For the food-obsessed, snuggling up to The New Southern-Latino Table cookbook is akin to a new love affair. It comes with all the warmth of tender familiarity while simultaneously sparking an impassioned interest in what is more compatible than imagined.
As a chef, culinary instructor, food writer and historian, Guatemalan-American Sandra A. Gutierrez has documented what she describes as "a natural marriage" of the culinary similarities that our South and 21 Latin American countries have shared all along. She noticed the trend in the 1990s while dishing out columns on the topic at The Cary News for eight years. Her book unleashes 150 original recipes, from country ham drizzled with chimichurri sauce to collard green tamales and chocolate chili brownies, plumped up by hefty chunks of information detailing the Mayan legend of corn or the history of the casserole. We chatted over a Southern-Latino lunch at Chapel Hill's Weathervane cafe. Catch Gutierrez at her upcoming book signings and on her website, sandraskitchenstudio.com.
Independent Weekly: Your book is not just for cooks. It's a great read. I've been reading it in bed because I've found it fascinating.
Sandra A. Gutierrez: I didn't want this to be preachy but something people would enjoy reading and cooking from. I started researching and found similarities in Southern and Latin [cuisines] that were very uncanny—in the Southern region of this country and in all of Latin America, and that's where it stops. We share the same basket of ingredients: corn, tomato, pork, nuts, squash. We share the same influence on our culture of indigenous people: European settlers and African slaves. And thirdly, we share analogous cooking techniques: deep frying being one; roasting, braising, barbecuing. (Everybody relates barbecue to the South, but the original term was barbacoa. The Taíno Indians had developed that technique in what is today the Dominican Republic, of cooking food over spits, directly over fire and smoke.) Both culinary cultures are so similar that people start adapting and adopting. And this is no different than the way regional Italian cuisine was shaped, how Asian cuisine was shaped—it's a history of the world. It's not a fusion that's forced, as it is in restaurants, where chefs find as many flavors as they can to put in dishes and shock the palate. This is a natural marriage, and it's very exciting to see it happen.
You said you noticed it 15 years ago. Where?
In North Carolina, and I started asking my readers, "I wonder if we'll soon start seeing pork served with guacamole?" Southerners were adding chipotle to their mayonnaise, for instance, or including poblano peppers in their soups and stews. Southerners are doing it, Latinos are doing it. We're not calling it anything, we're just doing it.
How did you come up with all 150 recipes?
The point of it was to create dishes that were analogous to both regions. I think of it as a photograph, putting a negative over a positive image and just twisting it a little bit and making it click and creating a new image. And you can see where it comes from. It makes sense where it comes from, it doesn't clash.
Did you make a lot of them at home already?
Some of them are classics in my home. The barbecue sandwiches are pulled pork made with annatto and citrus. I would serve it for years and my friends would ask me for the recipe. I'm divulging the secret of that recipe, finally. My collard green tamales with the pimento sauce—those are a Christmas staple in my home.
Do you think it surprises people to find these similarities?
Unless you're a food historian or a foodie and you love to read cookbooks, I don't think you realize the anthropological association of food and the formation of civilization. I find that part of life fascinating. The fact that when the Spaniards discovered the New World, there weren't any chickens here, any cattle, there were no goats, definitely no pig. Can you imagine the South and Latin America with no pork today? And what they brought over: Imagine Italy without tomatoes, the Swiss without chocolate. So when you look at the consequences of the movement of people to new territories, it proves my point that it's not calculated; they just, out of necessity and culture, exchanged ways of cooking, culinary foodways. Of course they brought a lot of bad things, too: diseases, slavery. But the culinary history is not controversial and I love it.
What does your Thanksgiving table look like?
When I was in the middle of this book, it looked very weird. The recipe for turkey in my book is very typical of my Thanksgiving meal. It's a mixture of the Central American technique of steam roasting, where you add a lot of liquid to the bottom of your pan, add herbs and spices, whatever you want, and you cover the turkey and steam it. And then you remove the covering and roast it for the last few minutes. So you still get that beautiful golden color we're used to, the magazine turkey look, but the meat is so moist. That was the traditional turkey I ate growing up. We celebrated Thanksgiving when I was little, because I was born here in the States and moved to Guatemala when I was 5. My flavor base is a mixture of wine and sofrito, and that's what permeates the bird. And at the end there's a gravy, with all the flavors of a sofrito incorporated because I blend it all together. And then I finish it with bourbon.
How did you learn how to cook?
I learned from two women. My great-aunt Tia Maria; she had a gossip column in Guatemala City and was a really famous caterer. She would call my mother and say, "Just drop her off." I was little and she'd put me in the kitchen to place all the garnishes. My other influence was my grandmother; she was a socialite and entertained a lot of dignitaries, politicians, artists. And I was very shy, but I had to go every Sunday. Sometimes there were 50 to 60 people in her house for lunch. I would go hide in the kitchen. She had a very large staff, and they were really sweet to me. But they used to say, "We have no idle hands here," and they would put me to work. I remember being really little and shaping my first tortillas. They would say, "Sandrita's here. Do you have the masa ready?" I knew that was going to be my first task because my hands were so little and I could make miniature tortillas for the appetizers. I learned so much. My grandmother had lived all over the world. I learned how to make curry, moles, béchamel sauce, all these things in her kitchen. She would point at her fruit trees—guava, orange—and tell us to cut another chicken and would make up recipes on the spot, even though she wasn't cooking it. Nothing went out of her kitchen without her approval.
How do you feel about this movement where people are watching Food Network and are branching out to try cooking new foods from different cultures?
I think it's exactly what is allowing this marriage to occur. I think for years it was all about what the French were cooking. Nowadays, I think even France is looking this way. By the same token, we're rediscovering classic American food in the process. There's a lot to celebrate in Southern food. I think we're seeing a real renaissance of American food. I also hope that this new economy we're living in will bring people back to the table. It's a necessity now to cook again, and people have more educated palates now. It's going to make for a better generation of cooks. We lost a generation in the middle—the anti-Julia generation. Convenience food took over, canned soups, TV dinners. There's a way to do both. Convenience is at the farmers markets. There's incredible produce that's fresh, seasonal, and you don't need to do a lot for it to taste good. For the fresh ingredients we have in common, I would say go to the market and cook seasonally. If a recipe calls for collard greens and what you find in the market is kale, use kale. For all the spices you need to cook Latin food, most are available in the supermarket.
You chose Weathervane for lunch because you said they have a great menu using the fusion you described. What about some other restaurants?
The mecca of Southern food here in Chapel Hill is Crook's Corner. And Bill Smith has become famous for serving tamales with pulled pork. And very good tamales, by the way. I picked Weathervane because, look at what you're eating today: North Carolina trout tacos with guacamole and coleslaw. It's hard to find more Southern-Latino than that. There's a place in Southern Pines called Elliotts where they were serving braised chicken chimichangas with rhubarb and strawberry mole last week. Very elaborate. This is a movement that didn't start in restaurants and then moved in people's homes. It's the other way around. I think we're going to see a lot more of it. Latin food is fascinating. My mission is to break down the stereotypes and bring it out for what it is—21 very different, very exciting cuisines that are not complicated or as exotic as people may think.
What do you mean by stereotypes?
That everybody eats spicy food. That we all eat tacos. That the food is always heavily sauced. That it's not healthy. There are tons of healthy, vegetarian recipes in my book. These are many of the stereotypes that have surrounded Southern food, too.