Along the western bank of the mouth of New York’s Hudson River is a string of cities and towns that carrythe title of “Havana on the Hudson”. As such a title would denote, as does “Chinatown” and “Little Italy”, this urbanized area that lives in the New Jersey shadow of the Manhattan skyline carries with it a gastronomy of full syncretism of the old country and the new, a fusion of Latin and American cuisine, a reconciliation between authenticity and convenience, tradition and innovation. This blog is a collection, and a tribute, to this unique place whose inspiring background, hardworking people, and the foods they love and create.
Hudson County, New Jersey lies directly across the Hudson River from the city of New York, holding three out of the only four routes from New Jersey (and by extension, the mainland United States if we exclude the Bronx for a minute). Any train heading east to the industry of New York had to pass, and often stop, in cities like Hoboken, West New York, North Bergen, etc. For that reason exactly, the area has been highly urbanized to the point where most of these towns, like Union City, are at the top of the most densely populated municipalities in the entire country.
As most of the New York metropolitan area, these have always been (and still are) immigrant communities. Beginning with the Irish, they were quickly followed by the Germans who brought with them a heavy tradition of textile industry. Italians, Jews, Russians, and various other European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries came to call these gritty, industrial towns home. By the 1950s, however, a sharp decrease in the prosperity of these towns lead to the steady flight of most of these communities to more suburban areas.
Many of these towns, however, were spared the wrath of the “urban crisis” of the 1960s and 1970s that led to swaths of Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan and the Bronx to turn into disastrous slums. With the 1950s and the advent of flight as a means of immigration, an exodus of Puerto Ricans arrived throughout Northeastern United States, settling heavy in North Jersey. In 1959, an exodus of Cuban exiles fleeing the Castro regime settled heavily in places like Union City and West New York, providing a professional middle class that sunk their roots deep into the area by buying property and starting business. The sudden mass arrival pumped life back into the ailing communities and the textile tradition that drew them there in the first place. By 1977, the area was being called “Little Havana” and “Havana on the Hudson” by journalists and local newspapers, and it’s Cuban exile community was second only to that of Miami and Southern Florida.
The area began to receive shocks of other cultures and, by the 1980s, a trickle of immigrants from other Latin nations was steadily increasing into a stream. Colombians and Dominicans began to arrive en masse in response to political havoc and poverty in both countries. Peruvians, Argentines and Ecuadorians soon followed, bringing with them their Andean traditions and style. Throughout the 2000s, central Americans and, most impressively, Mexicans, have established a strong presence throughout the entire county and pumped their complex array of ingredients, techniques and spices into kitchens everywhere.
Today, “Havana on the Hudson” could just as well be “Medellin on the Hudson” or “Buenos Aires on the Hudson”. The influx of Latinos from the tip of Patagonia to the Rio Bravo has shaken the demographics up so much that the zone can no longer be seriously claimed by any one community. It has also shrunk significantly due to forces like gentrification that have pushed out the Latin communities of now glitzy locales like Hoboken and Jersey City. Instead, the culture is a sort of pan-Hispanic fusion – a Bolivarian’s dream.
Adding to this newfound culture, one cannot leave out the giant factor that is the city of New York. Being so close to the center of the world means that once alien forces that would never have penetrated the spectrum of the Hispanic kitchen could now be used if they fit in. Just a few generations ago eating Thai food was probably never even an occurrence in the mind of a Puerto Rican jibaro working on the side of a mountain. But his great grand-daughter living in Weehawken can just ask Siri or hop on yelp to find out where in Manhattan can she get the best Pad Thai. She might even try to make it at home.
If there’s anything to take away from all of this, it’s the importance of evolution and variation in this kind of cooking. Culture and history are fluid, not static, and they change with time. Every individual Latin cuisine is itself a mixing of cultures and influences that once seemed bizarre in putting together. Coupled with the need to be versatile when resources can be scarce, feel at liberty to freestyle as much as you’d like.