It’s often said, “Go big or go home.”
According to Urban Dictionary, this urban expression describes “a Champion’s lifestyle. A way of life. An attitude.”
For a diminutive woman, Maricel Presilla is Big.
And Big News.
And in the end, she did both: She went Big and went Home! To South America.
A James Beard award winner for her Hoboken restaurant, Cucharamama, Presilla looked around the room and further, out to the garden at the James Beard House on 12th Street in New York City, and said with a satisfied smile, “I feel at home here… “
Indeed she should.
Presilla, a culinary historian specializing in the foods of Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, is a Cuban immigrant who works very, very hard – makes very, very good food, has earned legions of devoted fans and worked, oh, say 20-plus years to produce a cookbook.
In an age when too many food bloggers with not too much pedigree or “kitchen cred” score success as a cookbook author, the introduction of Presilla’s seminal cookbook – Gran Cucina Latina The Food of Latin America (W.W. Norton) and her uncompromising culinary and literary benchmarks – is a lesson for all food writers and food lovers.
She had her hand firmly on the tiller throughout the book's long gestation – from battles over illustrations and chapter headings to photography to the paper for the pages.
She even insisted on showing the illustrated tools used to make Latin American food. She felt the reader needed to see how the creation of the food itself is different from traditional European or French haute cuisine. Nice touch.
Presilla also owns and operates Ultramarinos, a Latin American food store and cooking atelier in Hoboken. She notes that all the ingredients in her cookbook can be sourced in America – the land she so clearly loves. “All the items for the recipes were purchased in Union City, NJ,” she claimed with pride and enthusiasm.
Presilla is so very proud of the nearly 1,000-page cookbook tome.
This is the first cookbook to present a pan-Latin cuisine. “The United States is the new Latin America!” she proclaims with happy culinary confidence. She added that this is the only place where the cookbook could have been produced because all the disparate Latin American culinary cultures come together here. Throughout the production of the book, she said it was important to look for and include the unifying elements found in every Latino country. “Like music, there are themes that unite the culinary cultures.”
This Examiner was thrilled to be sitting next to a favorite food heroine, Marion Nestle, who is a very enthusiastic fan of Presilla.
Throughout the “Beard on Books” talk at the James Beard Foundation town house, Presilla confidently showcased her historical acumen plus her unquenchable curiosity, enthusiasm and passion for Latin American cuisine.
This chef is a force of nature!
Not that she’s a Doubting Thomas, but seriously, she won’t take anybody else’s word for anything.
Rather, she has to experience what she’s writing about.
She is intrepid. She’s boated the Amazon River and traveled the back roads of Cuba in search of recipes -- to name a few food explorations and adventure stories she regaled the audience with.
She traveled to each and every cook and restaurant source in the book. This is part of the reason the book took so long to produce.
She said her husband gave up accompanying her on these meticulously scheduled culinary excursions long ago.
So she learned to hire the best drivers.
In fact, she dedicated the book to the taxi drivers that escorted and accompanied her to the “research” food personalities.
She has lived and cooked and researched and eaten these recipes. That is another reason why the book took so long. She was reinterpreting homegrown, local indigenous recipes and then recreating them. Over and over and over.
Her book includes drink-as-food too; a key component of Latin American diets. Chicha – a kind of beer, is made with purple corn or yucca root, for example. And there is a plethora of exotic grain drinks that are rich, thick and good for you. And chocolate and vanilla is embraced the world over but home is Latin America.
Her food history informs the nuance and distinction of the various culinary cultures.
For example, she pointed out how different a Peruvian, Brazilian and Argentinian menu is -- especially given the environment, the food sources and the indigenous peoples. This is fusion food at its best.
This Examiner has previously covered the “emerging” Peruvian cuisine of Chef Gaston Acurio and his work to promote the flavor rich and homegrown recipes of his region. And the new Caribbean Food Festival.
The time is ripe for more of this good food news as written by Presilla’s Gran Cucina Latina. The cookbook is epic. Indulge.
She recently learned she is a winner of Gourmand’s cookbook awards. She seemed incredulous that an American cookbook won for its Latin American recipes and culinary history.
This is a cookbook that every foodie will use with equal measure of passion and curiosity. Especially for Homegrown aficionados. Latin cuisine features an undiscovered panoply of vegetables, fruits, herbs and good-for-you, delicious beans, rice and corn.
This Examiner will review the Gran Cucina Latina cookbook as well as Presilla’s James Beard award-winning restaurant, Cucharamama.
Come back for seconds.