Thinking Cookbooks: La Gran Cocina Latina

For a long time, when people asked me, “why food?” I didn’t have a good answer. I knew that eating, cooking and traveling made me feel more alive than anything else. I couldn’t point towards one person I hoped to emulate. But that was before Maricel E. Presilla’s, La Gran Cocina Latina (W.W. Norton, 2012) landed on my desk.

Taking a break from the piles of reading for my doctoral coursework, I paged  through the magnificent 901-page tome and remembered a story that Presilla had written years before, back when I was in high school, a story that gave a name to what I wanted to do with my life.

It was my sophomore year of high school. My parents had divorced, my brother had left for college, and meals, like many other things, had fallen by the wayside then. Left to my own devices, I began experimenting with over-sauced stir fries. I also ate a lot of T.V. dinners.

I started subscribing to Gourmet. I still have no idea why I ordered the magazine, as food had never played prominently in our family life. Nevertheless, every month, I greeted the magazine with great excitement, gingerly turned each glossy page and then read it from cover to cover.

It was in one of those volumes that I encountered Maricel Presilla. Latin America wasn’t a big topic in New York State’s Global History curriculum back then, and Dr. Presilla’s story  about food culture in Venezuela’s Orinoco river basin seemed so exotic that I began researching her on the internet.

Born in Cuba, she moved to New York, earned a doctorate in medieval history from New York University, studied in Spain, trained to become a chef and, after marrying her high school sweetheart, opened two Latin American restaurants, Cucharamama and Zafra, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her passion for Latin American culture and food fuels her endless travels, indefatigable research and writing.

My mind was, promptly, blown.

The grown ups I knew had job titles such as teacher, doctor, lawyer, builder. But this! This was a life steeped in adventure and flavor. A life without a time clock or a roadmap. A life with food and conviviality at its center. As I dug deeper and deeper into her writing, I could practically feel the furniture of my mind rearranging itself.

From then on, I knew I wanted to write about food. I didn’t disclose my dream job to many, but quietly, in the afternoons after school and then throughout college, I began to read all the food research and stories that I could get my hands on, experimenting in the kitchen and saving money to try hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and scheming ways to travel the world.

While I was just beginning to dream it, Maricel Presilla was busy living the life. She grew up in a family where food and cooking played a central role. In La Gran Cocina Latina, she writes of the disconnect she felt as an academic, missing the “living, boiling cooking pot” and “its hidden potential to reveal the past, present, and future.” As pulled as she is by history and research, she eventually left the classrooms,  blackboards and dusty archives behind for the world of dented pots, wooden spoons and street markets.

Her restaurants are a testament to those cultural blurrings; both are pan-Latin American, pushing diners to rethink their ideas about Latin American food and identity. Her break from academia turned out to be a fruitful one. Last year, that challenging stance and her culinary skill won Presilla recognition as the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation. Together with her culinary skill, that challenging stance won Presilla recognition as the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation.  Between shifts, somehow, she spent three decades exploring the Latin America that she documents in La Gran Cocina Latina.With 500 fastidiously researched and tested recipes, the volume is a serious cookbook. It is also a travelogue, a work of social history, and a guide to culinary etymology. La Gran Cocina Latina is, Presilla writes, a “very personal account of how Latin American food became the core of my existence, trumping all my previous plans and unwittingly transforming me into a cook and restaurateur in the United States, the one country where all Latin cuisines have come to merge.”

Dr. Presilla defines “Latin American” as all but the Guianas and Belize; that is, every country in the Americas in which Portuguese or Spanish is the dominant language.

Considering national borders less cultural divisions than political and geographic ones, Presilla divided her book into categories not by nation, but by type of food. Starting from the foundation of most Latin American diets—roots and starchy vegetables— she works her way up the food pyramid, through indigenous staple crops (squashes, corn, quinoa and beans) to rice, up to drinks and snacks (empanadas and “the tamal family” each have their own chapter), then into animal proteins, soups and salads, and finally “hot pepper pots” (where recipes for the marvelous iconic sauces such as adobos, picantes and moles can be found). The final section is devoted to sweets. Woven throughout are anecdotes from the author’s travels – sensual snapshots of tradition and culture – that contextualize and personalize the precise and accessible (though, Presilla concedes, often labor intensive) recipes.

The volume of the book—both in size and scope— may seem imposing. Like overkill, even. But if you consider the breadth of Presilla’s subject matter—Latin America’s population is close to 600 million and it covers about 8 million square miles—it almost begins to seem slim.

I remember my first trip to Brazil several years ago. I was following my own hunger, which beckoned me not east towards Europe like many of my friends, but south instead. I was seduced by the colors, the language, the street life. But I fell hardest for the foods that were strange to me – the jewel-like tropical fruits, dendêoil, fresh Brazil nuts, salt cod and especially the malagueta chiles – like so many red witches’ fingernails – and the astonishing number of foods derived from the manioc (a.k.a. cassava or yuca) root. As I roamed around Brazil, I wrote down the names of everything new I encountered in a pocket notebook. I was hooked. I found my way to Argentina, Uruguay, Belize and Guatemala too. Several trips later, I’m still carrying that notebook, ever amazed as the array of ingredients and techniques continues to widen in my view.

So imagine Presilla’s attempt to try to tackle all of Latin American food in one volume. It’s a daunting task, and a messy one at that. Presilla offers a thoughtful and thorough interpretation of the influences that have shaped Latin American food —indigenous ingredients mixed with a history of European colonization and African slavery — with the complex reality of diaspora setting its tone. In her writing she helps shape our conception of the myriad cultures south of our borders, and what they look like in translation. Using carefully chosen research and anecdotes, she weaves stories together with tidbits from the archives to create an unrivaled (and exhaustive) portrait of a hemisphere and its cooking traditions.

Once hemmed in by the rigidity of the academy and the irksome demand for “empirical proof”, today Presilla proudly relies upon her eyes, ears, and taste. Of the common Latin American practice of preparing food at tables instead of standing at a counter, Presilla says, “Sitting down is the Zen of the Latin kitchen.” Of the control Latin American women can exercise from the kitchen, rather than getting all hegemonic on us, Presilla calls on our emotion. “Who can resist the call of the kitchen when there is so much power invested in the woman who cooks?” when a meal, she writes, is “love translated into skill, delicacy and intelligence.”

Her emotive conclusions might make academics bristle, but experiencing food, Dr. Presilla reminds us, is never an objective experience. It’s all doused in feeling, memory, and story.

Despite this anecdotal approach, La Gran Cocina Latina remains a work of true and original scholarship, one that Presilla cleverly snuck into the mainstream by dressing it up as a cookbook. It just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the academy, but you can’t take the academy out of the girl.

In graduate school, Presilla came to recognize that what had made Latin America “the world’s first and greatest laboratory of intercontinental culinary “fusion” was the arrival of Iberian cooks carrying a complex legacy. “In many ways,” she writes, “my research was eerily relevant to what I would find myself doing after I stumbled into working in Latin kitchens.”

“Back in our original countries, we treated our kitchens as bastions of national identity,” she says. But, “in this country, maintaining a well-defended Latin American national cuisine is nearly impossible.”

There’s never been an easy answer to what it means to be Latin American, nor a roadmap for the kind of cobbled-together life Presilla has created for herself. And perhaps the kitchen—more than the library or the classroom— is the place where it can all get thrown in one big stew pot and begin to make sense.

It certainly made sense to me, those many years ago. And today when people ask questions about my seemingly disjointed life – cooking classes, travel, writing, bakeries, graduate school, farming—I can point to this book, in its fat space on my kitchen shelf. I can pull La Gran Cocina Latina down, open it, turn its pages and say: “Look. This woman, this work, that’s why.”

Food, for Dr. Presilla and for me, is the only way to grapple with the chaos of life.