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50 2 | Beans . . . its plant is always covered with flowers and pods containing beans, which are pleasing to the taste, dark red in color, not very attractive looking, although the natives do not hesitate to enjoy them. —iñigo abad y lasierra, Historia geográfica, civil y natural de la isla de San Juan Bautista, 1788 In 1999, in the midst of all the millenarian prophecies foretelling the end of the world, the Medalla brewery released a television commercial playing on the idea that we can never really be certain of what lies in store for us tomorrow . The commercial, set in some indeterminate future time, featured a young professional hurrying to have his main meal of the day—lunch. Walking through a dark passageway, the young man comes to a vending machine selling drinks and snacks, puts in some coins, presses a button, and receives three capsules from the machine, each one representing a particular food. He picks them up, peers at them more closely—the light is very dim—and suddenly gives way to anger. And the reason for this reaction ? Medalla beer was not among the three capsules. Instead, they contained flan de coco (a caramelized coconut custard), rice, and beans—three of the foods and confections to which Puerto Ricans are most endeared. The commercial and its story line convey certain messages that I intend to clarify in this chapter. The most transparent is that a large segment of Puerto Rico’s male population, men between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, are in the habit of drinking beer with their lunch. On the other hand, the meaning that attaches to the capsules—the rice, beans, and flan de coco—is not quite as apparent to the viewer, since the immediate message, logically enough, focuses on the lack of beer. In terms of marketing strategy, however, what is compelling about the 51 Beans commercial is how it tries to create in consumers the impression that drinking Medalla is a foregone conclusion by identifying it with two items of food that Puerto Ricans can scarcely imagine not eating at least once every day—rice and beans. If rice and beans are considered an essential part of lunch, then so, too, is a glass of Medalla beer. Another interesting element of the commercial is the presence of what might be called “the palate’s memory”—that bond which unites food and dishes with vital experiences and remembrances—projected in the commercial as an imagined future. Although the commercial conjures up an uncertain tomorrow, it is one in which Puerto Ricans will still be eating “rice and beans,” albeit out of capsules dispensed from vending machines. Why is it that the food in the lunches people eat in the future are foretold as rice and beans, and not something else? Do the marketing futurologists believe that people’s memory of what they ate, of the food with which they have identified most closely, will not change, even if the context changes? The answers to these questions presuppose a power exerted by particular combinations of food or, put another way, by a relationship of reciprocal expectations. In simplest terms, there are no beans without rice, and there is certainly no rice without beans. Within this interdependent historical pairing, however, how was the role of beans configured? In considering this question, the conquest and colonization of San Juan (1508–32) marks a useful starting point, focusing first on the legumes that the Taíno population on the island had long planted and consumed (Phaseolus vulgaris)—or on what the Spanish called fríjoles and Puerto Ricans commonly refer to as habichuelas.¹ In covering the past and present role of beans in the spectrum of Puerto Rican food, I plan to address several other points: the possible role played by the African population in furthering the adoption of beans as a food crop, the qualities they possess that have made them desirable, the relationship between the preparation of bean dishes and the basic seasoning mix in Puerto Rican cooking known as sofrito, and, finally, the movement of beans—understood as both merchandise and food—through the ins and outs of the market, agroindustry, and dietary habits and practice. On this basis, I shall try to answer the question: Why is there a preference for “red” or “kidney” beans over the other varieties? As in the analysis of rice, the treatment of beans spans an extensive time period, ranging from the sixteenth...


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