MofonGO and the problem with “authentic” food
Food and the global spread of taste and preference has created an unstoppable wave of important and productive cultural exchange while simultaneously fostering an atmosphere of shallow understanding.
I live in Brooklyn, and during the balmy summer months it’s hard hard to avoid talk of the Smorgasburg festival that takes place at the Williamsburg East River State Park. Dozens of food vendors hawk speciality eats that you may have seen circling the web or praised by a hip TV chef. From Raindrop cakes to Ramen burgers, Smorgasburg is a diverse mix of overpriced culinary experiments.
The event’s longest lines, and most enthusiastic patrons, can as a rule be found by the vendors whipping up the unexpected or bizarre. So, I was surprised and excited to learn that Smorgasburg’s shining star this past summer wasn’t a vegan salami stand (this is a real thing, not a joke) but a Brooklyn man offering “authentic Puerto Rican cuisine.”
MofonGo is a popup owned and operated by former NYU-student, Manolo Lopez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The business’s moniker is derived from the traditional plantain dish of the same name which also forms the basis of the select meals he sells. Mofongo is made by lightly cooking then mashing green plantains and spices into a starchy mixture which is then typically formed into a dome or sphere. The mofongo is then able to absorb any juice or broth from the seared meat that is placed on top or inside of the dish. Mofongo is to many Caribbean cuisines what the rice-ball is to many East Asian cultures—a utilitarian carb.
The mofongo I was served, dense and dry despite being topped with crispy pork and spicy mayo, didn’t sit well at 11:30 AM on a humid Saturday. But, before I go any further, this isn’t about the quality of the meal I was served.
The irony (or the dark humor?) of a sleek pop-up offering authentic Puerto Rican dishes in South Williamsburg may escape those who just moved to the city’s booming borough. I will admit that it eluded me until very recently. In the past 10-years this area of Williamsburg has seen unprecedented levels of development—with luxury apartment buildings, some 30-plus stories high, continuing to climb into the sky wherever waterfront space is available. It’s angular, glass architecture and spotless sidewalks resemble that of the financial district. And on a sunny summer day, with its rows of gyms, health food stores and fashion boutiques, one is at times reminded of the sporty Santa Monica Boulevard. But this area was and still is home to one of the largest concentrations of Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants in the world. Waves of migration in the early and mid 20th century facilitated by the U.S. decision to naturalize Puerto Rico’s population, and shifting economic policies following WWII, created Puerto Rican hubs in Williamsburg and East Harlem.
The area of Williamsburg between the Navy Yard and South 9th Street came to be known as Los Sures—the South Streets. It was a home-away-from-home, little Puerto Rico. Graham Avenue is, to this day, known as the Avenue of Puerto Rico. It was hip-hop, it was breakdancing, it was graffiti. But Los Sures was also gangland, it was poverty, it was a struggling diaspora—demonized and ghettoized. The history of Los Sures finds itself in the spotlight due to the resurfacing of a 1984 documentary of the same name. The documentary by Diego Echeverria, along with a modern multimedia project called Living Los Sures, chronicles the day-to-day life in 1980s South Williamsburg, as well as the impact drugs, racism, and art had on the community.
On the one hand, I’m humbled that Manolo Lopez is using MofonGO to reintroduce a cuisine that was once found on every corner of South Williamsburg, especially at a time when more and more people are beginning to uncover the history of the neighborhood. But on the other, I see his business and others like it, and the patrons eager to snap photos for Instagram, and I can’t help but think of it as a Brooklyn transplant of Disney’s Eat Around the World. Tourists and brunchers can sample “authentic” foreign cuisine from the relative comfort of a sunny American park and feel cultured without having to actually interact with or acknowledge said culture.
So what, then, does it mean when MofonGO and other restaurants and pop-ups purport to serve “authentic” cuisine in the midst of a massive development project that is completely changing the demographics of surrounding communities? Has the advent of Smorgasburg reduced mofongo to a product that assures the new generation of Brooklynites against any threat to their cultural awareness? (i.e. feeling absolved because they spent a Saturday morning, and 15-bucks, eating and “engaging” with a history and a culture other than their own.)
I’m torn. I really am. Food and the global spread of taste and preference has created and continues to push an unstoppable wave of important and productive cultural exchange while simultaneously fostering an atmosphere of shallow understanding, occasionally dipping into the realm of appropriation. It’s the same phenomenon that allows millions of people in the United States to consume and cook “authentic” Mexican food without ever knowing the nuances of yellow, brown, red, and black mole, or the fragrant crunch of chapulines and chicatanas.
Unfortunately, there’s little-to-nothing that Manolo Lopez and other cooks with the desire to share a neglected cuisine can do but hope their customers leave with something more substantial than a few Facebook likes. We need to see food and food vendors as more than just an opportunity to dip our toes into a foreign cuisine we’ve “been meaning to try.” food can be a study in geography and sociology, racism and the struggles of integration. It’s a main facet of culture in general (if not the main facet) so let’s not be so quick to sample and throw away before tasting the ingredients. Try MofonGO, taste the seasoned plantain, take in the view of the river, and watch the Domino Sugar Refinery slowly be turned into condos.
¿te gustaría que los bares y los museos tengan bebés?