SAN JUAN, P. R. — Before Hurricanes Irma and Maria plowed through Puerto Rico in late 2017, Natalia Quiles Deya was a full-time lawyer with a new hobby: growing papayas and root vegetables on land she rented in the island’s green, fertile interior.
But once the storms passed and the extraordinary level of devastation became clear, Ms. Quiles, 32, decided to quit the law and participate in regrowing the island — from the ground up.
“My father used to say that agriculture is the heart of every country,” she said. “I saw that the island needed something big to make a difference.”
After the storms, Natalia Quiles Deya decided to quit her job as a lawyer in order to grow fruit and vegetables full time. Here, she makes deliveries in San Juan.Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
A passionate local-food movement in Puerto Rico — cooking from island traditions, eating native ingredients and supporting producers like bakers, ice-cream makers and butchers — has been growing for more than a decade. Many people say the movement was hitting its stride just as Irma and Maria arrived — and indiscriminately wiped restaurants and greenhouses, food trucks and fish farms off the map.
There are still produce shortages and power failures. Many farmers, chefs and other producers have not returned. And much of the lush, arable soil remains underused. But Ms. Quiles Deya and others have rebounded with an even stronger commitment to self-reliance, local food and pride in Puerto Rico itself.
The movement has come back “with a vengeance,” said the chef José Enrique, whose San Juan restaurant is a destination for lovers of cocina criolla, the local mix of Spanish, Taíno, African and Caribbean cooking.
“People are bringing in things like honey and chiles and goat cheese from all over,” he said. “My farmers are growing root vegetables that no one wanted before, and I can buy fresh butifarra and longaniza,” traditional sausages that are finally being made on the island instead of being flown in from the mainland.
Mario Juan, a chef who grew up here, trained at the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at Momofuku Noodle Bar and Blanca in New York City before returning in 2014. He spent three years cooking elaborate pop-up dinners in his apartment, but his plans to finally open his own place were upended by the storm.
“The hurricanes felt like a message” that he would never succeed as a chef in Puerto Rico, he said. But after diving into the relief effort, he realized that food and cooking would be integral to rebuilding the island.
Now, he is proudly making pork sandwiches in a permanently parked Airstream trailer while he considers his next move. (Occasional side dishes include cured mackerel with sea purslane, and orange salad with pickled chiles.) Pernil, slow-roasted pork shoulder perfumed with garlic, is one of the talismanic dishes of the island: The slogan painted on his signs reads, “Pernil es Patria.”
“Pernil represents our homeland, our heritage, our ancestors,” he said.
Gabriel Mejía Lugo, 30, grows greens and herbs in the interior of the island, near Comerío. A university-trained botanist, he started his own farm in 2016; Hurricane Maria took his entire crop. “I didn’t know if we would ever come back. We lost every plant we had.”
Gabriel Mejía Lugo, who grows herbs and greens, has rebuilt after losing all the plants on his farm to Hurricane Maria.CreditCreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
Like many, he evacuated to the mainland for several months, staying with friends in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He picked up occasional work helping farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket, and waited to hear that power had been restored to Comerío.
He is now farming again, but “a lot of the older people took their checks and never came back,” he said. Agricultural relief programs were handled by multiple local and federal agencies. All 2018 totals are not yet available, but the Natural Conservation Resource Service of the USDA awarded almost $24 million to 828 farmers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.