Cookbooks in transitioning societies – a new publication

Close to three years ago I discovered the parallel stories of Carmen Aboy Valldejuli and Nitza Villapol, the Julia Child caribeñas. These women and their cookbooks left  a lasting impression in the culinary histories of Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively. This serendipitous discovery led me to many hours interacting with their work, both in the library and the kitchen. Their books provide a different way to analyze the important political and economic transitions happening in the two islands, spanning  across the later half of the twentieth century,


It is my pleasure to share one of the final products of this journey – the article, Writing Cuisine in the Spanish Caribbean: A Comparative Analysis of Iconic Puerto Rican and Cuban cookbooks,  published in the latest edition of Food, Culture and Society, summarized as follows:

Puerto Rico and Cuba, linked by a common colonial history, culture, and tropical environments, have similar cuisines. The islands’ shared historical trajectories have been increasingly divergent in the last century, especially since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This paper analyzes the concurrent social changes since the 1950s in these two contexts, through the work of two iconic cookbook writers, Carmen Valldejuli (Puerto Rico) and Nitza Villapol (Cuba). Writing and publishing during the second half of the twentieth century, these women’s books became an important part of the culinary imagination in their respective islands and diaspora communities. This article analyzes how their work reflects their personal stories and changing social contexts by comparing the earliest and latest editions of their books. Differences between Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisines, as portrayed in the cookbooks, are assessed and contextualized in their respective sociopolitical contexts. This analysis of the production and transmission of culinary traditions offers a novel insight on local and transnational manifestations of these islands’ sociopolitical transformations during these decades.

Interested in reading more? Access to the article is available through this link.


An Elf in an Imaginary Kitchen

Cucuyé lives in the Fairy Kingdom. He is a kind and adventurous elf. He is the creation of Carmen Aboy Valldejuli the author of Cocina Criolla, the go-to reference guide in Puerto Rican cooking and subject of a recent posting.

I stumbled upon Cucuyé through my current research on Valldejuli and her work. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that aside from her cookbooks, she ventured into children’s literature. These books were published in the late 70s, early 80s. They are beautifully illustrated by Poli Marichal. The first one, Cucuyé en el Reino de las Hadas (Cucuyé in the Fairy Kingdom) won the 1979 children literature prize from the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena. The series is about the many adventures of Cucuyé. And this elf has quite the adventurous life! He has been a champion cowboy (Cucuyé, Vaquero Campeón), has enjoyed the wonders of the sea (Cucuyé y las Maravillas del Mar), and spent time with a naïve giant (Cucuyé y el Gigante Inocentón). However, and most interesting to me, are his adventures in the kitchen described in the book Cucuyé en la Cocina.

 “Sencillamente he decidido dejar de experimentar mas. Trataremos la receta tan deliciosa de mantecaditos del libro de cocina que usa Mamá Duende y que tanto nos gusta.”
[Simply, I have decided to stop experimenting. Let’s try the delicious recipe of mantecaditos that we like so much from the cookbook Mother Elf  uses.]

Such were the words of Cucuyé after trying three other recipes with his friends in preparation for a culinary contest. You see, Cucuyé likes to help his fellow elfs. Apparently some of his friends were walking around with old, broken boots and their families were too poor to buy new ones (Yes, poverty and social class divisions are present even in the Fairy Kingdom). When Cucuyé brought the idea of experimenting in the kitchen to his loyal friends, they mocked him:

“¡Estas chiflado!” (You are crazy!) – said Chemi.

Eso se lo dejamos a Mamá Duende” (We leave that to Mother Elf) – said Chopo (Yes, cooking is for women in the Fairy Kingdom).

But  Cucuyé pressed on and convinced them, for the benefit of their friends in need, as with the money from the culinary contest price, they would be able to buy the needed boots. Like Valldejuli, Cucuyé and friends collected and tried different recipes. But, in the end, they went for the tried and true recipes from Mother Elf’s favorite cookbook, which greatly resembles Cocina Criolla. And they made mantecaditos – the Puerto Rican almond shortbread cookie, named after the use of Manteca (lard) in the recipe, ½ a cup according to the Cocina Criolla’s recipe (yield not specified).
Mother Elf was proud, seeing the little elves work in the kitchen, measuring every ingredient and following the instructions in from the cookbook.  Funny moments were not á miss. A coquí, the emblematic Puerto Rican frog, decided to jump in the flour, creating havoc and laughter in Cucuyé’s kitchen (Yes! There are coquís  in Fairy World).

In the end – spoiler alert – they won the contest. Everybody was happy. Cucuyé bought new shoes for his grateful friends. On went Cucuyé to plan his next adventure… (Was there another adventure?)

cucuye winning

Cucuyé en la Cocina was a treat for me (and I hope for you as well). It is another, different piece, to my society a la Valldejuli puzzle. It echoes the importance of using cookbooks with tested and tried recipes, and of precision and measurements to produce winning results in the kitchen, also found in Cocina Criolla. Hope you enjoyed this little known treasure in the Puerto Rican children’s literature.

(The illustrations come from the book, Cucuye en la Cocina, by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli.)

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).

Pasteles and Ketchup


We got our first pasteles in New York. They are in the freezer – half a dozen – waiting for a nice arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) to be paired with. We’ll eat these in Christmas. Most likely we’ll put a little bit of ketchup and pique (hot sauce) on top. Yes. I said ketchup. And I may be taking a risk confessing this. To some Puerto Ricans, eating pasteles with ketchup is a culinary aberration – an issue best understood through this music video:

Music Video: "Pasteles con Ketchup"

The song and video portrays the very interesting debate I want to explore next. 

First, what exactly are pasteles? For the non-Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking reader, the word pastel evokes the image of a pastry, in some cases a cake. Usually, we tend to explain pasteles simply as the Puerto Rican version of the tamal. If I may, pasteles are a much more complicated version. Let’s take for example the Cuban tamal as a point of comparison, using the recipe from Cuban culinary icon Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto. Her Tamal en Hoja has 11 ingredients in total and 5 steps, including cooking. In comparison, a recipe for a pastel may have as many as 22 ingredients and 33 steps. In Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla (the Puerto Rican “culinary bible”), the recipe for her Pasteles “Mamie” takes 4 pages, dividing the process in three parts: the filling (16 ingredients, 11 steps), the dough (6 ingredients, 6 labor intensive steps), and the actual construction and cooking of the pastel (16 steps, including a diagram).

From Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla: Diagram to help comprehend the way to form the pastel

Like most Puerto Ricans in my generation, I have never attempted to make pasteles. It is quite a feat and one I think most of us Puerto Rican food lovers might like to take on someday.  We rely on small entrepreneurs, mostly Puerto Rican doñitas (and some dones as well), to take on the task and sell for about $2/pastel. Finding a “pastel connection” is not a straight forward act either, but once you find your connection, you are loyal to that person. You defend their pasteles, as your own achievement on finding this connection. You recommend them and fight with others as to who can bring to the table the best ones and at the best price.

The last step in the pasteles’ preparation is to boil them for about 45 minutes. Go over the cooking time, and they are ruined. Next, you need to unwrap them, being careful of not getting burned or stained from the water with achiote hiding in the wrapping. And – finally! – the pastel is on the plate. Can you pass the ketchup?

Just bringing this condiment to the table might be a sign of disrespect. How can you ruin a pastel with ketchup after all the work someone put into making it? Now, I have to say that in thinking of this issue I realize that we put ketchup on many things: burgers, eggs, rice, steak, fried chicken, beans, alcapurrias…However, these do not come with such an outrage.

An academic take on the merging of pasteles with ketchup can bring the symbolism of this dish as the current state of Puerto Rican culture. The ingredients in the pastel, the root crops both from African ancestors and from Tainos are merged with contributions from Spain (pork) and the Middle East (garbanzo). The long process of preparing can be symbolic of our history and struggles, resulting in the very mixed Puerto Rican “race”.

Is the rejection of this new ingredient, the ketchup, a rejection on the influence of the United States in our culture?

Like ketchup on a pastel, U.S. influence in Puerto Rico has resulted in an ever increasing influx of fast food chains – and highly processed foods. This food colonization is not unique to Puerto Rico. We share this with other Latin American countries and the rest of the world. Globalization and the “Macdonalization” of diets worldwide is certainly a huge topic to be further unpacked. Is the adamant rejection of even trying pasteles con ketchup an assertion (conscious or unconscious) of Puertorriqueñidad? As some may reject pasteles con ketchup, are these same people rejecting Starbucks over the local café? Are these individuals skipping the ever increasing influx of US-based chains over the amazing array of local restaurants?

But back at the more simple argument – devoiding the conversation from the politics of our Puerto Rican identity – the pasteles are just too labor intensive, too precious to ruin with this awfully processed red sauce.  And yes, it is quite a processed product with high fructose corn syrup and unnamed “natural flavors”, as seen in a store-bought bottle.

But what if you made your own? Could changing ketchup from an imported, highly processed bottled sauce to a home-made condiment bring the opposition to at least try the combination?

A basic tomato ketchup is made out of tomato, onion, vinegar, sugar, and salt. With the help of a blender, you can make it at home. The process may take you about 30 minutes, depending on the ingredients, plus a 2+ hours of refrigeration for flavors to develop from a tomato sauce to ketchup. It is the sugar and the salt help accentuate the flavor of the pastel – that is, if used wisely. The ingredients themselves are not entirely foreign, and may even be included already in other parts of the meal.

The controversy over pasteles with ketchup is hardly settled, and may continue on for years to come. Where do you stand in the debate? Please share your own views below.

¡Feliz Navidad!