In a seminal essay on the Latin American novel, Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier talked about “culinary context” as one of the essential elements of the region’s fiction. As in his own novels, Carpentier was reaching for that overarching component that made Latin America, well, Latin America.
Maricel E. Presilla titles the first chapter of her 902-page Gran Cocina Latina (Norton, $45), “What is Latin America?” The book is an ambitious work that encompasses all Latin American cooking, thus claiming that, say, Mexican pozole soup is of a piece with Ecuadoran ceviche. We are all in this together, Presilla is saying by the very act of writing this book, taking her cue from another Cuban compatriot, José Martí, who defined “America” as the parts of the hemisphere where Iberian, not Anglo-Saxon, languages are spoken.
And what is the binding element in “Our America,” as Martí called it? In a word, colonialism, the “common history” Presilla says has thrust us together, too often reluctantly.
There is a depth to this colonialism, as Presilla discovers in her culinary journeys. Though Spain rushed to claim its chunk of the Americas at the dawn of the 16th century, its attitude was not that of the Renaissance but of the Middle Ages. Thus, Presilla, a trained historian as well as a chef and restaurateur, finds Latin cooking medieval at heart. In specific techniques, yes, but also in attitude.
Slow food, a recent movement stateside, is business as usual in a Latin kitchen. Ripeness is all. The sensuality of flavor, what Latins call sabor, achieved by a required marinade ( adobo) for meats, an aromatic vegetable sauté ( sofrito) for main courses and labor-intensive procedures like scraping sweetener from a bar of raw sugar ( panela). This unique taste (which, like flavor, translates as sabor), created by time-intensive traditions and a loving relationship to them, is a legacy of the medieval.
But Iberian colonialism yielded another phenomenon. Criollo, the Spanish for Creole, meaning “from the soil,” is what Latin Americans call themselves and their culture. Thus, Presilla’s book could be called “Gran Cocina Criolla.” And criollo cuisine, like its New Orleans Creole cousin, is the happy amalgam of (Southern) European, Native American and African traditions. History is a horror show (just think of slavery), but sometimes forced marriages live happily ever after, in the kitchen if not the bedroom.
Presilla is offended when she hears traditional Latin American dishes “patronizingly pigeonholed as ‘hearty peasant food,’ ” for, as she notes, “the work that goes into them is stupendous.” Indeed, ask a Puerto Rican cook about making pasteles, a term that elsewhere means “pies,” but on the island names tamales made with malanga, green bananas, green plantains and calabaza. Pasteles are made at Christmas, and the process is as daunting as the judgment reserved for their worth by fastidious puertorriqueños.
Not everything is challenging. An Argentine churrasco calls for nothing but skirt steak and salt – the asado or parrillada it’s often a part of is more elaborate, though any backyard grill master will enjoy making it. And the provolenetta appetizer, offered at every Argentine steak house, requires just provolone cheese and oil.
Whether of mind-bending complexity or stark simplicity, the dishes found in this book will treat the initiate to wonderful new sensations of the palate, while instructing Latin cooks on the cooking of their neighbors or even the undiscovered secrets of their own national cuisine.
Presilla pairs her dishes with drink, often beer or wine from the region, and equally a nonalcoholic drink that may be the traditional accompaniment.
There are notes galore, tips on storing and personal anecdotes. Gran Cocina Latina is rich enough for those who enjoy the vicarious pleasure of reading culinary writing even if not following a recipe for tonight’s dinner. And in the best cookbook tradition, recipes are carefully detailed.
This is the right moment for this book, an instant classic that is destined to become the go-to text on the subject. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, intelligent in its history and recipes, beautifully laid out and illustrated, Gran Cocina Criolla satisfies curiosity about cultures and marvelous cuisines that are increasingly present beyond regional borders.
Not just in Miami, where Presilla is a contributor to The Miami Herald’s Food pages, but throughout the United States, there is a growing familiarity with Latin American food. This book will set the record straight for those acquainted with sometimes distorted versions of classic dishes. Want to make standards like a Cuban arroz con pollo or Argentine chimichurri steak sauce? Here are not just recipes, in their original splendor, but also contemporary adaptations. Presilla, like the good historian she is, knows that traditions are not static and that what we call “fusion” is an old and constant process, nowhere more so than in Latin cooking.
It will take years if not decades to cook one’s way through this glorious volume. And like any great cookbook, this one beckons two kinds of reading, with one eye on the page and the other on the stove. And intimately, at a comfortable reading spot. Yet, what could be more intimate than cooking? What other activity resembles lovemaking more in its lovely balance of focused attention and sensual abandon? Read. Cook. Savor.
Enrique Fernandez is a Florida writer.