My mom and dad came from Puerto Rico to stay with us after the birth of each of our sons. One of the best gifts they gave us during those weeks was to cook for us. They cooked many things, but most important, they cooked Puerto Rican rice and beans — the best comfort food for exhausted new parents.
In our family, my mom, Michelle, makes the rice, and my dad, Ernesto, makes the beans. Mama takes pride in the perfect consistency of her rice: not too dry, not too oily, with just enough salt and a bit of "stuck rice" at the bottom of the pan for the crunchy-rice lovers. Papa's beans carefully balance a combination of ingredients to achieve their savory preciseness: sofrito (garlic, peppers, and herb base), squash, bacon, tomato sauce, and water. Over the four decades of their marriage, they have found great synergy in this process of making rice and beans.
They have taken this same integrated approach to building the life of our family. Their approach has never been limited to my siblings and me; it has always included other family members and their community of friends.
The first three elements of Michelle and Ernesto's rice and beans recipe are: structure, consistency, and flexibility.
Structure: Two cups of water per cup of rice. If you change this, the rice will not come out right — it will be too dry or too doughy.
Consistency: The rice needs to boil for a certain number of minutes before you turn the temperature down.
Flexibility:Sofrito, beans, and tomato sauce are essential, but the rest is flexible and can be whatever you have in your cupboard or refrigerator.
My siblings and I had a lot of structure and consistency growing up. We knew what to expect every day. When I checked in with my sister Beatriz about this, she reminded me of our family meal schedules. On Mondays, we had cereal for breakfast and spaghetti for dinner, on Tuesdays scrambled eggs for breakfast and rice and beans with meat for dinner, and so on. We liked the predictability — even if sometimes we did not like the food. The five of us ate these meals together, and as we grew up and had a variety of sports schedules after school, meal times changed and Mama and Papa would pick a few nights each week when we could all gather around the table.
The fourth and fifth important elements to the recipe are community and quantity.
Community: Papa's beans go through a shared tasting process as they are being cooked. He tastes the sauce after simmering all the ingredients but before adding the beans. He asks others to taste it and passes spoons around. Depending on feedback, he may add a little salt or a bit more tomato sauce. Once the beans are added and have simmered for some time, the tasting spoons go around again.
Quantity: Based on the amount of people, the recipe needs to be doubled or tripled. Rice and beans are not cooked in small quantities. You need to be prepared for second and third helpings, and for any friends or family members who may show up unexpectedly.
The community approach to making and enjoying rice and beans was reflected in our open home and kitchen. My parents regularly welcomed — whether invited or uninvited — their friends, our friends, and friends of friends. Paco, one of my dad's best friends, has regularly stopped by our house on his way home from work since we can remember. Sometimes he stays for a drink, other times for dinner, and he often calls his wife, Tere, and she comes over, too.
In the same way, throughout our teenage years, our parents warmly welcomed our friends. They cooked for them, carpooled them to sports and social events, and sat around and talked with them all night and into the early morning. Our home was a gathering place for children, teens, and adults.
Even though my own rice will never have the consistency of Mama's and my beans will never taste like Papa's, I have absorbed the lessons of structure, consistency, flexibility, and community.
Papa likes to say that his beans have two secret ingredients: ketchup and love. As kids, we always laughed when he said that. Now, observing how he gets pleasure from everyone's tasting the beans and enjoying the meal, we get it. I asked my brother Ernesto Jose about our parents' approach to family life. He had a simple response: "As much as possible, I want to replicate our childhood for my kids."