Excerpt: Creating a Common Table in Twentieth-Century Argentina, by Rebekah E. Pite

Creating a Common Table in Twentieth -Century Argentina: Doña Petrona, Women, and Food by Rebekah E. PiteDoña Petrona C. de Gandulfo (c. 1896-1992) reigned as Argentina’s preeminent domestic and culinary expert from the 1930s through the 1980s. An enduring culinary icon thanks to her magazine columns, radio programs, and television shows, she was likely second only to Eva Peron in terms of the fame she enjoyed and the adulation she received. Drawing on a wide range of materials, including her own interviews with Doña Petrona’s inner circle and with everyday women and men, Rebekah E. Pite’s Creating a Common Table in Twentieth-Century Argentina: Doña Petrona, Women, and Food provides a lively social history of the country during this period, as exemplified through the fascinating story of Doña Petrona and the homemakers to whom she dedicated her career.

In the following excerpt (pp. 71-74), Pite explains how the release of Petrona’s illustrated cookbook El Libro de Doña Petrona combined the techniques and ingredients from the nation’s diverse immigrant demographics. By mixing French, Spanish, and Italian styles of cooking with the traditional criollo home cooking, Petrona’s cookbook was able to represent the immersion of transnational identity in Argentina during the twentieth century.


The expectations of both the author of this cookbook and the journalist who reviewed it were shaped by the specificity of women’s roles in Argentina, especially in the capital. Young urban women’s lifestyles were changing as they spent more time studying and socializing and less time doing domestic chores at home. Their increasing education, literacy, and employment meant that they often lacked, or, perhaps even more important, felt they lacked, the knowledge to run a home and be a “good” homemaker. At the same time, Argentine women’s relatively high levels of literacy and education meant that they were capable of learning these kinds of skills through reading about them. In contrast to many other Latin American nations at this time, free primary education in Argentina had by 1930 drawn two-thirds of children into public school classes. Almost all second-generation immigrants residing in Buenos Aires by the mid-1930s were literate, even though their parents sometimes were not.[1]

But what kinds of culinary education would an ama de casa in 1930s Argentina benefit from? In addition to knowing how to set and serve an elegant table, Petrona suggested she should know how to cook, present, and serve food in a modern way. She preached a recipe-and-measurement type of cooking and implied by contrast the inferiority of previous cooking methods, which relied principally on approximations and received experience. In addition to providing a chart for converting common measurements in cups and tablespoons to grams, she enjoined her reader to use exact quantities and quality ingredients and to follow the baking instructions to “the letter.”[2]

While such instructions emphasized a more “scientific” approach to cooking, the recipes and the illustrations often celebrated the art of presentation. Petrona encouraged readers to shape, mold, and decorate dishes to make them more appealing.[3] As with the sundae recipe for El Hogar that opens this chapter, she emphasized the importance of decorative flourishes that women could create. Thumbing through her cookbook, one is struck by the hand-drawn color illustrations that depict piped potato roses, hard-boiled eggs fashioned into bunnies, fruit pyramids, and cakes built to resemble houses, soccer fields, and churches. Several people I spoke with recalled how they would flip through these illustrations as children as if they were looking through a picture book. By visually demonstrating the aesthetic appeal of stylized food, Petrona incorporated the artistry for which she had become famous as a demonstrator for Primitiva. Championing the contemporary notion that the human transformation of natural things could improve them, she emphasized the artistry of the modern woman who prepared such creations.[4]

Petrona applied this modern culinary artistry to a wide range of dishes and recommended that her readers do the same. Reflecting Argentina’s history and her own background, Petrona’s recipes crossed class, ethnic, national, and regional boundaries—ranging from French haute cuisine to Italian and Spanish fare to criollo home cooking. Therefore, even as Petrona included some explicitly nationalistic recipes, such as a cake with an Argentine national flag, along with some typical criollo cuisine, like empanadas, she presented French, Spanish, and Italian dishes as equally important for Argentine amas de casa to master.[5] Such variety is evidenced by just one page of illustrations of dishes from her cookbook. French vol-au-vents shared the page with Italian-style pizza, two dishes with local fowl (Pichones Rellenos a la Cacerola, a stuffed young partridge in a stylized casserole, and Martinetas en Bella Vista, a roasted bird indigenous to the region), and two versions of empanadas (one from her native province of Santiago del Estero and the other popular in Buenos Aires). In this way, El libro de Doña Petrona was less self-consciously nationalistic than other contemporary cookbooks published in places with longer-standing shared culinary traditions like France, India, and Mexico.[6]

Petrona’s eclectic approach reflected the transnational complexity of national identity in Argentina during this time. In fact, the combination of recipes in this cookbook expressed the self-conscious internationalism of elites in Buenos Aires, who often sought to define Argentina as a cosmopolitan nation of European immigrants. Her inclusion of criollo dishes, as well as the creolization of many foreign preparations, mirrored the ways in which European foods and identities were transformed in Argentines’ daily lives. El libro de Doña Petrona did not simply assemble French, Spanish, and Italian recipes but rather tailored them to the local environment. For example, Doña Petrona added dulce de leche (South American milk caramel) to the Spanish flan and filled one version of her Italian cannelloni with humita, a traditional creamed corn eaten regularly in northwestern Argentina. Given such culinary mixing, Argentine cuisine (like that of the United States) is best understood as a combination of immigrant and regional specialties, as opposed to a singular cuisine of its “own.”[7]

Nevertheless, if Argentina did lay claim to a unique culinary tradition, it would stem from the preponderance of beef in the diet. Petrona did include a substantial number of recipes with red meat–sixty-four in all. However, she actually underrepresented beef in her cookbook in comparison to its availability and its ubiquity on Argentine tables.[8] In contrast, she provided some ninety recipes for chicken and fish, two foods that were often quite expensive or difficult to obtain.[9] There are several possible explanations, including her interest in emulating European preferences for fish and fowl and the Argentine preference for simple preparations of beef.[10] The most celebrated dish, asado, consists of beef ribs that men have traditionally cooked outdoors over an open fire or a grill. Petrona did not include a recipe for an outdoor asado in her cookbook, despite the tremendous status and popularity of this preparation. Instead, she elected to include a recipe, Asado al Horno, which is a version of this dish made in the oven. By moving the cooking process indoors, Petrona adapted a traditional dish to the new technology of the gas stove that she promoted for Primitiva. At the same time, she reinforced men’s expertise and authority over the classic way of making this celebratory meal outside and asserted women’s expertise and authority with this dish (and others) in the kitchen.


From Creating a Common Table in Twentieth-Century Argentina: Doña Pterona, Women, and Food by Rebekah E. Pite. Copyright © 2013 by The University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Torado, Historia de la familia, 194-99.
  2. [2]Gandulfo, prologue to El libro de Doña Petrona, 1st ed. (1934).
  3. [3]Caldo, “De mujer a mujeres.”
  4. [4]Ibid.
  5. [5]As discussed in chapter 5, only in the 1970s would a self-consciously nationalistic criollo cuisine emerge in Argentina.
  6. [6]See Appadurai, “How to Make a National Cuisine”; and Revel, Culture and Cuisine.
  7. [7]This is not to suggest that these other places, like France, have entirely bounded cuisines, but rather that they often have deeper and more consistent (if still quite region-specific) shared culinary roots. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat.
  8. [8]Caldo, “De mujer a mujeres.”
  9. [9]Gandulfo, El libro de Doña Petrona, 1st ed. (1934).
  10. [10]Caldo points to the first explanation and Tobin to the second. Caldo, “De mujer a mujeres”; Tobin, “Manly Acts,” 53-54.