Society a la Valldejuli

Ha llegado inesperadamente un amigo, el cual se quedará a comer. ¡¡¡Qué problema!!! ¡¡¡Qué aturdimiento!!!

Y a esto yo contesto: ¡Nada de eso! Manos a la obra, y mientras el esposo lo obsequia con un “cocktail” o “highball”, nosotras hábilmente, sin carreras ni precipitaciones, preparamos un menú sencillo y atractivo.

– Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, Ideas de Menus para Invitados Inesperados in “Cocina Criolla” 

Family listening to the radio in a rural home in Puerto Rico, circa 1950. Source: Colección Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín.

Family listening to the radio in a rural home in Puerto Rico, circa 1950. Source: Colección Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín.

The 1950s was a period of economic, societal and political changes in Puerto Rico. The decade brought the establishment of Puerto Rico’s current political status as a commonwealth of the U.S., and the adoption of its constitution and flag. This was also an era of political turmoil and government repression.

Amidst these changes, Carmen Aboy Valldejuli published the first edition of Cocina Criolla, in 1954. This cookbook has been used and cherished by many through different generations, this despite other cookbooks written during that time (including the 1950 Cocine a Gusto) and since then. Why is Valldejuli’s book the one with staying power in our culinary imaginations?

The Valldejulis Photo by Ramon Aboy Miranda, from the back cover of Puerto Rican Cookery (1975)

The Valldejulis
Photo by Ramon Aboy Miranda, from the back cover of Puerto Rican Cookery (1975)

We don’t find much written about Valldejuli’s life, aside from the autobiographical notes in her books and a few newspaper articles. Valldejuli was born in 1912 (or 1918), less than two decades after the 1898 United States occupation of Puerto Rico. Born into the well known Aboy family, her privileged upbringing kept her out of the kitchen. She lived in a home with plentiful servants and a father who enjoyed fine food. In her twenties, she married another man who loved fine food, Luis Valldejuli. A ponceño who became her life and business partner, even co-authoring a book together titled Juntos en la Cocina.

The Valldejulis loved entertaining and enjoying the company of others over food. An article from the Milwaukee Journal in 1968 cites Mr. Valldejuli as saying, “When I come home, I never know how many people I’m having for dinner”. This love for entertaining is reflected in her book. She dedicates a chapter to the requirements of the formal dinner, including indispensables such as guests, a table and chairs, and specific guidance concerning the help, “competent” and “appropriately uniformed”, among other things. Valldejuli also offers tips on what to do with unexpected dinner guests, mostly a quick menu from different canned and jarred foods. Was Mrs. Valldejuli the one opening the cans and preparing the snacks for the unexpected guests?

The same 1968 Milwaukee Journal article, describes the Valldejuli home and kitchen. A “large glass front living room” opens to the terrace. Walls are decorated with Spanish fans, antique lace and modern paintings. The kitchen is large, perhaps matching the “imposing” 16 foot black mahogany dining table. In the kitchen we find Francisca Falu, mentioned in passing, almost as an accessory.

Ms. Falu had been with the family for 30 years (by 1968) and she was the one in charge of doing the family cooking. I had heard of Francisca before, as the black woman in Valldejuli’s kitchen, but I have not been able to find any other documentation about her aside from that short reference in the Milwaukee Journal. A web search revealed a social security record of a Francisca Falu-Torres born in the Virgin Islands in September 26, 1913 and dying in Puerto Rico, August 23, 2006, at 92 years of age, with her last residence in Santurce, PR. Was this the same Francisca in the Valldejuli’s kitchen? What stories could she have shared about the culinary life of the “Puerto Rican Julia Child”? Was she a part of the cookbook writing process?

I have spent many hours with the first and last editions of Cocina Criolla (1954 and 2001, respectively). This exercise has sparked many questions about the author and the book in its historical context. Valldejuli is an important part of the culinary memory and imagination of the Puerto Rican community in the island and abroad. Yet not much is known about her, her culinary influences, how she finally learned to cook, or where these recipes came from. Taking her recipes and dinner party instructions alongside the economic and political realities of Puerto Rico in the 1950s inevitably bring the picture of two different worlds in the same small island.

Cocina Criolla, 1954 & 2001 editions

Cocina Criolla, 1954 & 2001 editions

Despite the many changes in Puerto Rico since the 1950s, Cocina Criolla has remained virtually unchanged throughout the decades. While Valldejuli does not ask us to pluck chickens in the 2001 edition, she still asks us to open coconuts. Some people follow her instructions with very delicious results, but not me. In all honesty, I have only made one recipe from the book, Bizcocho de Chinas (Orange cake), the orange juice version. And I certainly do not have plans of cooking my way through Cocina Criolla (a la Julie and Julia). Why have I not cook more from this book? That is certainly the topic of another, future post.

In the meantime, please share your own experiences (or lack of experience) with Valldejuli (or your own national culinary icon).

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5 thoughts on “Society a la Valldejuli

  1. I love your blog. I have learned a lot from this post didn’t know there was a Puerto Rican Julia Child. It’s funny because the foods I know to cook came from my maternal grandmother. Recipes that were pass to my mother and then to me and my sisters. I still don’t cook real Puerto Rican food. I always wait to go to “mami” for pasteles, alcapurias, pernil and sancochos. It’s easier for our generation to forget that part of our cultural since we are always eating on the run.

    • Thank you for this comment, Naida. The notion of “real Puerto Rican food” is something I am very interested in, and hope to continue exploring here. In any case, I am sure your cooking counts as Puerto Rican as well!
      Valldejuli is famous in Puerto Rico, perhaps more so in the generation of our parents. Please ask your mom about her, to see if she knows about Cocina Criolla.

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