The Christmas Drink That Gives Puerto Ricans Anxiety All Year
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this coveted bottle is the gift that keeps on giving.
By Nancy Méndez-Booth
Christmas is easy for white people. As kids, they worry all year about staying off Santa’s naughty list, until they get older and find out there’s no Santa. Then the pressure’s off — until they learn about the NSA, but that’s an anxiety tale for another time.
Christmas is complicated for Puerto Ricans. We are an anxious people. As kids, everyone watches us: Santa, the Three Kings, God. But the Almighty and the NSA combined do not have the power of a Puerto Rican mother with her death stare trained on you and a flip-flop in her hand, ready to give your ass un gran chancletazo.
The pressure for Puerto Ricans doesn’t end with childhood: We enter adulthood dominated by fear. We remain afraid of our mothers, who remind us they have the right to whack our asses till the day they die and are assumed into heaven, where they’ll watch us right alongside God. As adults, Puerto Ricans also experience anxiety about making it onto the right list, but our fears have nothing to do with Santa. You see, Puerto Ricans love coquito. It is made during the Christmas season but causes year-round anxiety for Puerto Ricans not skilled in the art of making it; those Puerto Ricans need to make it onto a coquito master’s list of who will receive a coveted bottle that will make winter days merry and bright.
I need to make clear that coquito is not eggnog. It is a Puerto Rican tradition that cannot be categorized along with a dairy sludge made with uncooked eggs (hello, salmonella!) and added “spirits” that annually enables unfortunate office holiday party karaoke, regrettable hookups and should-have-remained-unmentioned declarations. Coquito is not premade, mass-marketed or available in the refrigerated section of ShopRite. It is a once-a-year magic elixir of creamy smoothness that warms and cheers the spirit and dulls the sharp edges of life. These are homemade brews, crafted in accordance with secret family recipes that each call for unique combinations of milk varieties (condensed + evaporated + whole? Coco Lopez? Soy?) and precise egg cooking times, rum brands and spices. These formulations are not entrusted to print; they are shared via whispers in kitchens or invitations to watch a batch being made. I’m not a good cook, but I’m also no pendeja: I made sure I learned how to make coquito from a master because I’m not willing to depend upon others for access to my cultural prerogative and key to joy.
Forsaken Puerto Ricans have to hope when they visit their padrino’s or tia’s or primo’s or commai’s house during the holidays that 1. there’s coquito; 2. if there is coquito, it doesn’t taste like shit.
Puerto Ricans who cannot make coquito don’t dare be naughty, because they need to make it onto someone’s coquito-distribution list. A new pony, a six-figure bonus and world peace combined can’t beat coquito at Christmas, made in some tia’s or doña’s kitchen and presented in a repurposed Snapple bottle, one from a stockpile amassed since June, rinsed with hot water and air-dried multiple times. A Puerto Rican is screwed if she or he doesn’t make it onto a list: That boricua is dependent upon the good will of others. While holidays are the time for giving, no one is pendejo enough to share their coquito stash. Forsaken Puerto Ricans have to hope when they visit their padrino’s or tia’s or primo’s or commai’s house during the holidays that 1. there’s coquito; 2. if there is coquito, it doesn’t taste like shit; and 3. there isn’t just a bowl of Turkey Hill eggnog on the table, neglected and room-temperature.
I receive an annual bottle of damn good coquito from Mami. It is a gift best stored on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, behind the bagged kale and fresh pasta or in the fruit drawer under the bag of grapes. That bottle is the gift that keeps on giving, a treat to savor alone in the kitchen, in that little shot glass from a cousin’s wedding. The coquito must be poured carefully and silently, making sure the glass of the bottle doesn’t clink against the mouth of the shot glass. And a tablespoon is effective to measure and stir just enough coquito into my morning coffee so my system is awash in coquito and caffeine and I’m deliciously revved up but tipping off the rails. That, my friends, is bliss, but I have digressed into sharing too much.
There is a fate worse than not making it onto someone’s coquito list: Infinitely screwed is the Puerto Rican who makes it onto the list of someone who makes nasty coquito. That poor pendejo is stuck year after year with watery drivel that tastes of the peach Snapple that was not adequately eliminated from the repurposed bottle and the too much cinnamon and nutmeg the doña used to mask the fact that she burned the mixture on the stovetop. The coquito tastes too terrible to drink or serve to others, but it can’t be washed down the drain. Puerto Ricans know there is a special place in hell for ungrateful malcriados who can’t appreciate the efforts of some tenderhearted viejita who shuffled to ShopRite, filled her screechy shopping cart with canned milks and a jug of Palo Viejo, paid with her Social Security money, then shuffled back to her kitchen to burn that mismeasured concoction.
The complications of being Puerto Rican are not confined to one holiday or season or stage of life. Being boricua is a round-the-clock, lifelong existential drama. I’m a high-anxiety machine after more than 40 years of being watched, being judged worthy or not, being included or excluded — of just being. But I’m no pendeja. If anxiety is my cultural baggage, I also carry things that help me take the edge off what is often an unwelcoming world. I don’t mean the Don Q rum I use in my coquito. I mean moments like drinking Snapple in the summer but thinking of the coquito those glass bottles will hold in a few months. Or buying the cans of evaporated and condensed milks when they go on sale in October because I want to be stocked and ready in December. And spending an afternoon in the kitchen with Mami, stirring the liquids and egg yolks constantly over medium heat to keep the mixture smooth and remembering that Great-Great-Aunt Gloria first whispered the magic formula to Mami, who then showed it to me. My moments of joy include distributing those bottles of coquito to those on my list and surprising first-time recipients. And rationing out those stolen sips from Mami’s annual bottle so I can savor them alone until Saint Patrick’s Day.
I always experience a moment of sadness in March when I hold the coquito bottle upside down and the last precious drops go directly into my mouth. I don’t shout or cry, and I’ll tell you why: That bottle is the gift that keeps on giving. Even when it’s empty, I savor memories of and anticipation for its magic all year long.
- Nancy Méndez-Booth, OZY Author Contact Nancy Méndez-Booth