When Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico a year ago, it did damage to the island and the Americans who live there that is literally incalculable – for months, the official death toll was 16 people, grudgingly boosted to 64, and only recently bumped up to a far more realistic 1,400 or higher. The island’s electrical network was devastated, roads blocked by debris, agricultural output smashed to bits, and its people left bereft, isolated, and hungry.
Enter Chef José Andrés, a Michelin-starred, James Beard Award-winning chef with more than 30 restaurants around the world. Touching down in Puerto Rico four days after the hurricane, Andrés gained worldwide acclaim for his World Central Kitchen relief mission established with a single goal: feed the people. The way Andrés managed to do his work amid circumstances that caused far larger and better-funded efforts to flounder is at the heart of We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. It’s a story of people feeding people wrapped up in a much bigger story of 3.4 million disaster-struck Americans treated like an unwanted afterthought.
As such, "We Fed an Island" is a book that paints a starkly divided picture. On one hand, it’s an account of staggering failure on the part of FEMA and major charities like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, which sucked up enormous donations and appropriations and delivered paltry amounts of aid on the ground. Andrés paints sometimes shocking pictures of huge organizations paralyzed by often remote and indifferent administrators, crippling bureaucratic requirements, and an outdated idea of food that revolved around MREs, which are designed to be almost indestructible (and are therefore nearly inedible and somewhat indigestible).
On the other hand, the story that Andrés spins of his group’s work on Puerto Rico is inspiring – ramping up from a first official day’s production of 2,000 meals and 500 hot sandwiches just days after the landfall of Hurricane Maria to more than 146,000 meals a day a little more than a month later, World Central Kitchen was able to creatively manage sometimes scarce resources to deploy hundreds of thousands of ham and cheese sandwiches, hot sancocho stew, and other culturally resonant food to people all over the island who were struggling to stay fed.
If you’ve ever met chef dedicated to his or her calling, you’ve met José Andrés – resourceful, tenacious, prickly and warm, fierce and loving, and dedicated to the idea that food is more than just calories – that flavor is an intrinsic part of why the meal satisfies and sustains us. His irritation over the dehumanizing experience of trying to survive on MREs and the disregard for the essential question of how to feed Puerto Rico’s population by aid groups more interested in things like the island’s communication network or subcontracting work to untested contractors is constant throughout the group, as is his anger at the Trump administration’s back-burnering and underselling of the crisis.
The book shows Andres at his most triumphant, as his numbers of meals delivered soared, and at his most vulnerable, as when FEMA emailed him to decline to contract with his group to produce 250,000 hot nutritious meals a day for people who sorely needed it:
"The federal government was refusing to let us feed the people. The federal government. The president and the director of FEMA. They should have been fired immediately for being so removed from the needs of the American people in Puerto Rico. They should have been ashamed of the themselves. They should have resigned. I couldn’t stop the feeling of helplessness and started to cry."
Andrés’s account is personally compelling, but it’s important in a much larger sense, too – it calls into question the relationship of the United States to its territories (a theme also explored in the excellent 2017 book "The Not-Quite States of America," by Doug Mack), and it raises the possibility that Big Aid is broken, and needs to be reinvented. You can’t read "We Fed an Island" without being angry on behalf of Andrés and Puertorriqueños – over the course of its pages, he says he is forced out of FEMA’s headquarters at gunpoint, passed over for a relief contract in favor of a one-person contractor in Atlanta, and refused access to use a stadium kitchen to feed thousands of people because it was currently being used to feed 150 people on-site.
"We Fed an Island" is a savory mix of personal narrative and historical context, and while Andrés has scores to settle, he’s generally more interested in celebrating the people who helped and spotlighting the resilience of the islanders in the wake of disaster. It’s an important book, and as the rate of major weather events accelerates, its lessons will take on more resonance as the years go by.
[Editor's note: This review originally contained material taken from a pre-publication version of the book "We Fed an Island." That material has since been changed to reflect the information in the book's final edition.]