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.

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…

beans cooked

More on this soon…

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