Urban Pilón, Recalling Roots to Lead a Chicago Culinary Movement

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[Editor’s note: Although we mostly cover music at Agúzate, it must be noted that the word ‘Culture’ is in our title as well. Readers may recognize the subject of this piece as a member of Bomba con Buya, the world class traditional Puerto Rican ensemble that calls Chicago home. However, his commitment to culture runs deeper than just music. Read on, and enjoy!]

By Parker Asmann
all photos courtesy of Urban Pilón

If there’s one utensil that’s been historically essential in Latin American cuisine, it’s the pilón. In the late 15th century, the Taíno indians who occupied the West Indies were documented to have used many variations of the pilón for cooking, sometimes made out of large hollowed out tree trunks. Today, variations of that same utensil line the walls of Roberto Pérez’s kitchen to fuel his own culinary movement, Urban Pilón.

Formed in 2012 with longtime friend and fellow cultural worker Angel Fuentes, Urban Pilón is a culinary movement that has set out to share the rich traditions and roots of Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American food. Through a traditional approach to cooking that uses fresh vegetables, herbs and spices from the garden, and a hard line against any additives or preservatives, Urban Pilón creates healthy and innovative dishes unlike what’s on other menus in Chicago.

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Angel Fuentes and Roberto Pérez

When most people think of the culinary capitals of the world, colonizing nations like Spain, France and Portugal come to mind. However, Pérez explained that Urban Pilón’s cooking philosophy revolves around looking within to his own family, their Taíno past and African roots.

“Even in Puerto Rican cooking, sometimes those roots are shunned when they aren’t a part of the norm,” Pérez said. “In a lot of our cooking we really try and dig deep into some older recipes that people may not want to do or are embarrassed to do, recipes that have heavy stigmas. We love doing those recipes and doing things that not everybody embraces.”

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El pilón

As has been the unfortunate case for far too many indigenous populations throughout the Americas, many of their people, traditions and languages have been wiped away as a result of colonization, leading to their displacement and eventual extinction. Urban Pilón draws their motivation from their desire to keep their roots and traditions alive.

“A lot of what we’ve learned has come from talking to elders and traveling,” Pérez said. “We’re very available and interested in doing those things. For example, one experience that comes to mind was going to Veracruz and sitting down with folks who really knew how to cook and just learning from them, drawing comparisons and using new techniques in our own cooking.”

Since 2012, Urban Pilón has grown in more ways than Pérez and Fuentes could have imagined when they were originally tossing the idea around. In the years since, Urban Pilón has hosted several dinner parties with the aim of bringing different people from different communities together to enjoy the experience of cooking and sharing a meal.

Pérez credits Urban Pilón’s ability to evolve and grow so much over the years to their willingness to be open and to learn from those around them. Aside from starting Chicago’s first Caribbean food blog, Urban Pilón has performed several cooking demonstrations and hosted a handful of cooking classes. Pérez stressed that Urban Pilón likes to think of the culinary world as an open book, and that’s very much reflected in the openness the two showcase with their cooking knowledge.

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Urban Pilón cooking class

“We’ve had the opportunity to sit down with folks who really know how to cook,” Pérez said, “and they’ve been unbelievably kind and open with us. So really it’s just our way of treating those we cook and interact with the same way that we’ve been treated, with the same hospitality we’ve been provided.”

More than anything, though, Urban Pilón is all about bringing people together. When Pérez isn’t gathering people around a stage in the name of music with his bomba ensemble, Bomba con Buya, he shifts settings into the kitchen. Food and cooking have always had a unique ability to draw similarities between cultures, people and traditions without uttering a single word. In staying true to their commitment to preserving their Puerto Rican traditions, Urban Pilón have traveled extensively and spoken with many elders to try and connect with the roots their trying to reestablish through their cooking.

“One day we hope to be able to put together a recipe book,” Pérez said. “Angel and I have both been lucky enough to spend time and learn about our cooking traditions from elders, so it would be great to be able to put all of those things together in a book so we can continue to preserve those roots.”

One of the ways Pérez works to broaden his horizons and expand his culinary expertise in Chicago is by volunteering at a soul food restaurant whenever he has the opportunity. Aside from the natural enjoyment he gets from cooking, Pérez explained that he uses the opportunity to continue to learn and develop his knowledge in the kitchen, taking the new things he learns and incorporating them into Urban Pilón’s own cooking.

Pérez in the kitchen
Pérez in the kitchen

What makes Urban Pilón even more influential to Chicago’s culinary movement is their commitment to creating healthy dishes. Pérez explained that he feels that it wasn’t until society moved towards what he calls a ‘quick fix’ way of living that the quality of food started to decline. Instead of people harvesting vegetables and other ingredients planted and grown from gardens or small plots of land, companies have capitalized on that need for quick and easy consumption by using artificial ingredients and preservatives.

As an example, Pérez pointed to Goya and their premade sofrito base. Sofrito is a staple sauce used in Latin American cooking as a base for rice, beans, soups, chilis and stews. While at one time it was customary to make your own sofrito base from scratch using fresh ingredients, now more often than not people purchase this base from grocery stores. Urban Pilón goes beyond just sofrito, though. In every one of their cooking classes, all of the ingredients are 100 percent natural and they share their knowledge of cooking things from scratch, the traditional way.

For those interested in getting involved, Urban Pilón has their third meal sharing event lined up for Monday, Dec. 5. This time around it’s going to be Mofongo Monday, which embodies every aspect of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine through the Puerto Rican dish’s African origins and fried plantain base that’s mashed together with salt, garlic and oil in none other than a pilón.

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The class enjoys the meal they made together.

“Moving forward we at Urban Pilón just want to continue to bring people together and share these recipes through our cooking classes and other events,” Pérez said. “For us this is so much more than cooking, it’s a passion and an artistic expression all while showcasing the traditions of our culture.”
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Learn more about Urban Pilón, including some great recipes, at urbanpilon.com.
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About the author: Parker Asmann is a freelance reporter based in Chicago focusing on Latin America and the Latinx community. His work has been featured in El BeiSMan and In These Times magazine, as well as The Yucatan Times and San Miguel Times in México.

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