The area where I live in Los Angeles falls somewhere between a food desert and paradise depending on your point of view. When I ran out of orange juice for my six-year-old I couldn't find a carton in any of the shops that line the main street. All I could find were varieties of "orange drink" with zero to ten percent juice. Sure I could get a styrofoam cup of fresh-squeezed about eight blocks away, but would they squeeze me a carton's worth?
This morning there is also no cafe in Casa MonteMala, and there is no cafe to be found in my hood besides instant and watered-down versions at the local bakery. I didn't know a Latino neighborhood could exist without real coffee.
Getting decent produce is no picnic. There are local small markets but the fruits and vegetables tend to be bruised and wilted. The "fresh" meat questionable. The nearest supermarket is about a very long, hilly mile away. For me this means a fifteen minute walk with my shopping cart if my pareja can't drive me. I've even taken a one-hour bus ride and then a train to go to Pasadena, where the nearest Trader Joe's is.
And if I don't feel like cooking after working all day, I have a handful of options in terms of delivery. I can get mediocre pizza delivered quickly, wait an hour to get really good artisanal (read: hipster) pizza delivered, or order Thai. If I'm feeling less lazy I can walk down the street to get burgers, or of course, tacos and other food wrapped in tortillas, like the world famous big as your head burritos at Manuel's Tepeyac (Q.E.P.D., or R.I.P. for you anglophones).
Don't get me wrong, I love me some tacos and burritos and quesadillas (shout out to Los Tres Potrillos). Rican food, however, is missing in action. On this coast I haven't had one pastel. Not a spoonful of arroz con gandules. Not a crunch of cuero. And when the holidays rolled around, all the talk was tamales, but I was fiending for something wrapped in a platano leaf, not a corn husk.
I am sure that my Abuela Lucia is shaking her head from the afterlife, but I've never made a pastel. Pasteles, made of plantain, carne or pork and a mess of other things, are not in my culinary repertoire. I've never been to a pastel making party. And just like peeps here in L.A. buy tamales from a tamale lady, who can be heard a mile away and sell out of the shopping carts liberated from Food 4 Less, when someone in the familia didn't make pasteles, we would buy in bulk from someone and freeze them. There are two Rican restaurants in L.A., but neither is accessible to me since I, like a true New Yorker, don't have a driver's license.
I'm probably coming across as spoiled, and indeed New York City's convenience did spoil me. Even in the hood of Corona I could find fresh fruit carts, hot strong coffee, and two decent supermarkets. I could get Japanese, Indian, Peruvian, burgers, pizza, pasta, Chinese, Russian and yes, of course, tacos delivered to my door, even late at night. If I hadn't traveled to New York for New Year's it would have been a pastel-free Navidad. Once back in my mother's kitchen, my kids and I feasted on pasteles and arroz con gandules.
Then again, when I came back to L.A., what was the first thing I wanted? A potato burrito from Al & Bea's.