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In the introduction to her fifth book,, Sandra A. Gutierrez describes Latin American food as a “large house.” “The front door is Mexican food, because it is the most recognized of all Latin American cuisines…However, step further into the house, and ah…! There are twenty other kitchens inside. Each one is as delicious as the next, and each one is different from the rest.” Born in Philadelphia to Guatemalan parents, Gutierrez’s appreciation of Latin American cooking is the product of thirty years of ongoing research, conversations, and close observations of every kitchen she entered, from the homes of diplomats and ambassadors she visited during her childhood in Guatemala to her work as a renowned scholar and cookbook chronicler of Pan-Latin foodways. Even when COVID shut down her plans for a 23-city research trip, she connected remotely with chefs, cooks, and anyone who would talk to her about their favorite recipes. “I found that people loved to talk about their memories of food,” Gutierrez told me from her home in Cary, North Carolina, “especially those foods that represent comfort, or a memory of somebody that they’d loved and lost. Because of the pandemic, I had a basis on which to ask them about their family stories, and their heritage in cooking.” The community of perspectives captured in the book reflects not only Gutierrez’s meticulous approach to cookbook writing in the face of adversity but also the inherent variety and complexity of Latin American cooking.
The book initially began as a collection of more than 9,000 recipes, shaped by Gutierrez’s sense of responsibility to her subject. “This is not a book about me,” Gutierrez said. “This is a book about the peoples of twenty-one countries, with traditions that have come down the generations and through the history of these countries. And though we have about 350 official recipes in the book, there are hundreds of variations; there’s not only one way to make something.” Though the book is organized by core ingredients—corn (and within that, sections on nixtamal, tortillas, arepas), squash, chiles, and so on—Gutierrez refused to treat any recipe as a definitive preparation. Ingredients shift in meaning from household to household, country to country. As Gutierrez explains in one chapter opener, in Nicaragua, corn may mean atole seasoned with cacao and allspice, whereas for the Garifuna (the Afro-Caribbean peoples) of Belie, Colombia, and Honduras, corn kernels may be the topping to a stew enriched with coconut milk. With all these differences, “who’s to say what is authentic,” Gutierrez asks, “what my grandmother made, versus what Maria’s grandmother made? What I tried to find was the common denominator, and to build recipes that would satisfy.” That pursuit of satisfaction is fueled by Gutierrez’s infinite curiosity, one that she hopes her readers will share as she invites them to “walk across the threshold” of this astonishing, encyclopedic tome on Latin American cooking.
JC: How would you explain this concept of latinísimo, what you define as “very Latin American,” for someone who goes looking for it?
SG: This book is made of dishes that have evolved over the centuries, but also that are recognizable in modern home kitchens today. I didn’t want to write a book that was only good for historical research, though I incorporated history because it’s important to know where food comes from. Overall, the dishes in this book had to be doable, with ingredients that were affordable and easy to find, and using techniques that were easy to learn. This all sounds impossible when I say it now, especially if it’s on one single person to represent the entirety of Latin American cookery. (It’s going to take many of us authors to capture the cuisine!) I see Pan-Latin cuisine as a quilt of different patches, but with a particular thread that pulls it together. So I had to narrow it down to just those recipes that would show off the fabric as clearly as possible, with the idea of “latinísimo” as the thread that connects them.
JC: You made very strategic selections in this book, leaving out overly complicated dishes, or those only prepared during a single historical period. What informed that choice?
SG: I’ve taught cooking for over 30 years, and my students come from every possible walk of life—I teach doctors, lawyers, home cooks, teenagers—so it’s very important to me not to leave anybody out. As a writer and teacher, I intend to make the table longer, and to invite anybody who wants to pull up a chair. I could have organized the book by country, but I didn’t want to narrow it down to 10 or 20 recipes per country, especially as some dishes are made across countries. So I thought ingredients would be a good way of illustrating the globalization that occurred after the Columbian Exchange of ingredients, showing both the differences in each cuisine and the similarities that bring them together. The ingredients are a good point of departure, to understand the complexity of the cuisines in Latin America, and the histories that inform the recipes we have today.
JC: In the “Short History of Latin America” you offer in your introduction, you frame the European colonization of Latin America as a “gastronomic tsunami”, one that led to many of the most beloved dishes in Latin America today. How do you balance your love of these dishes while acknowledging the painful history that produced them?
SG: I generally think we concentrate too much on the guilt, the anger, the injustices of history—that’s justifiable, both when we think about the past and the ongoing injustices of today. And there are real consequences to history—both positive and negative, especially as they come together on the plate. If we were to imagine a world without that Columbian exchange, Italy wouldn’t have any tomatoes, and there wouldn’t be any chocolate in Switzerland. By the same token, Argentina wouldn’t have its beef asados, because there wouldn’t be any beef in the Americas. Food is a catalyst that brings people together, but it’s also the map that is drawn after the world changes—the new skin that emerges, with its scars, but nevertheless encompassing the body. So what I do is I speak about history very logically, but I also emphasize that exchanging food is one of the most intimate acts we can have. And once you have that between two people, you have a sense of established trust, and that is a good place to start conversations, to heal the past, and build a future.
If you know the history of each country, you’ll come to understand what makes Latin American cuisine so vibrant, and why Argentinians don’t eat what Nicaraguans eat, and why Guatemalans don’t eat what Cubans eat. We have different cuisines because we have our own histories. You also learn how and why dishes change. For example, the ingredients that go into tamales today are different than what Indigenous peoples used; they didn’t have lard, because they didn’t have pork. Similarly, plantains—which are one of the most important ingredients in the trinity of Latin cooking, along with rice and beans—are in every country, and yet plantains come from Africa. Food helps us understand history in a way that’s not intimidating, and that helps us to move forward. That’s why all my books include history because I believe that foodways are one of the best ways to learn and study cultures.
JC: What tools or pieces of equipment would you recommend to get started with these dishes at home?
SG: The most important electrical piece of equipment in a Latin kitchen is the blender. It replaces a lot of work done by a batán or molcajete, and most of us use it to quickly make sauces or dressings. A comal is not necessary, as a nonstick griddle or pan will work in the same fashion. (My ownand are now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.) A good cast-iron skillet will also work great, and it’s also helpful because we do a lot of things a la plancha or asada-style, including roasting vegetables. But other things are more general, like having a well-stocked supply of spatulas, measuring cups, and a food scale, so you can be precise.
JC: Some people may be surprised when they uncover recipes in your book for char siu (Chinese roast pork) from Peru, or Argentinian gnocchi made with yucca. Where do those dishes come from?
SG: Those influences came in the waves of immigration into Latin America at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, and globally that’s when most of the world’s immigrants arrived at their present locations (except for the wave we’re experiencing now.) So I had to include the biggest groups that made the strongest splash, if you will, in the cuisine of their new countries. So Italians are present in Argentina, but so too are the British and the Scots. Then if you go to Mexico, you find the Lebanese influence. And then if you go to Cuba, you find the African and Spanish influence, which emerged even earlier. But I also wanted each recipe to work as a point of departure for the reader—something familiar that would encourage them to take a leap of faith in making the dish. So for example, with the recipe for Pepián de Res, I call it a Mayan-inspired beef stew from Guatemala. In the Spanish title, you can see all the different things that go into the traditional pepián–the nuts, the seeds, the burnt bread), and yet you can be anchored by the fact that it’s a stew. These recipes are from a specific point in time, but they’ve also evolved from when they started to where they are now—and they’re going to keep evolving a century from now, as we have new techniques and new equipment in the kitchen. But that point of familiarity is an invitation to the reader, to say, “You know, I’ve never been to Peru, I had no idea that Peruvians had this great Asian influence, but I’m willing to try that char siu recipe.” I’m asking people to take a leap forward, using the dish as a map of history.
JC: Many of these dishes are shaped by Incan or Maya cooking techniques. How do you think about that while writing recipes that reflect Latin American kitchens today?
SG: So we generally have three ways of describing Latin American food: indígena, or indigenous; típica, which means typical (which means the most recognized foods in each country, like the tacos al pastor of Mexico); and modern or contemporary cuisine. In most of the recipes in this book, I try to stay in those dishes that unite all three elements, so each recipe acts as a link in the chain of history. This is relevant to the pepián de res I’ve shared with you. There’s a Mayan tradition of making sauces or moles with nuts and seeds and a tomato base—they likely made it with duck or turtle before beef came into the country via colonization. So you can view it as comida tipica, as it is very popular among the modern indigenous peoples of Guatemala, who are all Mayan.
JC: If there had been no space limit on the book, is there anything you wish you could have given more time to explore?
SG: I would have loved a section entirely on peanuts, as well as dishes that included seafood—the clams, mussels, and scallop dishes that are very common across South America—but unfortunately there wasn’t any room to do it. But I am very happy that we were able to offer a Spanish-language edition of this book at the same time, which I had a big hand in translating, because many recipes in Latin American cookbooks are not as precise as they could be. Sometimes in the handwritten notebooks I received during my research, the recipes would say, “Cook the chicken until it looks done.” That wouldn’t fly today, right? And yet many Latin American recipes are written that way. This will be a new kind of book in Spanish because it will have a more precise approach.
I wonder sometimes if the reason that there are only a handful of books on Latin America on the market today is that U.S. publishers and readers see us as the “neighbors”, so close that readers might not see the food as “exotic” or exciting enough. But I want people to try the food of their neighboring countries because it changes the way they will look at them. Latin America has an amazing amalgamation of culture, music, art, food, and history—it’s colorful, and there’s lots to connect to and learn from.
JC: Were there any dishes or methods of cooking that you loved testing over and over again?
SG: I love frying sauces, the Aztec and Mayan technique of roasting vegetables, blending them into sauces, and then frying them in oil or lard. That process seals the flavor and color of the dish, and it gives oomph to a recipe in a way that just having a plain boiled sauce won’t do. Every recipe was tested—first by me, then by a team of testers in different countries, as well as a professional tester. And then when we did the photography for the book, I had a team of eight people cooking with me, and we retested all of the recipes we photographed. For me, the most important part of writing a cookbook is to make sure that the recipes will work for my readers. So I like the testing, the mastering of a new technique like the frying of sauces, or finding a new way to make something, like making masa in a food processor. The testing takes that initial point of “Aha, I got it!” and makes sure that it can be reproduced many times, and by different people. That’s almost as good as discovering a new place or a new flavor.