A Home Away From Home: Puerto Rican Bakeries Across the Nation

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Food, and the various ways we prepare and eat it, allows humans of all walks of life to relate to the world around them. This is certainly the case for Puerto Ricans stateside who exercise their heritage through the foods they feast on. Savory fares like arroz con gandules, mofongo, pasteles, alcapurrias, lechon; drinks like parcha, piña colada, and coquito; deserts like flan and tres leches—all these are staples of our homes, of our holiday tables. Yet, our communities extend well beyond the confines of our houses. Puerto Ricans stateside have made bakeries an epicenter of many of the communities across the nation. And then there are those bakers who maintain a connection to their roots through their creations (There’s even one in Anchorage, Alaska!). They provide a piece of home, quite literally, in a morsel.  We shared as much with you a few weeks ago when we introduced you to Melao Bakery.

 Inspired by that segment, we explored how Puerto Rican bakeries and pastry chefs across the country come to preserve the old ways of baking from the island, or come to develop new ways in which we celebrate ourselves as Puerto Ricans stateside. Here we share with you some of these bakeries (and bakers) that bring a slice of the Puerto Rican culture to their customers.


Manchester, CONNETICUT—Carlos Ortiz, The Bread Box Bakery

Isa Guzman: What is the name of your establishment? How long have you served your Puerto Rican community?

Carlos Ortiz (CO): It's called The Bread Box Bakery. I have served the Puerto Rican community for over 15 years

Isa: What is your personal history with baking? What do you feel is the connection between food/pastry and Puerto Rican culture?

CO: For me, I’ve been doing this since I was nine years old. When I was young my father always owned bakeries in Puerto Rico. It has been a family tradition. I’ve had the privilege of working with him. I’ve been learning this stuff from the original, and I’ve been trying to keep that tradition within my family.

This bakery offers a home away from home. The community of Puerto Ricans here says all the time that this place, how it’s set up, feels just like home.

Isa: What has been your community’s connection to your establishment? Are there any stories that highlight this connection for you?

CO: As I’ve said, the people that walk in feel like this place is just like home. Even those that aren’t Puerto Rican, who have traveled there, say the same thing. They feel like this place is just like the island


 

Brooklyn, NEW YORK—Carmen Rodriguez, Brooklyn Cupcake

Isa: What is the name of your establishment? How long have your served your Puerto Rican community of Williamsburg? Why did you want to start a bakery?

Carmen Rodriguez (CR): Brooklyn Cupcake. This July will make 5 years strong. I was done with giving 110% of myself to someone else, and in the end, it means nothing to them… I wanted to provide a living for my family and control our destiny.

Isa: What is your personal history with baking? What do you feel is the connection between pastry and your Puerto Rican heritage?

CR: I started baking for my kids, family functions, birthdays, and baby showers.

Actually there is no connection with a cupcake in Latin Culture, but since I am Puerto Rican it was obvious, at least to me, that I would bring my culture to my cupcakes. This worked in my favor and allowed me to receive a lot of recognition for being different in the industry. We were even featured on Food Network. We also received recognition from the Daily News as NYC best cupcake.

Isa: Speaking of your cupcakes, and all their flavors, what was the initial spark that brought out these fusions?

CR: As I mentioned before I am Puerto Rican and Italian. These flavors are my culture, so when I opened my shop it was only obvious for me that this would be my flavor selection.  I was surprised to hear from the public that these flavors were unique but loved hearing from not only the Latinos but from people from Jamaican, Haiti, and all parts of Asian that these flavors are part of the culture as well. They feel themselves represented in the flavors, that the cupcake industry left them out, and that they could not relate to the cupcake until now.

Isa: What has been your community’s connection to your establishment? Are there any stories that highlight this connection for you?

CR: I can’t believe the outpour of Latinos who have come out to support our bakery and express their sense of pride. This may be way before your time, but once upon a time in the 70s there existed a bakery (Valencia) that served our community for years. It wasn’t a party if Valencia was not present. I have had people say that I have replaced them, giving us back a place that allow us Latinos to celebrate our culture… wow.


Brooklyn, NEW YORK—Gabi Benedit, Food Writer and Baking Instructor at The Brooklyn Kitchen

Isa: How long have you been working as a pastry chef? Why did you want to make a career baking?

Gabi Benedit (GB): I've been working in pastry for six years now! I came back to Puerto Rico after completing my undergraduate degree in Cinema and Media Studies—it was a lot of thinking and writing, and my brain was fried. I needed to exercise my fingers and my social life for a change, so I started a film society at my house—I lured guests over to watch movies by baking them goodies.  It brought me so much joy—I was making things that fed people, things that made them happy, things that gave them an opportunity to share and enjoy each other’s company. I realized that the world of food was where I needed to be. The baking (as opposed to cooking) was the product of a life-long sweet tooth and, as I would later find, fit my personality type (precise and detail-oriented) more than cooking. My maternal grandfather is a Swiss pastry chef who came to Puerto Rico as a young man, so perhaps it was secretly in my blood the whole time. 

Isa: What is your personal history with baking? What do you feel is the connection between food/pastry and the Puerto Rican culture?

GB: Food is a defining feature of any culture and Puerto Rico is no exception. Commensality is a, if not the, basis for family and wider social relationships. Celebrations tend to involve (if not revolve around!) food—people will gravitate toward each other as easily as they will to the buffet table. Food gives people something to talk over and about. Pastry and baked goods are the sweetest way to conclude them (pun fully intended).

I think baking and pastry and the consumption of baked goods in Puerto Rico is much more celebratory than everyday. Maybe a quesito or palmerita from a cafetería with your morning coffee, but home baking seems to need an occasion—un bizcochito con merengue for a birthday, a batch of natilla around the holidays for guests. The popularization of fad desserts and their respective chains on the island (right now it's macarons, I think, with cupcakes in second place, and frozen yogurt holding on for dear life) has likely increased day-to-day consumption of pastry and desserts. There's been a great uprising of small local baking and pastry operations on the island, both in retail and brick and mortar (Double Cake is currently killing it!). It's exciting to see people passionate about adding their proverbial grain of rice to the current baking and pastry scene.


Crofton, MARYLAND—Dennisse Vega-Lopes, Pastry Chef

Isa: How long have you been working as a pastry chef? Why did you want to make a career of baking?

Dennisse Vega-Lopes (DV-L): I've been a pastry chef for 10+ yrs. I decided to become one after starting a career as a translator. I was always pulled into the kitchen somehow. I love to bake, to make yummy goodies that everyone likes. When I'm baking, I’m creating something new. Playing with recipes is another world, so to speak.

Isa: What is your personal history with baking? What do you feel is the connection between pastry and the Puerto Rican culture?

DV-L: My history with baking my earliest memory was the smell of cake in the house and frosting. My mom used to bake cakes for any special occasions like weddings Birthdays etc. I loved seeing her bake and decorate those cakes. That's when I started helping her.

I think Puerto Rican culture has a beautiful connection with pastry. I mean, there is so much that we can use to create an amazing delicious dish to express who we are.  

Isa: Any stories you could share with us that highlight this connection for you?

DV-L:  I can say that something very typical—and I've traveled a lot-- but every time I meet a Puerto Rican family the first thing that they ask me is if I can bake them a traditional cake. The cake is very moist cause I make it with a simple syrup with brandy. That's how we like out cakes! 

Another story would be that anywhere you go to eat in Puerto Rico you will see in the dessert menu cheese and guava slices. I worked in a restaurant where we did that with a different twist. It was a cheese soufflé with a rum/guava spice sauce! (It's delicious) 

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All around the country, bakeries have been a staple for the Puerto Rican community stateside. These businesses have brought traditions and culture right from the very source of the island; they are bringing the island right into us. And they can be found all over the country, from our most prominent communities (such as in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York) but also through our lesser known enclaves as far as Alaska. We have introduced you to only just a few people and places in the whole spectrum of Puerto Rican bakeries out there. We hope you go forth and look (and support) those bakeries serving your community!


© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 4 March 2016.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.