The importance of “Cocina Criolla”: 

A Historical look at the significance of this culinary book


When people think or talk about Puerto Rico, most mention the cuisine, language, music, and traditions. Any cultured person would be aware that even though Puerto Rico is under United States jurisdiction after it was won from Spain as compensation for the Spanish-American War, it is still its own country. This is an important distinction since it is one of the reasons why Spanish is the official language and not English, which will be one of the key factors  to understanding why there are differences present in the translated English version of “Cocina Criolla” by Carmen Valldejuli. This Puertorican cookbook is the number one selling and most popular cookbook in Puerto Rico and has been utilized in almost every household for over six decades. It can be said that this is THE Puertorican cookbook that best represents Puertorican cuisine and has allowed for traditional dishes to be passed onto future generations, while trying to keep the authenticity of the recipes intact. The same cannot be said for the English version that shows how translation and time can alter the integrity. To really grasp the necessity for this cookbook we must look historically at the 1950’s, which came to be known as the grand Puertorican migration.

Original cover art

Historical Background 

If you read any history book or official historical document that references the compensations post Spanish-American War (1898) some of the biggest take away that the United States got were the colonies that were previously under Spain’s empire. Puerto Rico was one of these said islands that the United States were now the colonists of. At this point Puerto Ricans are a mix of Taino, African, and Spanish genes. All three of these had very different cuisines, the mix of all three makes up Puertorican cuisine. At this moment any person that had a residence in Puerto Rico was granted United States citizenship.  If we skip ahead fifty two years post Spanish-American War, historically the biggest migration of Puerto Ricans occurred from the main island to the United States. During the 1950-60’s almost half a million natives had migrated for various reasons.  It is said that the reason for this was the sudden transformation of the island’s economy from a monocultural plantation economy into a platform for export-production in factories.

Who was Carmen Valldejuli?

Carmen Valldejuli was a typical high class Puertorican woman, who was born in 1912. Her family had money which allowed them to have hired help in the kitchen, which was good but didn’t allow her to fully grasp or learn the recipes. When she married her husband in 1936, she had no idea how to cook for him nor her family. At the moment her husband was studying in Yale, being away from home pushed her to work on this historic cookbook. She worked on this cookbook for 10 plus years and the original version was done by manuscript and all drawings were done by hand and in pencil. As a Puertorican women during the 1950s, she saw the need of having a cookbook which any Puertorican, no matter whether they be on the main island or not, could reference while cooking and to have a small piece of home with them. It has over sixty four editions and versions. She is known as the Puertorican Julia Child. For years and various publishing’s, the cookbook had no front cover art, this only changed with the English version. 

Carmen Valldejuli

The errors of translating without understanding

As the years went on, Puerto Ricans that lived in the States started to solely speak English instead of Spanish for various reasons, from persecution to elitism. All in all it is a by-product of the cultural climate the United States has towards minorities. Finally during the 1970’s “Cocina Criolla” caught up and received an English version, “Puertorican Cookery”. When translations occur most times it is impossible to translate the idiom, because it can vary depending on the circumstances. A perfect example of this is the English version’s title, Puertorican Cookery is not even close to being the correct translation of the title. If “Cocina Criolla” is properly translated it would be “Creole Kitchen.” Problem is that in the United States “creole” is associated with the cuisine of Louisiana but in the Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, criollo refers to Spanish Americans of European descent. Hence, cocina criolla is the cuisine created by the European (mostly Spanish) colonists using their traditional recipes made with native Caribbean foods and cooking styles. This could be one of the biggest problems the English translation has and how it was adapted to fit into American culture.

Another example of this would be the error present in the “Carne Frita con cebollas” (Fried meat with onions) recipe. In the Spanish version the recipe calls for the recipe to be done with pork loin, but in the English version, since “carne” means meat, when it was translated they changed the pork for beef, “fried beefsteak with onions”. 

By doing this you have changed the essence of the dish since the dish only requires meat and onions. This changes the consistency, cooking time, and could cause unforeseen problems. (serving beef to someone that doesn’t eat it)  This shows a lack of attention to detail nor understanding of the subject when it was translated, because any Puertorican that is asked what type of meat is used for “Carne Frita ” will answer pork nine times out of ten. The core steps are the same but by changing the primary component of the dish it becomes another recipe completely, by the translation you’re eating,  cut and fried beefsteak instead of pork. The recipe also has slight additions like the possible substitution of butter for oil for easier frying. It is said that the secret to the greatness of “Cocina Criolla ” is that it’s not supposed to be a step by step guide but more of a reference and that adaptations and changes would naturally occur with the passage of time. 

As a born and raised Puertorican “Carne Frita” is probably one of my favorite dishes, I can eat pounds of it in one sitting. To prepare this dish you must clean 2 pounds of pork loin by removing fibers and skin as a preparation and cut one yellow onion.

Step one consists of washing the meat and cutting it vertically and after beating the meat with a mallet.

Step two is to create your seasoning but nowadays use premade seasoning (adobo and sazon) and season your meat with this. Keep the seasoned meat in the fridge up until one hour before cooking.

Step 3 is to melt down ¼ cup of butter in a frying pan but in modern versions it tells you to use oil. Add the onions so they can render. Do this for 15 minutes on low fire. When done, remove and let dry.

Step 4 requires that in the same frying pan as before, fry the meat on high heat, 3 minutes per side. Remove meat and let it stand.

The difference between the two meats cooked is even clearer. Utilizing a different protein gives a dish a different consistency and flavor.

Step 5 is to add the onions back

Finished product

Step 6 is to serve meat with onions on top

Recommendation:

Step 7 is not from the original recipe but from Puertorican customs. Make a dipping sauce. In a bowl mix ketchup, mayonnaise, and adobo. This makes Mayoketchup, This sauce is used almost at every single Puerto Rican restaurant and household in the world.

Mayoketchup is paired with almost every Puertorican dish that requires a dipping sauce.

Conclusion:

Without a doubt, it can be said that “Cocina Criolla” is the best Puertorican cookbook ever made. The fact that its recipes have not been altered or modified since the book was originally published, a testament to how significant and important “Cocina Criolla ” is to Puertorican cuisine. Also, it embodies what a Puertorican is in its title, “un Criollo ” a mix of cultures and customs that grow and build off each other. It gave Puerto Rico a sense of identity during a time where the United States tried its best to white wash it into submission. It was able to help migrating families have a slice of home and culture, when arriving in the United States. It also created a form of unity over what Puertorican cuisine was going to be to the outside world. It is a cookbook that takes into consideration time and technology would facilitate cooking in the future making it universal in time. The only concern that comes is from poorly translated versions of the book that are available in English. These versions are not accurate as it was evident by the change in name, to better be incorporated into American markets, and the change of protein, changing the integrity of the recipe, in what can be considered a standardized dish in Puerto Rico that everyone knows what is made of.

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