We caught up with cookbook author Sandra Gutiérrez ahead of her book signing of The New Southern-Latino Table at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum (June 17 at 2pm) to discuss New Southern-Latino food, the increase of Hispanic workers in restaurant kitchens, and how food can serve as a remedy for political gridlock.
I hear people toss around the term “New American cooking,” which refers to an evolution of food here in the States. I’m curious to know, since one of your most prominent cookbooks is called The New Southern-Latino Table, what that particular cuisine's was? SANDRA GUTIERREZ: I think that the term “New Southern” was something that we had already seen before the '90s. We saw the opening of the Southern cupboard to include more European ingredients and the farm-to-table movement. The hyphen is important, “-Latino.” It denoted a marriage and blending of cultures, not a fusion for me. You didn’t see a lot of Latin Americans outside of the big cities in the US, you know, California, Texas, and Florida in the South. To the point where we weren’t even figured into the census before 1990. You couldn’t even find a true geopolitical sign that we were in the territory. But suddenly, we started migrating from Latin America to the South. And because our ingredients are so similar and because we have the same three basic cultures at the roots of our cuisines: the Native Americans of different groups, the Europeans, mostly Spanish, and the Africans, who have a huge influence in the foodways of the entire North American continent. Because of those features that we have in common, a new cuisine was organically and naturally born. That is what makes it different from a fusion cuisine. Fusion cuisine to me denotes a studied, methodical way of putting together different ingredients from different parts of the world to create a dish. In this case, there was no planning. It didn’t start with us. It started with people in their homes, people who suddenly couldn’t find nixtamalized corn to make tamales so they’d substitute hominy grits. We’d use grits instead of masa harina to make tamales, for instance, yielding something that was almost identical. It was a cuisine of nostalgia. We defied the ingredients to make that nostalgia a reality.
The culture in the professional kitchen has certainly changed as well. We’re seeing a lot of people of Hispanic origin running kitchens nowadays. What do you think of that shift? SG: I find it fascinating that we started in the front of the house and have now moved to the back. We are actually having a physical transformation through the food that is served. It’s very exciting, but not surprising because it typically is the immigrant community that ends up working in the kitchen. What makes it so exciting is here in the South we’re truly adding our flavor to the food. We’re not coming only from one country but from all 21 Latin American countries. Each cuisine has its own elements and is different from each other. You can see the different elements in the cuisine that are resulting from it within the United States. It’s very delicious for sure, but also very exciting to see.
I’m curious to know what you think of the president’s approach to immigration then, because it would have quite an impact on the restaurant and food industry, no? SG: Immigration is a very complicated issue because there is the economic side, the political side, and the human side. I deal with the food angle of it and the human side. I think, regardless of political divisions, a great way to bring down walls culturally is through foodways and people discovering the real cuisines of their neighbors and what people are eating and getting to know people. The one thing I see missing in today’s political landscape is respect for different opinions and people. I was taught as a child — with two grandparents who were really politically opposite — that when you sit at the table, you could discuss any kind of differences without yelling or throwing food at each other. I think that’s what is missing. So, if we could take a Latin grandmother and a big buffet table to Congress, maybe we can force them to talk to each other under threat of not getting any dessert.