It’s fiesta time, y’all! Chef, journalist, and teacher, Sandra Gutierrez is the author of the recently published The New Southern-Latino Table (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), an exceptional new collection of recipes blending the cuisines of more than twenty Latin countries with the beloved food of the American South. Gutierrez’s natural talent as a teacher shines through in this book, as she offers experienced and novice cooks tips, ideas and techniques to create an array of 150 original and delightfully tasty dishes that represent the best of both cultures. Mamiverse recently sat down with Sandra for a chat on food, family and culture.
Mamiverse: What were your first cooking memories?
Sandra Gutierrez: I discovered the joy of feeding others very early on. I got my very first cookbook at the ripe old age of six—a Betty Crocker’s Girls and Boys cookbook that I keep to this day. I tackled my first recipe and made open-faced sandwiches with cheese and ham cut-out shapes. My little brothers were so impressed! I have a clear recollection of baking jam-filled cupcakes for my Dad, when I was nine years old. I remember setting a special table for him, placing the still warm cakes in a basket lined with a pretty napkin, and waiting eagerly for a sign of approval. The fact that he ate a second and then a third cake was approval enough for me and at that instant, I was hooked on cooking. To this day, nothing makes me happier than seeing others enjoy my food.
Mamiverse: Can you share any stories of cooking with your mother?
Sandra Gutierrez: My mom didn’t cook when I was little but my Tia Maria was a very well-known caterer in Guatemala. We had great chemistry and I loved her very much. She discovered my knack for cooking and around the time I turned twelve years old, she took it upon herself to teach me culinary technique. She taught me how to use knives, how to select ingredients, and the basics of cooking and baking. When I grew a bit older, she would invite me to spend afternoons at her house where we would get busy garnishing miniature hors d’oeuvres and baking cookies for her events. Let’s just say she had plenty of advice to give me about cooking and about life. I treasure the memories of afternoons spent together in her kitchen talking, cooking, and sharing.
Mamiverse: How did you introduce your own kids to food and cooking?
Sandra Gutierrez: I introduced my daughters to cooking at a very early age. Cooking was a great way to keep them distracted on rainy or cold days when playing outside was not possible. I soon learned that little hands are good for rolling meatballs, great for stirring batters, and ideal for stamping cookies. It’s incredible what little ones will eat when they’ve had something to do with the food preparation.
I found learning opportunities at every juncture. Alessandra learned about patterns by helping me make small lasagnas when she was a mere two years old. I could set the sauce, cheese filling, and cooked pasta in bowls before her and watch her assemble each lasagna dish with precision. Nikki was rolling gnocchi dough into ropes by the time she was three. It didn’t take long before they were both cutting them into pillows and imprinting the ridges into gnocchi with forks. I always knew it was time to call it a day when the dough would start getting shaped into bears and snowmen instead of little gnocchi, but by then, we often had two or three baking sheets full of dumplings.
Mamiverse: Do you cook together as a family now?
Sandra Gutierrez: Even my husband got into the action and for years, he would join us to decorate Easter cookies, wrap tamales for Christmas dinner, and crank the pasta machine so we could shape noodles at top speed. In fact, come holiday time, when our family is together, we still gather in the kitchen to prepare our celebratory meal. We each have our own specialties and all of them make it to the table.
Mamiverse: Any special family meals together?
Sandra Gutierrez: If there was one thing that was not negotiable at our home, it was the fact that we always sat together for dinner. Even if my husband was away traveling, the girls would still gather around the table and honor our mealtime. To this day, family dinner is paramount.
The heart of our home is without a doubt our kitchen. That’s where we build memories, where we discuss important issues, where we make plans for the future, and where we feed our souls. I strongly believe that a family that eats together, stays together. I look to the future with hope that someday our kitchen table will gather a new generation of cooks.