Sancochando Theological Anthropology: One Puerto Rican Heavy Soup as Heuristic
As a student of theology in a United States university known for a scientific approach to religious studies in general, I constantly feel the need to self-assess my own precarious position as an older, Christian, middle-class, whitish, cisgendered, heterosexual Puerto Rican man trying for a second career. My own being-human has always been unavoidably dynamic. One consequence is that it becomes impossible to separate cultural traits from religious or theological traits within my-self, even as I try to evaluate both individually. As such, this ambiguous connection between culture and theology is mingled within my personal worldview.
This essay is an exploration of that ambiguity. One should be able to see unique aspects of one’s being-human through varied ways of being in lived experience, because it is through concrete practices that our being is expressed. In addition, our being-theological cannot be circumscribed to a religious sphere, because that could make religion a phenomenon detached from these same practices. Thus, I begin by describing the relationship between culture and theology, engaging scholars from both cultural and theological studies. Then I explore a generalizable cultural material practice, cooking soup, in particular, the heavy soup known in Puerto Rico as sancocho. The sancocho is a savory combination of meats and root vegetables of different nationalities and histories. It is very prevalent in the Caribbean; perhaps similar to the gumbo of the US south. I wish to explore the making of sancocho in order to derive a particular heuristic for theological anthropology. I will end this essay with brief comments on building a theological-anthropological imperative around that heuristic: namely that the theological discourse of being human needs to be sancochada to be relevant to general theological reflection.
I should point out that the purpose here is not to present a theology of practice(s), what Don Browning, John Swinton, and many others in the European context have called practical theology. This discipline is “practical” in at least two ways: one, it focuses on the mundane, everyday experience (or “practices”) of believers, and two, on the pragmatic, the less-theoretical concerns (as in the Aristotelian phronesis) of those same believers. As cooking is both deeply mundane and pragmatic, practical theology seems to fit the present subject matter methodologically, especially due its basis in empirical research (e.g., ethnography). But practical theology, as it is enacted in academia, is mostly concerned with congregational/confessional practices in church communities, such as missiology, liturgy, and prayer – in fact, practical theology is almost synonymous with those aspects of ecclesiology. Yet, even if it is not used, I recognize the resonances with my inductive approach, and, perhaps more importantly, with its constant worry, which I share, with the hermeneutical circle: “is what appears to be going on within this situation what is actually going on?” Any resonances and worry will remain to be further explored at another time.
It also should be clear that there is no definitive way to conclude this essay; a theological anthropology cannot, ironically enough, reach its own telos. In other words, to “be human” one is always “becoming human.” But, as will be seen, the sancocho provides one peculiar snapshot to a better understanding of being human: through the lens of one cotidiano cultural practice.
Culture and Theology
To speak of culture and theology certain presuppositions have to be made from the start. First, the speaker is situated in a particular context among (contest between?) self, selves, and other. For example, referring to Stuart Hall’s orientation in cultural studies, Grossberg writes: “For Hall, all human practices…are struggles to ‘make history but in conditions not of our own making’.” Hall, with all communicators of culture (and, as I argue here, of theology), “thinks and does” scholarship from a particular and unshakeable perspective: “made-and-not-made” by him. This self-evident truth is the starting point of any conversation about theology and culture.
Second, terms need to be defined, in a more general sense, from these particular struggles, self-made and conditioned by others. The definitions, for example, can be produced through Hall’s concept of articulation, “the complex set of historical practices by which we struggle to produce identity or structural unity out of, on top of, complexity, difference, [and] contradiction.” To articulate culture and theology is to be thrown into their own sites of contestation, and, eventually and inevitably, choose a space through which to create boundaries that remain porous and dynamic. Regarding concepts, then, precision must be balanced with promiscuity. One way of displaying this awareness is to adopt a postmodern worldview. For instance, by questioning the “effectivity, conditions of possibility, and overdetermination” of those tensed presuppositions constantly in play. In this sense, articulation becomes a matter of positionality, which, circling back, just confirms the need for “promiscuous while precise” concepts: concepts that can be spoken “to”, but not “of”.
Even so, scholarship must focus on its object of study, and the theories that will be used to study it. In this essay, this would initially have to include the concepts of culture and theology. With Davaney, I define culture as “the process by which meaning is produced, contended for, and continually renegotiated, and the context in which individual and communal identities are mediated and brought into being.” So, Davaney describes culture as both a process and a context: the former seems to correspond well with articulation and the latter with positionality. What is crucial for this essay, though, is the fact that culture is a site of meaning production and identity creation; not merely an effect but a cause. A cause of what? According to Davaney, of the many ways of being human among/between self (or selves) and other.
As for theology, Taylor defines it as “discourse (logos) relating to what a people holds to be sacred (theos).” My interest here is not the false dichotomy between the profane and the sacred, but theology’s discursive nature: it is also done in articulation, as culture is. In addition, as theology is held by people, not a person or an individual; it is of communal nature. One could certainly correspond this communality also with its need for multi-contextuality and for correlation (in the sense of Tillich): no theology is an island. In other words, the theological understanding of being human, better known as theological anthropology, has to co-exist with the ways of being human in culture, the province of cultural studies in general; some examples of these ways are the political and economic (in terms of power dynamics), the aesthetical, and even the spiritual.
Culture and theology as stand-alone conceptual constructions certainly are polyvalent, spatially and temporally contingent, not “free-floating” but rooted in varying and complex ways. For example, they are “multi-traditioned.” Being so, their conceptual boundaries interact with one another, and with all other aspects of human lived experience (such as politics, economics, art, and literature). According to Davaney, this interaction is not reductive to either, but rather leads to “distinctly different ways of being human,” to an interwoven reality of cultures and theologies that obscures its own “made-and-not-made” origin and telos. Evidently, the negotiation between culture and theology becomes clearer if one fixes both within a particular space-time and sees theology as one more cultural production. As a result, a particular theology is contingent on a particular cultural moment…theology becomes “contextualized.” One common example in Christian tradition would be the Incarnation, the emptying of the divine into one human culture in particular and/or, conversely and ultimately, into everyday human culture in general.
Cooking Soup: A Heuristic
I have chosen cooking soup, specifically sancocho, as one cultural practice through which to articulate a theological anthropology. It is an appropriate site to study cultural influence on theology, if one takes Hopkins seriously: “If religious reflection [i.e., theology] arises from material culture, then such reflection must be rooted in practice.” In this sense, the cultural practice of cooking could offer a heuristic, following Hopkins, for a method of theological anthropology. It is important to note that I am not claiming that cooking is a theological endeavor. What cooking as practice offers is the possibility of a model (i.e. a heuristic) that can be borrowed for theological practice. Hopkins delineates two fundamental conditions for this possibility; both culture and theology involve and engage people. Specifically, cooking and theological anthropology are both centered around and heavily invested in humanity, in their well-being and well-becoming. Therefore, thinking of Davaney’s definition of culture, if cooking soup is a cultural material practice, it should be both a process for meaning production and a context for identity creation by, and for, people. Furthermore, Davaney writes: “humans produce and construct meaning not only linguistically and textually, but also in non-linguistic and even non-discursive ways.” In other words, if theological anthropology is the discourse around what it means to be human theologically, it follows that it could be sourced from a “non-linguistic” yet discursive context as another locus through which being human is constructed, if only for a heuristic. In sum, cooking soup in a specific cultural context could provide a model towards a contextualized theological anthropology. Moreover, this theological method could very well display generalizable characteristics, as we will see.
However, one immediate danger must be addressed. This cross-over of a cultural material practice to theological anthropology runs the risk of particularizing to the point of reducing differences to inconsequence. For example, the latter could happen if the crossover is construed as one more example of a “marginalized” culture and theology against a “central” culture and theology. The power asymmetries between margin and center in the history of humankind are obvious and well-known, and delving deeply here goes beyond the scope of this essay. But, by not focusing on the asymmetries, one must not “throw the baby out with the bath water,” and discard grassroots material practices as irrelevant to meaning making. With Tanner, I value the “creative agency” of people in general, but especially non-elites. In any case, I also recognize the unhelpful exercise of separating “marginalized” from “center” when analyzing culture. Culture, as a “total way of life,” in constant change, includes both. I am looking for a possible roadmap for theology using one cultural marker, a specific material practice. I do this not for one group’s cultural influences into their own, or another’s, theology, but rather for the contrarian move of seeing culture through a theological lens.
Cooking up a Theology…
Why shouldn’t one use a quotidian material cultural practice to explore academically (in this case, theologically)? If theology can be contextualized according to constructed cultural forms such as race or gender, why not cooking? For example, cooking and eating, and their socio-cultural implications, have been studied extensively in anthropology. My methodological choice owes much to anthropologist Stephan Palmié. In The Cooking of History, Palmié recounts that Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz describes his own culture as an ajiaco, a “stew most typical and most complex, made from various species of legumes, which we here call “viandas”, and of pieces of diverse meats; all of which are cooked with water at boiling point until it produces a very thick and succulent potage which is seasoned with the most Cuban ají, from which it derives its name.” The metaphor of the ajiaco corresponds with Davaney’s definition of culture: a process of production, contention and negotiation, and a context of mediation and creation. An ajiaco is both a process (“cooked”, “boiling”) and a context (“stew”, “potage”), composed of presuppositions (ingredients, such as “viandas,” meats, and seasonings) and resulting in a “typical and complex,” “thick,” and “succulent” product that derives its name from itself. Basically, Palmié sees in Ortiz’s metaphor two key components: first, “indigenization,” i.e., how the ingredients are incorporated into the pot, transformed in mutual co-mingling, and contributed to the stew’s overall composition. And second, he sees “difference,” a recognition of ever-present temporal and spatial contingencies that preclude any fixity of theories, methods, identities or authenticities, all present in the pot at different levels of engagement (that is, based on how deep one “dips the spoon” during the cooking process). Issues of indigeneity and difference will also be evident when exploring sancocho. Therefore, in my case of looking for the theological in a cultural material practice, “[i]t depends on the spoonful we select for metacultural inspection and on the rules of recognition we apply to it.” This spoonful doesn’t necessarily serve up one particular raced or gendered theology, but a “cooking” theology: “cooking” as both contextual and processual (i.e., not fully cooked), always “caught-in-the-act” (since it is even cooking in the spoon itself).
Sancocho and a Recipe
To better coincide with my own positionality, I shift now from the ajiaco to the sancocho, a heavy soup of strikingly similar confection, which is typical of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean areas. The Diccionario de la Lengua Española defines sancocho (not including regional synonyms) as:
1. alimento a medio cocer (a half-cooked food);
2. olla compuesta de carne, yuca, plátano y otros ingredientes, y que se toma en el almuerzo (a pot composed of meat, yucca, plantain, and other ingredients, that is taken [i.e. eaten] during lunchtime);
3. comida cocinada con agua, sal, y algún otro condimento (meal cooked with water, salt, and any other condiment).
First, it is telling that the sancocho evokes feelings of in-betweenness; it is always liminal, on-the-way. In this sense, it could also be pejorative, since a half-cooked food is no food at all, in the same sense of the colloquial phrase half-baked idea. Second, it is a cultural artifact, not a natural element existing-on-its-own. In other words, it is created by human beings through a combination of natural (and, later, synthetic) ingredients: an artifact. Third, it has only two fixed ingredients: water and salt (in fact, I read elsewhere that it could also be called salcocho, a word compounded from sal, or salt, and cocho, from cocer, or cook). All other ingredients are variable. So, the sancocho is, in general, an in-between culinary artifact with somewhat opaque components and composition. Such a definition is too broad to be useful as heuristic for a theological anthropology; one needs to look at one contextualized, particular sancocho formulation: a recipe.
Cookbooks are one source for recipes. Among the myriad cookbooks that could be consulted for a sancocho recipe, one comes immediately to mind. Originally published in 1954, Cocina Criolla by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli is one of the most famous Puerto Rican cookbooks. A copy of this book is sure to grace many a Caribbean, even Latino/Latin-American/Hispanic, culinary library. In my family we own the forty-eighth (!) edition, from 1990. Its table of contents includes lists of cooking implements and instruments, measurement units, relevant cooking terminology, and “useful advice.” It has the recipes arranged by both meal type (e.g. soup, cakes) and food type (e.g. beef, poultry). It must be added that even the most recent editions also aim to serve as a kind of homemaker user’s manual. For example, one can read about the proper way to entertain an unexpected guest. Usually the gender roles are very much fixed in this endeavor: “[W]hile the husband gives the guest a cocktail or highball, we [in Spanish, the gendered nosotras; meaning, I assume, “wives”] skillfully…will prepare a simple and attractive menu.” The gendered language is not surprising for 1954 but unavoidably irrelevant for 1990. But this cultural-temporal stagnation remains, which could turn poisonous for a contemporary theological anthropology. Relatedly, my family’s copy was a wedding gift, and this is the handwritten dedication, from one of my mother’s friends:
Dear Mercedes [my wife’s name], I wish that this book solves all your problems in your life as homemaker. This department is one of the most difficult, but with this competent book you already have an ally. God bless your home, and give you rich blessings. Matilde, July 1991 (translation mine).
It is salient that the book is described as a panacea, and an active one. It is an “ally,” a friendly agent to accompany one through life’s travails. In a certain sense, the inscription borders on the theological: Cocina Criolla as a written source of culture, as process and context, describes a Puerto Rican way of being human through text. If Cocina Criolla is such a source, it is therefore reasonable to build a theological anthropology using a recipe as heuristic. In this essay, the theological recipe is a sancocho. Below I include the recipe of sancocho as found in Cocina Criolla (my translation):
Ingredients (for 8 servings)
A. 1 lb chuck or bottom round roast, ½ lb pork meat, bone-in; no fat or skin
B. 3 lts water, 1 tbsp salt
C. 1 onion, 2 tomatoes, 1 green pepper (no seeds), 1 sweet pepper (ají dulce, no seeds), 3 culantro (recao) leaves, 2 corn cobs
D. ½ lb of white tannier (yautía), ½ lb of pumpkin, ½ lb of yellow tannier (yautía), ½ lb of potatoes, ½ lb of yam (ñame), ½ lb of sweet potato (batata), 1 green plantain, 1 yellow (ripe) plantain
E. 1 tbsp salt, ½ cup of tomato sauce
F. 4 garlic cloves
1. Cut beef and pork to pieces, and wash including bone (ingredients ‘A’).
2. In a 12-qt. pot, combine water and salt (ingredients ‘B’), and bring to a boil.
3. Wash and cut ingredients ‘C’, and add them to pot, along with meat and bone.
4. Cook uncovered on high heat until it boils again. Then lower to medium, cover and cook for one hour.
5. Peel, cut to pieces, and wash the root vegetables (ingredients ‘D’), then add to pot.
6. Add ingredients ‘E’ to pot. Mix well and bring to a boil again. Then, lower the heat to medium, cover, and cook for 45 minutes.
7. Uncover and let boil for ten more minutes. Take the green plantains out of the pot, and mash them along with the four garlic cloves (ingredient ‘F’). Mold by hand the paste into small spheres and put them back in the soup.
Recipe as Heuristic: Context and Process
There is plenty to discuss here, if one means to develop the recipe as heuristic. First, as in many recipes, one must purvey ingredients. These ingredients vary according to one’s economic means, as not everybody has access to the same quality and quantity. The sancocho in Cocina Criolla is an expensive proposition, one that includes both beef and pork, sixteen different vegetables in differing quantities and conditions (i.e., one is “sauced”), a fair amount of salt, and it also assumes that water is readily available. But that does not mean every sancocho is like this: another recipe I found has only six ingredients (besides water): fish, potatoes, sweet potatoes, olive oil, parsley, and salt. And, of course, the Cocina Criolla recipe could be tailored to fit each individual situation. For example, chicken or fish could be used by more healthy-minded consumers, and/or fewer vegetables or meat for the more frugal. It also could vary by geographic space, since not all ingredients could be present in all locations. Some are native, others locally found, and still others foreign but still available. For example, some of the vegetables are indigenous to the region, such as tannier (yautía is probably a Taíno word) and sweet potato (batata in Spanish). Others were brought by colonizers from Spain or their colonized lands, like the plantain, originally from the Canary Islands, or the yam, originally from West Africa. The term in Spanish vianda (English, viand) for most of these root vegetables (ingredients “D” in the recipe) has another peculiar life story. The word has French roots and means “food,” not just root vegetable. So, viandas can constitute the whole meal, and in many places and times it probably did and still does, as it is more readily available geographically and economically. But in this sancocho, the vianda is one more ingredient: the carbohydrate to complement the protein from meat.
As previously stated, the meat component in Cocina Criolla’s sancocho could place it squarely within the upper economic echelons of society, and a meatless sancocho is very common. By the time of Cocina Criolla’s publication in the 1950’s, Puerto Rico had been declared a commonwealth by the US, and was in the throes of a transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, with the corresponding monetary windfalls for the original Cocina Criolla readers. Nationwide, these were the post-WWII boom years. Also, historically speaking, cattle and pigs seem to have been introduced by the Spanish colonizers (as food and, in the case of cattle, as farming help), since neither species is native to the island. One must also recognize that the presence of both beef and pork in the recipe has certain significance, as pigs are usually associated with the more mountainous region of Puerto Rico, and cattle with the coastal areas, where grazing is easier and milking in a larger scale is more convenient. Even so, pork is mostly seen as “country” or rural food, and beef as “town” or urban food. One must also highlight that pork bone is included in the recipe. In fact, if bones are not used in certain recipes, they are usually saved for future occasions (assuming, of course, that refrigeration is available). Besides its own nutritional value (i.e., the bone marrow), bone brings a scaffolding element for the meat to remain cohesive during the actual cooking part. Furthermore, there is a certain pleasure in dealing with the bone within a meal (e.g., it makes one use hands instead of cutlery, allowing more contact with the food itself). So, the presence of bone in the recipe cannot be overemphasized.
This Cocina Criolla recipe also presumes a communal meal, as the final product is quite large, although larger families used to be the norm in pre-industrial times. For instance, it is well known that, in rural areas, health services are more difficult to come by and infant mortality is high. In addition, help for farming and other work was sorely needed, so larger families helped in that regard. Hence, the need for large quantities of food in recipes, like this sancocho. Recipe quantities can also be easily adjusted, but that the sancocho is a “big” meal is unavoidable. Finally, seasonings are key components in any sancocho. Salt, for one, is locally available because Puerto Rico, as an island, is surrounded by seawater. In fact, one municipality is called Salinas, which is salt-bed in Spanish. Salt has been used to preserve food since time immemorial. Most probably, it became a seasoning due to being ever-present in meats and other perishable foods. Thus, salt transformed the palate so that from an afterthought it became a prime ingredient. A similar movement was explored by Sidney Mintz in “Time, Sugar, and Sweetness,” regarding the changing tastes of Europeans and uses of sugar (as food, medicine, sweetener, preservative, and flavor-enhancer, for example) through the dynamics of colonialism, the invention of “new worlds” and worldviews. Another seasoning in the recipe is culantro, better known on the island as recao. Recao is an herb, and a key component in sofrito, a Puerto Rican cooking base present in many staples, such as stewed beans. Note that recao is not cilantro. Recao is very difficult to find in the US, as it is a tropical plant. The presence of recao in this recipe will immediately identify it as most probably Caribbean in nature. But one issue is certain: the constant presence of seasonings, be they flavor-enhancers or preservatives, betrays their ambivalent status as protagonists or background players. Theological anthropology is laden with these actors: they are many times considered cultural (such as self-conceptions of race, ethnicity, class, or gender), other times particularly religious (such as createdness or fallenness). Their relationship augments or masks them as needed, as will be seen with the process section, below.
To conclude this first section, I aver that the ingredients that must be purveyed vacillate between necessary and contingent, based on mingling seemingly contrary concepts. For example, the extravagant and the frugal, the individual and shared, the native and the foreign, the local and the global, the quotidian and the not-so-much, and the urban and the rural. The ingredients, then, are contexts, the conditions of possibility of the final product, which arises from their interaction but also is much more than that. In other words, contexts mix and create their own mingled context, all its own apart from its different components.
Second, the ingredients must be combined in a procedure that produces a final product: the cooking steps of the recipe. In this sancocho, they are very structured and specific. To start, there is an assumption that kitchen tools are present: pots, pans, knives, bowls, etc. These are not even mentioned in the recipe. The author also assumes the cook knows which kitchen tool to use when he/she needs to cut or boil. Thus, there is a toolbox that the cook brings with him/her, and he/she must be able to choose from this toolbox to complete the specific task at hand. Of course, related to this, the author also assumes that the cook can handle the tools needed; the cook must know and be able to cut, to pour water, peel, etc. So, there are certain skills and implements that are assumed already present in this endeavor: basic requisite tools, and, at the very least, amateurish, relevant knowledge, ability and performance skills. These are givens.
Following this, one can see structure in the author’s grouping of the ingredients (i.e., “A”, “B”, et.al.), presumably so that the cook cannot get confused but rather follow the cooking steps easily. Then, as with any recipe, there is also preparatory work. For example, washing some of the ingredients, or cutting vegetables into small pieces. So, one’s first steps in doing the recipe is preparing the ingredients to do work for us; in a systematic manner, groundwork must be laid out. Once this foundation is in place, then the work begins in earnest: boiling, combining ingredients according to a certain order (as some ingredients take longer to cook than others), and stewing over different degrees of heat (as groups of ingredients need more or less time to fully mingle in the heat-induced interaction; there is always the danger of undercooking or overcooking). There is also continuous monitoring at all stages of the recipe, exemplified by constant mixing and tasting the sancocho with a spoon to ascertain proper progress and if final corrections are needed with ingredients or seasonings. The sancocho is not “left alone” to stew by itself; it is periodically measured against itself and others of its kind and corrected if needed. Furthermore, one ingredient (the plantain) is removed close to the meal’s completion, reworked outside the pot (hard to do when it was boiling moments before!) and mixed with another ingredient, and then put back into the pot prior to serving the sancocho. This odd instruction cannot be anything but a “flourish” on the part of Cocina Criolla, the author’s personal touch, as it adds nothing to taste or any other characteristic of the sancocho. One final fact that must be highlighted is this stage’s active nature: from washing to stewing, this is the dynamic portion of the recipe, and the one with the most at stake. To add to its centrality, this portion must be completed beginning to end, non-stop, if one is to get an adequate final product. Contingencies that were not covered at the start or that arise mid-process must be unavoidably dealt with and diffused, such as the surprise addition of “more mouths to feed” with the same recipe. That would mean a re-calibration of ingredients and cooking steps to accommodate them, one that would probably go unnoticed (unless the food ran out).
To conclude this second section, I aver that the cooking steps are the structure that frames the product, the process through which the result arises. Its nature is dynamic. Any practice speaks louder than its components: the ingredients and the givens. The process is contexts-in- action, ingredients communicating with one another. It begins from certain assumptions and specific groundwork, i.e., the setup of the field of action. After all these tangibles are in place, then the process starts in full force. But, ironically, its presence is to be absent, as process is not tangible in itself. Process is the name for the transition from one context to another, be they individual or combined. Some of these transitions require human agency; some do not. Others require varying degrees of intervention by non-human agents (such as heat). There are moments in which periodic guidance is needed, and there is always a need for constant monitoring to ensure telos has not been compromised. There is even space for pure pleasure, that which brings spontaneity and playfulness in another sense, such as when an off-recipe ingredient is introduced, or a step is added as a “flourish.” For a theological anthropology, the process of being human presupposes a certain procedure, an interaction of meaningful actors that many times mingle purposefully, but sometimes in unintended ways. As stated above, the actors (i.e., the contexts) can arise, for example, from culture in general or religion in particular. But it is their mingling, their relationship, that now becomes as crucial as the contexts themselves.
Sancocho and Its Recipe: A Heuristic for Theological Anthropology
A recipe as a heuristic for a theological anthropology should seem more reasonable by now. But let me offer an additional rationale for the association. While the interpretative realms or frameworks for theology differ from those of cooking (a cultural practice), the experiential referent is still the same: human life. In other words, both are inextricably linked in and through lived experience; both are needed to experience living. In fact, with McClintock Fulkerson, I argue that there can be no disconnection between them: “I…contest the idea that theological and normative Christian identity requires discursive practice that is “pure” from accommodation with the languages and practices of non-biblical or non-theological realms of experience.” In addition, I am sure Isasi-Díaz and others would agree that theological anthropology is “cooked” culturally and culture is “cooked” theologically. Both aspects of life are lived en la lucha, in the struggle. Even further, Hopkins writes, “Ultimate concerns reside in the flesh of everyday life.” Simply stated, humanness is sancochada, struggling in the messiness of the pot (i.e., life), where ultimate concern dwells every day.
But what specifically can be garnered from the sancocho for theological anthropology? Notice the title of this essay: it is not exclusively that theological anthropology must be recognized as a sancocho, or that the culinary (i.e. cultural) practice of sancocho represents what theological anthropology must be. The aim here is to model, to present a heuristic: to become aware that theological anthropology must be sancochada, both stewed and stewing, and that the contexts and the process of sancocho (again, using Davaney’s definition of culture) can be illuminating to theological anthropology as a lived experience. First, sancocho teaches us that to understand situated identity as fixed is tenuous at best. Ingredients and presuppositions, or contexts, sit in sites of historical-cultural contention. No doubt, certain aspects of a being human can be grasped, such as space (e.g., origin, current emplacement) and time (e.g. life story). But, as Hall reminded us, these are all articulated in complex, different, and contradictory ways. In my specific case: What is being Puerto Rican? Is recao Puerto Rican, even though it is globally present, or is yautía Puerto Rican because it was there in pre-Columbian times? Is yam Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico because it is locally called ñame, or vice versa (i.e., is ñame just US yam)? Does Puerto Rican include colonial imports? By the same token, is my humanness native, indigenous, imported, colonized, or all of the above? All this gestures beyond a postmodern awareness toward the post-critical, a “promiscuous while precise” pose. Clearly, thinking through being Puerto Rican is no easy chore.
Second, sancocho teaches us that identity is borne out of relatedness, from discourse, and this is fundamental to theo-logical anthropo-logy. Human are communal by, made en conjunto and mingled with cotidiano practices and beliefs, both sacred and profane, whatever those might be. This relatedness is always sancochando, half-cooking, constantly becoming, which means that it is never the same as it was or will be. Even so, the ingredients of sancocho are mixed and, in combination, become something new entirely, a co-mingled substance begotten through hospitality: some dissolve, others remain, a few add flavor. As Palmié recognized with Ortiz’s metaphor of ajiaco, the sancocho is a cultural marker that speaks well beyond the obvious and into our ways of being; being human means being present and also being absent, as one can never fully encompass the totality of humanness in a given space and time. For a sancochando theological anthropology, one could borrow Ortiz’s word “succulent,” meaning juicy or rich. It is challenging to construct a succulent theological anthropology, and one that is always cooking, being as well as becoming. And a succulent theological anthropology is always unique and authentic, autochthonous, one could say: its-own-thing, free and not hegemonic, always alone but not lonely. Because it is relational, such a theological anthropology is first and foremost an ally, just like Doña Matilde wrote in her dedication in my family’s Cocina Criolla.
Finally, sancocho teaches us about sazón, seasoning, the “spice of life.” A theological anthropology needs tailoring; that is why it is always “A” and never “The.” Even so, this fluidity requires updating and feedback, tweaking. Being human is always precarious, a matter of positionality. But this does not mean unoriginality or, even worse, irrelevance. My theological anthropology just means it has been tweaked to be mine, but that also means it exists alongside, maybe even because of, those that are other. One way to ensure this solidarity is the seasoning, the “back-and-forth tasting,” an agreement within the tension between self and selves, and self/selves and others. I suggest this could offset the theoretical messiness that was present earlier with Hall and others: “the theory one must fight against.” Sazón is how we all come together at the end. My theological anthropology reaches its telos when it sits in harmony with yours and theirs, when it becomes ours. And the result is one amazing sancochada theology that is constantly sancochando.
Perhaps it is fitting to end with this quote by Hopkins: “Culture is where the sacred reveals itself.” I hope this essay provides some evidence in that respect.