My Parents' Coquito Always Brings Me Home
Making this recipe for the Puerto Rican holiday drink is a way to connect to family near and far.
Pictured above: The author's Coquito recipe
Puerto Rico has one of the longest holiday seasons in the world. We start our festivities on Thanksgiving and end in the third week of January with Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, a famous festival in Old San Juan. Many Puerto Rican families bring these festive customs to the mainland.
My parents are not an exception. They both arrived in the mid-1950s to Rochester, a small city in western New York State. They met in the mid-1970s and were together until my father died in 2014.
My mother came as a preteen to Rochester with her family in search of a better life. She recalls how she and her siblings used to pick up Christmas trees on December 26 from the garbage in the nicer neighborhoods. They'd take them home and decorate them, as there was almost a month left to their Puerto Rican Christmas season. My mom says that gave them a sense of normalcy despite their struggles during their early years on the mainland.
Fast forward to 1983. It's the first Christmas I remember. I was 5 years old, living in Rochester. My parents owned a liquor store, DeJesus Liquor Store, near the Kodak and Gerber factories. Many Puerto Ricans moved to the area to work in the factories. Many of them were my father's customers. They knew him as "Don Gume." My father was a tall man, about 6 feet, 2 inches, played the guitar, sometimes at the store, and was revered by his family and customers. Every Puerto Rican who lived in Rochester either knew him or knew of him. He was one of the "OGs" of the Puerto Rican diaspora community in Rochester.
Rochester is known for its freezing winters and mounds of lake-effect snow from Lake Ontario. My mother always said sales were better during the winter months because people used alcohol to stay warm. As a kindergartner, I waddled through the snowy sidewalks in my blue snowsuit alongside my older brother who used to pick me up from school. Once we arrived at the store, he would boost me over the counter to my parents. I then hung out by the cash register and made small talk with the customers. Some even brought me toys or candy.
During the holidays, a popular sale item was rum, as many of the Puerto Rican customers made coquito, a creamy rum- and coconut milk-based cocktail. My mother makes it every Christmas season, keeping at least one bottle in the fridge for unexpected guests. Back in the day, she always had it in the ready in case of a parranda. A parranda is a surprise (usually) visit by friends and family in the middle of the night during the holidays. During this time, people typically keep extra food items like pasteles (a masa made of banana and root vegetables, filled with stewed meat, wrapped in a banana leaf), morcillas (blood sausage) and rice on the ready in case they get a surprise visit.
Christmas of 1983 was the last holiday season we spent in Rochester. We had several parrandas that Christmas season. I remember people coming into the house with their thick coats, toting guitars, maracas and güiros. The living room and kitchen exploded with people singing and dancing. I remember my mom whipping out shot glasses and pouring the coquito for our guests as they played traditional Puerto Rican music.
In the spring of 1984, we moved to Puerto Rico. My father had retired from working for the city of Rochester and sold the liquor store. His dream was to always return to his hometown of Guayama. My father still knew a lot of people there, and the parrandas followed during the holiday season. As always, the omnipresent item in our fridge was coquito. Repurposed bottles of Palo Viejo (my mom's favorite rum) filled with the creamy concoction lined the refrigerator-door shelves awaiting the "asalto navideño." Many people refer to a parranda as an asalto navideño"—a Christmas assault—as a traditional one is made unannounced in the middle of the night.
We returned in 1992 to Rochester, and although the parrandas were not as common during our frigid western New York winters at that time, the coquito still made an appearance during our holiday season. The blender's buzzing sound is synonymous with Christmas for me because it felt as if my mom had it on permanently to make her coquito. She would make batch after batch and pack it in old liquor bottles to give to co-workers and family members.
Both my parents were great cooks. They showed their generosity through food. My mom still gifts calderos of rice and beans to friends during the holidays. When I became an adult, I wanted to continue that tradition. When I graduated from college, I earned my commission as a Marine officer. My first duty station was in Okinawa, Japan. One thing that made me feel close to home was making coquito and sharing it with my fellow lieutenant neighbors in our officer quarters.
When I make my mom's coquito recipe, I cook the evaporated milk with the spices: cinnamon, cloves and fresh ginger. The bonus is that warm spicy smell filling the house. Some recipes call for ground cinnamon and cloves. My mom is always against that because the spices float to the top. I reserve the ground cinnamon for the end, for a light sprinkle on top of the coquito. You should technically serve this in a shot glass because it's quite rich. However, since I know I am going for seconds (or maybe thirds), I like to serve my coquito in a coupe.
There are so many memories associated with coquito for me: the parrandas in Puerto Rico with our terrace full of people in the middle of the night. When I lived in Brussels and worked at NATO, I would bring coquito to the office, and my international colleagues would rave about it. When my father met my husband, he offered him a whole coquito bottle as a welcome gift.
Coquito brings me a certain comfort. The creaminess of the milk, the slight sting of the rum, and the scent of cinnamon and cloves take me back to my parents' kitchen. Now I find myself making it at home every holiday season regardless of where I live. Whether it was in my kitchen in my French-style apartment in Brussels or my drab barracks room in Okinawa, coquito has always taken me back to the warmth of home.
Jessica van Dop DeJesus is a Washington, DC-based travel writer and the creator of The Dining Traveler website, as well as the author of The Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico. Watch her make her coquito in this episode of her Dining Traveler Cooking Series on YouTube and follow her on Instagram @diningtraveler.