Culture / Food

Coquitos contest conjures up a taste of Puerto Rico

Veronica Matveev

Participants in this year’s Bronx coquito qualifier at Bronx Music Heritage Center.

Annual event allows aficionados to test carefully guarded recipes

There are a lot of stories about the origins of families’ coquito recipes, but Debbie Quiñones, the founder and organizer of the city’s Coquito Masters event, recalls one in particular. A contestant went to her father and told him she wanted to compete, asking him for his coquito recipe – the recipe he kept in a locked box under his bed. When he told her no, the contestant enlisted her mother’s help and she stole the recipe from her own husband. The daughter then won third place, a prize that her father dismissed. She didn’t need to compete, he said. He already knew he had a winning recipe.

Coquito holds a particular place in Puerto Rican culture and identity – especially at this time of year. The creamy, rum and coconut-based drink is not only a signal that the holiday season is upon us, it is a ritual that each family has a secret recipe for.

Quiñones’ Coquito Masters event is a statewide competition that takes place throughout the fall, with local boroughs here in the city each declaring a winner. The finals will take place on Saturday, Dec. 16, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse, where participants will be able to taste test award-winning coquitos from district winners across New York State and determine the overall 2017 winner.

The Coquito Masters event started out of desperation, when Debbie Quiñones’s access to coquito was cut off after the woman who made it for her – her friend Doña Ocasio – died in 2001.

“I realized, ‘Oh, my God,’ I have no connection to get any coquito anywhere,” said Quiñones, 57, a resident of East Harlem whose day job is as a public-health rep for the New York Department of Health AIDS Institute.

Quiñones started the first contest out of her home to get her friends and family to share their highly secret coquito recipes; the judging was just a fun added feature. That home-based contest turned into what it is today — a blind taste-test held statewide, where the most important prize is bragging rights. But its purpose is even greater than a fun night out.

“The idea is to preserve coquito and celebrate it,” said Quiñones. “We have to think about how to preserve Puerto Rican cuisine, now more than ever with what’s happening in Puerto Rico. Coquito is your identity in the community, and so many people believe that theirs is the top, so people get pissed off and leave if they don’t win. They say, ‘How dare you tell me my coquito is not the shit?’”

Embracing the evolution of Puerto Rican cuisine and identity throughout the years, the Coquito Masters event has evolved, and as of 2016 now has a ‘fusion-flavor’ category, where people have the freedom to mix new flavors into the original, putting a spin on the traditional drink. But not everyone is happy about the stray from their beloved original coquito.

“This one little old lady pulled me to the side when a chocolate coquito won one year and told me, ‘Esto no es Starbucks’ (this is not Starbucks),” said Quiñones. “People take their coquito seriously. It’s no joke.”

One coquito maker hoping to take home the winning title is Rosemary Colon, a two-time Coquito Masters champion from 2015 and 2016.

“I want people to drink my coquito and say it brings them back to the island,” said Colon, 58, of Williamsbridge. “My grandmother gave me her recipe and I learned from her and added my special ingredient, my little secret. It’s special to me.”

Even the judges come with a coquito backstory.

“My grandma used to make coquito, she was very serious about it and I never understood why,” said Angel Otero, 36, a New York-based artist from Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a guest judge. “She always wanted to know what people thought of her coquito, but she only gave them permission to one small glass.”

Over the years, Otero said, he has come to understand his grandmother’s obsession with the drink, and its value beyond a Christmas refreshment.

“I compare it a lot to painting,” he said. “The making of it has become a very personal thing for people, it represents themselves.”

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