admit that this objectively contradicts the definition of the word, objective. My own flesh-and-blood acting as modern-day culinary conquistadors, indiscriminately slaying native delicacies and appointing in their place all that is inoffensive and Americanized. Extinct will be the pork tripe stew, “Mondongo.” The octopus salad will be nothing more than a historical footnote along with all of the other nasty crap that I would never again have the privilege of self-righteously pretending to like.
I elected to pursue my favored recourse of sanctimonious badgering and immediately began searching my phone’s thesaurus for synonyms of “ignorant.” Fortunately for me, I was interrupted by the return of our waiter. He bore with him some of the most emblematic beverages of the Puerto Rican culture: a bottle of Coca-Cola with a straw and a pocillo de café. In Puerto Rico, Coke is still made with cane sugar and served in glass bottles and the result is something so tyrannically bewitching and addictive that it earns every bit of the narco-origins of its name. It is drunk through a straw, I must assume, because otherwise it would present a choking hazard as people would be driven to finish the entire bottle in one swallow. I would, similarly, drink an entire pocillo in one gulp if it were not strong, hot coffee that would bring great discomfort to the back of my throat upon commencing my attempt.
The calm, efficient, and even cheerful manner with which our waiter carried my mother and brother their respective Coca-Colas and my father his coffee alarmed me. The man had just witnessed the entire culinary history of his culture dismissed in favor of quesadillas, French fries, and chicken strips but made no sign of agitation and smiled as eagerly as ever. Perhaps he was simply used to Americans ordering American food or perhaps his disaffection had taken over long ago and he could no longer bother to care about the orders he received or the food he delivered. More likely, however, the waiter maintained his cheerful mood because he knew what I would only later realize: that no outsider can ever do much more than taste another culture. That a sip of a Puerto Rican coffee is about as much of Puerto Rico’s cuisine as I am going to be able to comprehend. That the true nuance of other cultures will remain secrets to be passed openly from generation to generation right before the eyes of outsiders but in an indecipherable language.
Sure, anyone can appreciate the how inimitably savory lechón is, but the assumption that I can gather a cultural understanding of Puerto Rican cuisine by ordering it once at a restaurant insults the experience of being raised eating that dish at birthdays and festivals and holidays. Does everyone who eats a hamburger at an “American” restaurant understand the honor I felt the first time my father allowed me to flip a burger on his grill all by myself? And what if they thought that they did? Would it not make me laugh a little on the inside as the waiter surely must have laughed at me?