Sandra Gutierrez brings a Latin lilt to the old South
The words “Latino cooking” may conjure a lot of images for many, but a fluffy, steaming-hot cheese biscuit is probably not one of them.
On the other hand, you probably will not expect a fluffy, steaming-hot cheese biscuit to be spiked with chile peppers and slathered with creamy avocado butter.
For Sandra Gutierrez, who was born in the United States to Guatemalan parents and grew up in both countries, such things are nothing unusual.
Even after her family returned to Guatemala, the American foodways they had adopted remained a part of their table. It was not until she moved to North Carolina with her husband, however, that Gutierrez discovered what she calls her “inner Southern Belle” and found her spiritual home.
All it took was one biscuit and she was a lost cause. Eagerly, she began to learn how to cook the things her neighbors shared with her, and they in turn learned to love the Latino cooking she shared with them. Over time, the two cuisines became hopelessly, and happily, entangled in her kitchen, and she has never looked back.
Gutierrez is exemplary of a new trend in Southern cooking. No cuisine, not even the ancient ones of China, France and Italy, is static. As more and more immigrants from Latin America settle in the South, the land of biscuits and barbecue is changing — and so are the biscuits and barbecue.
A veteran cooking teacher and food writer, Gutierrez shares how transplanted Latin-Southerners are redefining Southern food in her lovely new cookbook, “The New Southern-Latino Table,” published by the University of North Carolina Press, a house known for its championship of traditional Southern cooking.
Gutierrez is reluctant to use the word “fusion” for this cuisine, partly because of the connotations it acquired from the “fusion” movement that dominated the American restaurant scene in 1990s. Unlike that movement, in which different (and often incompatible) cuisines were often forced together for novelty’s sake, Gutierrez argues that Southern-Latino cooking is organic, naturally growing out of shared experience.
The result is a cuisine that is less about contrast than similarities.
“You can recognize the dishes,” Gutierrez explains, “but there’s a twist, so you think you’re going to have one taste only to find that it’s something else altogether.”
It’s still familiar to both cultures, but it’s also new. Her fried chicken is a good example. On the surface, it looks just like the fried chicken you’d find anywhere in the South, marinated in buttermilk and fried up to golden-brown perfection. From the first bite, however, it’s apparent that this chicken has been somewhere south of the border.
The buttermilk marinade is heady with cilantro, smoky chipotle chiles and garlic, and its flour coating is revved up with still more garlic, spices and ancho chiles.
Then there are the Chile-Chocolate Brownies, which Gutierrez likes to call brownies for grown-ups.
“You bite into this rich, moist chocolate brownie and it tastes pretty much like you expect it to taste, but then you get this small tingling sensation blooming on your tongue, and you know there’s chile in there.”
Gutierrez is quick to point out, however, that while there are differences between the two cuisines, there are equally as many parallels.
Many dishes are at home in both worlds, like a layered potato and egg salad that she likes to call “deconstructed Southern potato salad.” While its structure is that of a layered salad from Peru, its flavors derive from both cultures.
There is also brisket braised in cola spiced with dried chiles until it is falling-apart tender. Gutierrez pulls or shreds the meat just like barbecue and serves it over grits or stuffed into sandwich rolls, exactly the way you’d expect to get Southern barbecue.
While Gutierrez approached this project with definite ideas of what it should be, UNC Press senior executive editor Elaine Maisner said she was always open to different ideas.
“Because Sandra has got such a clear, deep and fascinating knowledge of the two cuisines, she was confident about taking on new ideas and suggestions.”
Few authors are so thoroughly integrated into a cookbook. Gutierrez not only cooked and styled all the food for the photographs (which we have used to illustrate this story), but also took those photographs.
As a result, her personality is palpable throughout. Using the book is almost like having Gutierrez beside you in your kitchen.