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,

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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.

Meals without meat?

I met Erisbela Garriga almost three years ago. She was participating in a book festival at La Marqueta, a historical marketplace in El Barrio. I was just starting my research on Spanish Caribbean diets, at the time focused on cookbooks. We started talking, and, as I browsed through her cookbooks, the title, De la Tierra con Sabor (From the Earth with Flavor) struck my attention. The book presented Puerto Rican dishes without one (traditionally) important ingredient – meat.

In Puerto Rico, I grew up with the idea that, “a meal without meat is not a meal”. Meat – chicken, pork, beef or fish – is the central piece of the plate. The rest are the “acompañantes”, the side dishes accessorizing the main star of the meal. Eating meat three times a day is commonplace: bacon or ham for breakfast, and other meats for lunch and dinner. Lately, I have been reconsidering this seemingly “traditional” eating pattern and the role of meat in my daily meals.

The idea to limit or decrease meat consumption has been increasingly grabbing headlines. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been recommending decreases or moderation in meat consumption since the 2002 Report, Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases.  Recently, these recommendations were bolstered by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report, reviewing the science on the link between cancer and eating meat. These results were summarized widely by various media outlets, including the BBC (as seen below), and contextualized by nutrition experts, such as Marion Nestle.

WHO meat classification

Concerns about the health, environmental and ethical consequences of meat consumption have led many to turn to vegetarian and vegan diets. Unfortunately, taste is usually left out of motivations to eat a plant-based diet. Yet, a dish without meat can be enjoyable and satisfying. Nowadays, there are more meat substitutes available, as well as a multitude of cookbooks showing us how to reinvent and invent new meals without animal parts. Some of those attempt at changing “Latino” diets with meatless tacos, vegetarian quesadillas, rice and beans, salads…but what about my traditional sanchocho? My pastel? This brings me back to Erisbela Garriga and her cookbooks, De la Tierra con Sabor, and the just published book, Eris’ Green Kitchen.

Eris green kitchen

Eris’ Green Kitchen is the English adaptation and re-vamping of De la Tierra con Sabor. It is a hardcover book, full of color pictures of all the dishes and selected how-to steps. The book motivates a reassessment of the role of meat in traditional Puerto Rican diets. Looking through the book, one realizes that there are is a variety of plant-based dishes in this cuisine. Plus, the book brings the possibility of more. For example, albóndigas de setas, one of the first recipes I tried from the book (with delicious results):
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Aside from the recipes, the book includes valuable introductory materials, such as a section on kitchen equipment, highlighting traditional tools from the past, including the old time stove, the anafre. The book also contains general cooking information: practical cooking tips for essential ingredients (sofrito, annatto oil, adobo), how to cook dehydrated soy protein, and even an illustrated guide to peel green plantains.

I was honored to write the Preface for this book and to be part of a wonderful celebration of its publication at the author’s home,

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Among the dishes enjoyed: tortilla española, a green banana ceviche, a spinach dip, marinated mushrooms, and my favorite: the Bizcocho de Gandules (Pigeon Pea Sweet Bread), which I promptly recreated back home:

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For more information about the book and upcoming author events, see the books’ facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Homestyle-Puerto-Rican-Cooking-Cookbook-86745451323/

Julie and Julia, a lo Caribeño

“When I read Julie and Julia, I remembered the unopened book, as well as the [copy of the] book my grandmother brought from Cuba. My grandmother sent her sons ahead to Miami with Pedro Pan and she still had to bring that book from Cuba.  So I had to see what was in that book.”
– Cristina Gomez Pina, interviewed for WLRN, Miami, FL.

Memories of my grandmother in her kitchen, peeling yucca in her flip-flops with her hair in rollers, came flooding back as I held the book in my hands, charmed by its ugly front cover with bad drawings of tropical fruit,
– Von Diaz, quoted by Newsweek, New York, NY

The Cuban in Miami, the Puerto Rican in New York. Like Julie, of Julie & Julia, they are set to cook their way through emblematic cookery books of a recent past: Cristina cooks from Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto, and Von cooks through Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla. Von and Cristina cook from these books, perhaps at the same time, more than 1,000 miles away. They are both far from their Caribbean homelands where the first editions of the books they hold in their hands were printed. They might or might not know each other for what I know. Yet they are joined by a yearning to revisit those kitchens of the past inspired by these “Julias caribeñas.” Like Von and Cristina, I have also been inspired by these Caribbean cookery icons, although not to jump into the kitchen.

Since moving to New York City almost a year ago, I have been spending more time researching cookbooks and (frankly) less time cooking. I have been fascinated by the lives and work of Valldejuli and Villapol, as contemporaries, and highly influential women in shaping kitchens (and palates) in their countries as well as their respective Diasporas. Their writing spans across almost five decades of great changes in Cuba and Puerto Rico. They lived parallel lives, both writing and publishing cookery books since the 1950s up until the end of their lives.

The social and personal lives of these Caribbean culinary icons reflect on the historical and cultural realities the islands from which they cooked and wrote. Through their books, you can read about idealized kitchens and tables of the times. Through this, you can also notice the social and economic changes in Cuban society, in contrast with the virtual immutability of the situation in Puerto Rico. While Valldejuli was a married woman of the elite society, Villapol remained single and endured the many scarcities of post-revolution Cuba. While Valldejuli’s side project was children’s books (one of which entitled Cucuyé en la Cocina), Villapol took on teacher’s role striving to improve the eating habits of the Cuban population, writing about Cuban food and collaborating with policy makers to address food and nutrition issues in the country. These and other differences in their life stories contrast sharply with the almost identical effect they have in our minds and our kitchens, beautifully exemplified by the analogous projects of Von and Cristina. The efforts of these home-based cooks underscore the importance of these books in our culinary imagination and (I also argue) in our histories. Cocina Criolla and Cocina al Minuto are still windows into a not so distant past. The authors take us by the hand to delicious moments, real or imagined, through a journey built by their recipes, sometimes leaving us hungry in a desk, or, as it is meant to be, enjoying a wonderful meal…

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More on this soon…

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Related Posts: 

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).