When she won a James Beard award for her cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina, Maricel Presilla felt gratified to be acknowledged for the "work of a lifetime," as well as for "the collective work of millions of Latin Americans that live on two continents, in the Caribbean Islands, and also in the U.S."
Presilla received the "Best Cookbook" honor at last Friday's Book, Broadcast and Journalism awards. She is a chef, culinary historian and Miami Herald columnist. She also owns two restaurants, Zafra and Cucharamama, in Hoboken, New Jersey, where she lives.
However Presilla lived in Miami for many years and still considers it her home. She graduated from Miami-Dade College and Florida International University.
The 900-page cookbook is also part culinary history. Throughout her travels in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and Puerto Rico, Presilla spoke with countless abuelas and taxi drivers to find and hone recipes for tamales, empanadas, sauces and sancochos (stews). She feared that many of these recipes would be lost as older generations died.
Although she traveled endlessly for the book, she says she could not have written Gran Cocina Latina anywhere but in the United States:
"I tested every single recipe in the book with ingredients that I bought within walking distance from my home in New Jersey. I could not have written my book anywhere else but the U.S. because if I was in Argentina, I would never have been able to buy the chiles of Mexico. If I go to Mexico and try to test the recipes for the book and try to find Andean peppers--no I would never have been able to do it."
Presilla says that as immigrants from various Latin American countries mingle in the U.S. -- at work, at church, at school -- they start to incorporate aspects of each other's cooking without even realizing it: "For me, that is the importance of Latin American cooking in the U.S. We are building a new Latin American type of cooking but without any borders."
Presilla likened her book to the monarch butterfly, which has been used as a metaphor for immigration reform. She loved the metaphor of large groups of monarch butterflies making the round trip between Mexico and the United States as part of their annual migration:
"I realize that -- in a way -- my book is a monarch because it's building bridges through the pleasure of cooking. I believe the movement of people across borders is right. That's how cultures are enriched and this migration is something that has been with humanity since the dawn of ages."
Presilla won the 2012 James Beard Award for "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic."