My Latinaness is often in question so I’ve dubbed myself, “La anti-Latina.” One of the things in question is my cooking. I’m no Martita Stewart, to be sure, but not finding absolute enjoyment in cooking is not the equivalent of lacking the ability to do it. I can cook, when I feel like it, which admittedly is not that often.
I believe the problem lies in what I cook. The only aceite you’ll find in my home is of the olive variety. Fish, couscous, and salads full of spinach, goat cheese, dried cranberries, and red onions are more my fare. While the traditional Puerto Rican dishes are things I enjoy as a treat: in a restaurant or at Mom’s house.
Though my regular choices in food are healthy, I do worry that by not at least learning how to cook traditional Puerto Rican dishes, I will have missed out on the ability to pass my culture and traditions on to my future children, should I ever have any. For that reason, I had an arroz con gandules cooking lesson with Mami, and I learned some important things that I’ll share with other novice cooks…
Step 1- Find a good teacher
Almost any Latina you ask will secretly glow with pride, while outwardly acting non-chalant at being asked to be taught her secrets. If at all possible make sure it’s Mami or Abuela, an instruction that requires no explanation if you know what’s good for you.
Step 2- Watch and learn
Any Latina cook worth her sazón o sofrito does not know the meaning of a recipe. They certainly don’t know the measurements listed within one. She just cooks. A pinch of this, a dash of that y ¡A comer se a dicho! You must observe what pinches and dashes actually look like, so your pinches and dashes are the right amount. Which leads me to shopping…
Step 3- Do not attempt to shop alone
I made the rookie mistake the first time. I had Mami write a list of ingredients and headed to the store. When I placed my order, the carnicero looked at me as if I was speaking another language. I called mom to tell her he didn’t understand me. “Pero eso es lo que yo siempre compro. Dejame hablar con el.” I handed him the phone and the light of comprehension shone from his eyes. I asked him what she said, and he basically repeated what I had asked for. Till this day I wonder wha it was. Was it my tone, inflection, or my overall look that let him in on my lack of domestic skills? He looked weary of selling me a good cut of meat that would just go to waste in my attempts to learn.
Step 4- Accept that you will never cook as well as your teacher
I promise, it’s easier that way. It’s also a concession that your Mami and Abuela had to make as they learned to cook from their Mamis and Abuelas. Very few people are born with that innate talent. Learning requires a regular practice of burned pots and under/over seasoned rice. It also requires honest, and sometimes hurtful, feedback from your family and friends. They are the food critics who will help you learn. Maybe even enough to someday become the teacher yourself.