Due to a few of my characteristics, people question my Latinaness and because of it, I’ve dubbed myself, “La anti-Latina.” One of those things is 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.
The problem, I believe, 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 act non-chalant because of course you asked her, who else would you ask since her <insert Latino dish here> can’t be beat) 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, or for that matter the measurements listed within one; she just cooks. A pinch of this, and 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 of having Mami write a list of ingredients and headed to the store. The carnicero looked at me as if I was speaking another language when I placed my order. I called mom and told 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 if perhaps my tone, my inflection, or my overall look let him in on my lack of domestic skills, and he was 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 and it’s 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. A regular practice of burned pots, under/over seasoned rice, and honest (and sometimes hurtful) feedback from your family of food critics is the only way to learn enough to someday become the teacher yourself.