Interview: Sandra Gutierrez on The New Southern-Latino Table
Author Sandra Gutierrez talks with publicity director Gina Mahalek about her award-winning book, The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes That Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America and the American South. Sandra was recently selected as the grand prize winner of MFK Fisher Awards for Excellence in Culinary Writing by Les Dames d’Escoffier International. (Kudos, Sandra!) The New Southern-Latino Table is also part of an exhibit currently on display at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and Sandra will be speaking at the museum in D.C. on Saturday, June 17, at 2 p.m.
Gina Mahalek: How do you define the Southern-Latino culinary movement?
Sandra Gutierrez: I define it as the melding of the foodways and flavors of the Southern U.S. with those of Latin America as a whole. Recent years have seen a huge influx of Latinos from all different socio-economic and culinary backgrounds into the South. Many of us are second- and third-generation Latinos who are proud of our heritage and of the food of our ancestors (as were previous waves of immigrants). We have brought along our ingredients and culinary traditions and have fallen in love with those of the South. This is not a movement that has occurred in a controlled manner; rather, it is happening naturally and by chance. Southerners and Latinos share similar culinary histories, ingredients, and cooking techniques, but we interpret them in very different ways. I find it exciting that, having found themselves in the same territory, these culinary traditions are correlating and intermingling. I call this the New Southern-Latino movement. This is a movement in which chiles rellenos are stuffed with pimiento cheese, and corn ice cream is topped with hot praline sauce.
GM: What are some of the similarities between the cuisines of the American South and those of Latin America?
SG: There are many similarities in the way both cuisines were shaped, which in my opinion gives this movement a great starting point. Both have been influenced by people of three ethnicities: indigenous (Native Americans in the South; Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and others in Latin America), African, and European. Both cuisines have many ingredients in common, among them: corn, tomatoes, squash, pork, and beans, to name a few. Also, both share similar cooking techniques such as braising, frying, and barbecuing. Of course, we interpret food in very different ways. However, I chose to build a cuisine based upon our similarities, with flavors that both southerners and Latinos can relate to, in hope of bringing people together at the table.
GM: In your book, you mention that the use of the word “Latino” has little meaning within Latin America. Could you talk a little bit about this from a culinary perspective?
SG: The term “Latino” only exists within the context of the U.S. and is used to define anyone who was either born in Latin America or is of Latin American heritage but lives here in the U.S. Latin Americans define themselves depending on their country of origin, not as “Latinos” but rather as “Guatemalans,” “Bolivians,” “Colombians,” etc. We don’t lump the nationalities together at all. From a culinary perspective, this becomes very important because not all Latin Americans eat the same foods. Argentineans, for example, don’t eat tacos, unless they are at a Mexican restaurant; however they do eat a lot of pasta, because their cuisine is heavily influenced by Italian flavors. Each Latin cuisine has been shaped by different cultures, and has its own native ingredients and each one varies greatly. I cannot stress this enough. What this means within the context of the New Southern-Latino movement is that there are many culinary influences imparting changes and contributions to one another. The New Southern-Latino movement, therefore, does not represent the melding of one culinary culture with another (as in the case of Southwestern cuisine, where Mexican flavors predominate) but represents the marriage of the culinary foodways of more than two dozen countries with those of the entire Southern region of the United States. It is very, very exciting.
GM: How did your personal background prepare you to write The New Southern-Latino Table?
SG: I feel like my entire life was a preamble to this book. I was born in the U.S. and moved to Guatemala City as a little girl. I was immediately immersed in a world of melded cultures. I went to an American School where our cafeteria was as likely to serve hamburgers and brownies as it was to serve milanesas and arroz con leche. At home, we were just as likely to eat Carolina hot dogs as we were to eat huevos rancheros. When I arrived in North Carolina as a young bride, I was eager to recreate the flavors of my youth but I couldn’t find many of the ingredients I needed, so I began to substitute for them those that I found in the South. For example, I would use cornmeal in place of masa harina, and hot sauce in place of chiles. Combining flavors came naturally to me, more out of necessity than whim. At the same time, I discovered the delicious food of the South and fell in love with grits and pimiento cheese. By now, I’ve spent most of my life in the South, eating, cooking, learning from and teaching southerners how to cook. Southern food found my soul, and I discovered my Southern belle within. Today, my children are likely to ask for pulled pork sandwiches topped with guacamole and for tamarind butter to slather on hushpuppies. This book reflects both my personal journey with food and that of many other Latinos who have made their home in the South.
SG: I was always interested in cooking. As a little girl, I loved going to my grandmother’s home, where you could always find me in the kitchen. I remember that nothing left the kitchen without her approval. My grandmother was always involved in the meal preparation, and even if she was hosting guests, she’d step into the kitchen to add something here or sprinkle something there. She was blessed with a large staff and her cooks became like family to me. They welcomed me into their midst, and would always set aside something for me to do, whether it was shaping miniature tortillas for appetizers, filling empanadas, or helping to fry kettle chips. Of course, my involvement in her kitchen grew as I got older. However, my true culinary muse was my dear aunt, Tía María, who was both a writer and a famous caterer in Guatemala (she wrote a society column back when newspapers still had one). She spent a great deal of time teaching me how to cook and how to select ingredients, and would often invite me to help her craft tiny appetizers and desserts for her events. She passed on to me a deep respect for culinary technique that has shaped the way I teach cooking classes today.
GM: You offer 150 original recipes in your book. What inspires you to create new flavor combinations?
SG: I am inspired greatly by the plethora of Latin ingredients available in the South and the abundance of splendid southern ingredients. For me, it all starts at the table; when I sample a dish that reminds me of something I’ve had before—either in the South or in Latin America—and I can’t help but ask myself: “what would happen if I combined this with that?” My point of departure starts with a search for common denominators between both culinary traditions. A trip to the farmers’ market or to a Latin tienda is always an additional source of inspiration. By the time I step into my kitchen, I am ready for the fun to begin. That is where I play with the elements that will make up a final dish. Often, I give flavors a simple twist and a new recipe is born.
GM: Over the years, you’ve taught thousands of students in your cooking classes. Which are some of your most frequently requested recipes?
SG: I have several recipes in this book that have long been favorites with my cooking students. My Latin Fried Chicken with Smoky Ketchup is perhaps my most requested recipe. My recipe for Pickled Mushrooms is a close second. I am well known for my empanadas, such as my Miami Guava and Cream Cheese Empanaditas. My classes featuring Tres Leches cakes always sell out and I am excited to showcase a new interpretation in this book: a Peach and Bourbon Tres Leches, that I am sure will both please and surprise them. I am including Cajeta Bread Pudding, which is also a favorite with my students. However, many of the recipes in this book are new creations, and I am hoping that everyone will discover new favorites. I look forward to teaching them all.
GM: Did any of your family’s favorites find their way into the book?
SG: Oh, yes! My husband and our daughters tasted every single dish and helped me decide which recipes made it to the book. The Rolled Ham Salad Cake was a favorite of theirs, as was the Corn Ice Cream with Hot Praline Sauce. My girls voted for their all time favorites: my Pino and Grits casserole (which is my take on tamale pie), and the Jalapeño Deviled Eggs. Of course, my husband’s favorite Apple Pie with Rum Soaked Cherries made it to the final selection. Friends also got to vote on their favorites, among which are my Mini Pibil Barbecue Sandwiches and my Pimiento and Cheese Chilaquiles.
GM: Organization and planning seem key to bringing many of your dishes together with ease. Talk about how the home cook can put together a game plan for easy entertaining.
SG: I find it much easier to entertain when I’m organized because I like to spend more time with my guests than in the kitchen. Truly, entertaining can be very enjoyable if you complete tasks in stages. In my book, I suggest that you make as much as you can ahead of time and offer many recipes that make entertaining fun. For instance, all of my empanadas can be shaped and frozen for up to several months and go directly from freezer to oven without the need to thaw. The same goes for several of my casserole dishes, such as the Squash Casserole Enchiladas. I offer many other options like my Caramelized Chicken or my Beef Short Ribs with Roasted Tomatoes and Molasses Gravy, which like many braised dishes, taste even better the next day. Of course, there are plenty of recipes that can be assembled quickly, for those instances when a cook wants to entertain on a whim, such as my scrumptious Latin Pimiento Cheese or my Crab Dip. Even desserts, such as my Anise and Rum Strawberry Shortcakes, can be whipped together in no time. You will find tips such as these throughout the book.
GM: The blender and food processor seem to be real workhorses in the Southern-Latino kitchen. What are some of your favorite uses for them?
SG: Both make it a cinch to prepare the recipes in my book by cutting down on prep time. The blender is perhaps the most important small appliance in the Latin kitchen and many sauces are made by simply blending ingredients together. I find that the food processor is ideal for making pastry quickly and efficiently. I happen to have warm hands, and that is not good when you’re cutting butter into pastry; using the food processor instead ensures that my pies and empanadas always have tender crusts. Of course, I also offer instructions on how to make my recipes entirely by hand. But I’m a very practical cook, and I always look at ways to make things simpler so I can create faster meals that don’t sacrifice freshness or flavor.
GM: Do you offer vegetarian recipes or those fit to serve as lighter fare?
SG: Absolutely! I offer many vegetarian options including soups, salads and casseroles. I even include festive appetizers such as Arepitas with Goat Cheese and Green Tomato Chutney, and a refreshing Carrot Escabeche, as well as recipes for scrumptious desserts such as my Sweet Tomato Cobbler. My Layered Potato and Egg Salad and my recipe for Tomatoes Stuffed with Quinoa Salad are two of my favorite vegetarian dishes in the book. Today, many of us are interested in eating healthier meals, and I included many recipes that fit this requirement, such as my Cucumber Pico de Gallo Salad, and an elegant dish in which fish is cooked in a paper package, called Yucatan Fish “Cartucho” with Maque Choux. My Buttermilk Ice Cream is proof that you can have healthy desserts. There are too many to mention here but truly, in The New Southern-Latino Table there is something for everyone.
GM: I enjoyed reading about the cultural differences regarding potlucks in the US and in Latin American countries. Could you talk a bit about this?
SG: The potluck dinner as we have come to recognize it—a communal meal in which guests bring a specialty dish to share—is still a foreign concept in Latin America. In the Latin American tradition, guests have to be catered to in every way, even if this means serving them a very simple meal. It all goes back to the original meaning of the word “potluck” which, back in the sixteenth century, meant that unexpected guests had to be satisfied with the meal that was held in the family’s pot upon their visit; depending on their luck, this could be very delicious, or extremely simple. In Latin America it is still seen as a faux pas to ask a guest to bring you part of the meal—it’s simply not done. I happen to love the concept of the potluck supper because it immediately makes me feel welcomed into a group and because it offers a chance to try everyone’s signature dishes. Potlucks also provide the opportunity to entertain at the spur of the moment in a very economical and casual way. Younger generations of Latin Americans are starting to embrace the concept of potluck suppers, but it’s still a very new thing. In my book, I offer lots of new casserole dishes that would be a welcome addition to any potluck.
GM: The New Southern-Latino Table includes 16 gorgeous full color photos that you styled and took yourself. Why are these images so important to the book’s message?
SG: I really wanted to capture the essence of this new cuisine in a way that showcases my recipes for what they are: simple, comforting, homemade dishes with vibrant flavors. Some cooks may feel intimidated by a new cuisine; photos help to dissipate that fear. Furthermore, photos also help cooks envision how these recipes will look on their table. There is also a little bit of “show and tell,” in that my photos show readers that what I’m telling them is true: that although the recipes may be new, the final dishes will be recognizable. My photos really capture the essence of the Southern-Latino movement.
GM: In addition to the photos, what are some of the book’s other features that cookbook readers will appreciate?
SG: My book offers many of the cooking tips and practical advice that have made my cooking classes so popular over the years. I also offer informative sidebars and have peppered its pages with historical background and fascinating facts. Readers will find a list of mail-order sources for ingredients, as well as one great chapter that will help them navigate a Latin tienda (such as the ones that are popping up all over the South). I also include a glossary of words and ingredients that may be new to my readers.
GM: How do you think readers from Latin American countries and/or of Latin American heritage will respond to The New Southern-Latino Table?
SG: I think this book will be one that they will be able to feel proud of, as they see me break through the many stereotypes that have held our cuisines captive for so long, such as the misconception that we all eat the same dishes—which, of course we don’t—and for another example, the myth that Latin American food is unhealthy, overly-spicy, and cheese-laden. I hope that they will feel pride at seeing their culinary histories well represented and explained, and can share in my sense of excitement at the realization that our collective flavors are indeed being welcomed and embraced in the Southern U.S. But my biggest hope is that both Latin Americans and Southerners, upon first trying these recipes, will wonder how something so different can taste so familiar. And that they come together around the table, realizing that we have many things in common, and start a conversation.
Sandra A. Gutierrez is a journalist, food writer, culinary instructor, and recipe developer. Visit her website at sandraskitchenstudio.com to see additional photos of dishes from the book. Follow the author on Twitter @SandraLatinista, and become a fan of The New Southern-Latino Table on Facebook.
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