Fear of Frying: A Puerto Rican Cook Confronts Her Culinary Legacy

Making surillitos can be a group project. (Photo: Maria Watts)

Making surillitos can be a group project. (Photo: Maria Watts)

Originally published on Food in Two Worlds on April 18, 2013.

I don’t fry.

I don’t own a splatter guard, even though I could get one at any dollar store. I cook with olive oil and butter – coconut oil if I’m feeling fancy. But I don’t fry.

I’m a Puerto Rican who can’t dance salsa and loves vegetables. Despite these ethnic shortcomings, I feel deeply connected to Puerto Rican culture, and to the foods that help keep me in touch with my Puerto Rican identity.

I didn’t realize just how deep the connection was until I found a copy of Cocina Criolla at a local bookstore. Memories of my grandmother in her kitchen in Hato Rey, peeling yucca in her flip-flops with her hair in rollers, came flooding back as I held the book in my hands, charmed by its ugly front cover with bad drawings of tropical fruit.

Cocina Criolla is the Betty Crocker Cookbook of Puerto Rican cuisine. Instead of mac and cheese it has recipes for pig feet stew, braised cow tongue, and a cornucopia of fried goodies.

First published in 1954 and currently in its 65th edition, this culinary bible written in Spanish still occupies a special place on every Boricua mama and abuela’s bookshelf, it’s pages stained with olive oil and tomato, recipes scribbled over with notes and additions. Its author, Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, from one of the island’s aristocratic families, has been called the Puerto Rican Julia Child.

I’ve decided to cook my way through Cocina Criolla, exploring Puerto Rican culture as I go along. My grandmother lived by it, my mother worshiped it, and now I’m starting a journey through its pages.

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