When her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, Von Diaz traded plantains, roast pork, and malta for grits, fried chicken, and sweet tea. Brimming with humor and nostalgia, Coconuts and Collards is a recipe-packed memoir of growing up Latina in the Deep South.
The stories center on the women in Diaz’s family who have used food to nourish and care for one another. When her mothernewly single and with two young daughterstook a second job to make ends meet, Diaz taught herself to cook, preparing meals for her sister after school, feeding her mother when she came home late from work. During summer visits to Puerto Rico, her grandmother guided her rediscovery of the island’s flavors and showed her traditional cooking techniques. Years later the island called her back to its warm and tropical embrace to be comforted by its familiar flavors.
Inspired by her grandmother’s 1962 copy of Cocina Criollathe Puerto Rican equivalent of the Joy of CookingCoconuts and Collards celebrates traditional recipes while fusing them with Diaz’s own family history and a contemporary Southern flair. Diaz discovers the connections between the food she grew up eating in Atlanta and the African and indigenous influences in so many Puerto Rican dishes. The funche recipe is grits kicked up with coconut milk. White beans make the catfish corn chowder creamy and give it a Spanish feel. The pinchos de pollochicken skewersfeature guava BBQ sauce, which doubles as the sauce for adobo-coated ribs. The pastelón is shepherd’s pie . . . with sweet plantains. And the quingombo recipe would be recognized as stewed okra in any Southern kitchen, even if it is laced with warm and aromatic sofrito
Diaz innovates for modern palates, updating and lightening recipes and offering vegetarian alternatives. For the chayotes rellenos (stuffed squash), she suggests replacing the picadillo (sautéed ground beef) with seitan or tofu. She offers alternatives for difficult-to-find ingredients, like substi¬tuting potatoes for yucca and yautíaroot vegetables typically paired with a meat to make sancocho. Diaz’s version of this hearty stew features chicken and lean pork.
And because every good Puerto Rican meal ends with drinks, desserts, and dancing, Diaz includes recipes for besitos de coco (coconut kisses), rum cake, sofrito bloody marys, and anticuado, an old-fashioned made with rum.
With stunning photographs that showcase the geographic diversity of the island and the vibrant ingredients that make up Puerto Rican cuisine, this cookbook is a moving story about discovering our roots through the foods that comfort us. It is about the foods that remind us of family and help us bridge childhood and adulthood, island and mainland, birthplace and adopted home.
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|Publisher:||University Press of Florida|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It’s Puerto Rican Because I Made It
“Mi abuela tenía una teoría muy interesante; decía que todos nacemos con una caja de fósforos adentro, pero que no podemos encenderlos solos . . . necesitamos la ayuda del oxígeno y una vela. . . . Ese fuego . . . es su alimento. Si uno no averigua a tiempo qué cosa inicia esas explosiones, la caja de fósforos se humedece y ni uno solo de los fósforos se encenderá nunca.”
“My grandmother had a very interesting theory. She said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us, but we can’t light them by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help. . . . That fire . . . is its food. If you don’t figure out what will set these tiny explosions off in time, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.”Laura Esquivel, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate)
What constitutes “good food,” like what constitutes good weather, a good spouse, or a fulfilling life, is a social, not a biological matter. Good food . . . must be good to think about before it becomes good to eat.Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power
I’m a terrible salsa dancer.
Rice . . . doesn’t excite me.
I’m prone to saying “y’all” and “ma’am.”
And, I’m Puerto Rican.
When I was a little girl, my family moved from Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, to Atlanta, Georgia, and I traded plantains, roast pork, and malta for grits, fried chicken, and sweet tea. But Puerto Rican food is my lifeline to the island and the way I stay connected to a culture that is fundamental to who I am.
The food my family eats and the way we cook reflects multiple migrations back and forth from the Caribbean to the American South. It also reflects the way a cookin this case my grandmother Tatacan serve as an ambassador of taste. Tata’s cooking did more than nourish; her food was a party, a celebration, a love letter. At its best, she cooked as a way to bring people together, to create community. And, I believe, to express something deeper that she felt.
The intoxicating, seductive food she made and the way she cooked inspired me to start cooking through her 1962 copy of Cocina Criollaa cookbook that many consider to be the Puerto Rican Joy of Cooking. Its recipes are a fusion of 1950s American ingredients (think mayonnaise and canned veggies) with African deep-frying techniques, indigenous Taíno root vegetables, and a Spanish obsession with olive oil, garlic, and pork.
Today I can say the journey that sprung from the oil-stained pages of that cookbook has been surprising and deeply rewarding. But it didn’t start out that way. Like so many low-income households headed by single mothers, mine required my learning to cook at a young age and to improvise using limited ingredients. I am a self-taught home cook trained largely by my mother and grandmother (and the Internet). I rely largely on my senses and instincts to tell me when something looks and tastes right. Oftentimes it ends with delicious meals. But I’ve had my share of mishaps along the way.
Like the time I made a pavochón, a Puerto Rican–style turkey seasoned like a pork roast and stuffed with mofongo, or green plantains fried then smashed with garlic and chicharrón, or fried pork skins. I could barely fit the turkey in my tiny fridge to marinate it overnight, much less fit it in my oven, so I took a cab forty blocks to my friends’ apartment in Washington Heights to roast it. It was delicious, crazy delicious, but it basically took me three full days to plan and prepare.
Next, I tried to make homemade coconut milk in my nine-foot-by-nine-foot Manhattan kitchen using a power drill and a hammerknocking bits of coconut bark so far I found them under and in things for months. Not to mention stripping my drill bit and chipping the end of my best knife. The end result was sumptuous, floral, and delicate, but it was hard to justify the labor.
These humbling endeavors taught me a lot. I am not, and have no desire to be, a 1960s Puerto Rican housewife. I do not own a machete, nor do I have a big patio where I can whack dried coconuts. But I do want to create simple food that’s satisfying, healthy, and full of flavor.
Reflecting on my background made me think hard about what I eat, why I eat it, and what it takes to make every meal you put in your mouth delicious. Sometimes that means lightening it up, adding fresh herbs and vegetables. Sometimes that means frying it in lard. You have to try it out and decide for yourself. With history and culture as your guides, the path to creating delicious foods that make you and those around you smile can be incredibly joyful and can reveal connections to your past and to others that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
And so Cocina Criolla is the inspiration and foundation for this bookbut ultimately a culinary legacy I aim to evolve. Because, like many granny cookbooks with their pages splattered with sauce and scribbled with notes, it reflects an old way of eating.
Puerto Rico became a Spanish colony more than five hundred years ago. The majority of indigenous Taínos were rapidly killed or enslaved, and huge communities of enslaved Africans were brought to the island to work the fields and sugar plantations, as were indigenous communities from South America and Central America. The surviving Taínos taught these enslaved people how they cooked and what grew on the island, and Africans shared ingredients like plantains and rice and techniques like making flavorful pastes by grinding spices and deep-frying meat for preservation from their home countries.
Food reflects so much about where we come from, and even more about who we want to be. Today, Puerto Rican food mirrors the history and struggles of its people. The island has been a U.S. territory for more than one hundred years, and economic and racial inequalities persist. And much like farming and working-class communities across the world, Puerto Rican cuisine reflects both a lack of access to vegetables and healthy ingredients and a subsequent reliance on making things heavy and filling.
But these same combinations, born of necessity and fusion, also create a uniquely Caribbean flavor profile that is rife with potential. Tender beef with sweet plump raisins and briny pimento-stuffed olives; funky, earthy root vegetables in pork stock, brightened by sweet peppers, corn, and cilantro; tropical guava, mango, and passion fruit blended with rich cream and burnt brown sugar; vegetal green plantains with crispy pork skins. These are the flavors I’m obsessed with, that inspire me to keep exploring and adapting my island’s cuisine.
Food is social. Food is personal. Eating is a common act that is also deeply complex and full of possibilities. Those possibilities are what excite me. So I didn’t give up after that puddle of coconut milk on the kitchen floor or the fifty-dollar cab ride to roast a turkey. Instead I started thinking about what else sofrito would be good in (the answer is: basically everything). I began to make what now seem like obvious connections between the food I’d primarily grown up aroundSouthern foodand the African and indigenous influence in so many of the island’s dishes (funche, or grits, okra, fried chicken, fatback in your veggies).
And sometimes I’d make something completely my own and use culantro instead of cilantro and ají dulce chiles instead of bell peppers and decide I’d made something Puerto Rican. It was Puerto Rican because I made it. This book is a collection of the best of those explorations.
Just as I dug deep into the history of the island and its flavor profile, I also dug deep into my own personal history. Today, when I’m not cooking, eating, or thinking about food, I’m also a radio producer and journalist. And so this book is just as much about stories as it is about cooking. Each chapter reflects how the women in my familymyself includedhave used food to nourish and care for one another and to adapt to their surroundings and bodily needs. Las mujeres de mi familia (the women in my family) have been fierce survivors, and the steadiest metric for the good and the bad in our lives has always been measured by how well we’re eating. There are magical elements in many of these stories that I cannot (and do not care to) verify because they are my truth, the way I understand my past.
The first chapter, La Cocina de Tata, highlights traditional dishes, updated and lightened whenever possible (or necessary). Recipes include pescado en escabeche (chilled pickled white fish), sancocho (a kitchen-sink stew brimming with meats and root vegetables), and my Mami’s rum cake. In it you’ll learn my grandmother’s story: escaping the Dominican Republic as a child, landing in Biloxi, Mississippi, and ending up in Altamesa, Puerto Rico, where my story begins.
Chapter 2, Mofongo Blues, takes you to some not-so-beautiful suburbs outside of Atlanta, Georgia, where I grew up and learned to see the deep connections between the place where I was born and the one I’d come to call home. It also pays homage to a sweet Southern mama named Miss Donna, who taught me how good Southern food could be, while also looking at the strong connection between eating and loss.
Nosotras, the third chapter, tells the story of how I came to cook as a way to care for my family, emotionally and physically. You’ll get to know my mother, whom I call Mami (though her name is Yvonne), at one of the most difficult times in her life. But you’ll also see her for the lioness she is, protecting her pride and keeping us from falling apart at a moment when we might have splintered.
And the final chapter, Retorno, brings you to the present day, where my connection to the island grew strong as a result of an extremely painful moment in my life. It’s about me, but it’s about all of my women, and how they formed a protective aura around me that continues to give me life. But it’s also about how food prepared for you by caring hands can be a healing balm like no other.
What you won’t find in this book: mofongo, léchon, or cuchifritos (well, only one). Don’t get me wrong, I love these foods, but I don’t eat them regularly.
What you will find in this book: coconut funche (grits), plantain-crusted shrimp, and Brussels sprouts with chorizo sofrito. Because my goal has always been to make food I actually want to cook and eat.
The recipes in this book were tested entirely by my community; some home cooks like me, some trained chefs, some folks who were excited to learn about an unknown cuisine. And so I encourage adaptation and sharing. Ultimately I trust that every cook knows best what tastes good to them, the limitations and opportunities in their kitchens and tools, and what they’re comfortable cooking.
This book is my take on one family’s history and an entire island’s cuisine in a handful of recipes. I hope you enjoy them. Buen provecho.
What People are Saying About This
"Diaz stirs together the right amount of memoir with a hefty sprinkling of delightful recipes. She evokes powerful memories and conjures the spirits of the women who taught her to find strength and perseverance through food. A delicious read that will both touch you deeply and inspire you all the way to your kitchen."Sandra A. Gutierrez, author of The New Southern-Latino Table
"A moving, touching, and deeply personal culinary journey weaving family stories and insights from a multicultural angle, the one many Latinos share in very unique ways. From classic Puerto Rican flavors adapted to the Deep South and vice versa, to clever inventiveness out of necessity, this book offers a fresh perspective into Boricua cooking and the individual role food plays in the life of every American-Latino living in the U.S. yearning for their roots."Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, author of Amalia's Guatemalan Kitchen
"Diaz takes you on her journey from her family kitchen in Atlanta to her grandmother's kitchen in Puerto Rico. A deeply personal and moving story of family, heartbreak, sacrifice, and love."Cynthia Nelson, author of Tastes Like Home: My Caribbean Cookbook
"As much a memoir as a cookbook. Von Diaz takes us on a soul-baring journey through her kitchen. You’ll finish with a deeper understanding of Puerto Rican food and a hunger for more."Ana Sofía Pelaez, author of The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History
"So many of Von’s stories are so vivid and detail-rich that they transported me to my childhood in Puerto Rico."Wilo Benet, chef-owner, Pikayo
"Diaz tells heartbreaking, funny, and edifying stories about food, family, and the island that she loves."Luis Jaramillo, author of The Doctor's Wife
"A culinary tale richly woven with sofrito and a side of Southern grits."Janet Keeler, former food and travel editor, Tampa Bay Times