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Illyanna Maisonet’s bona fides speak for themselves.
Her award-winning column about traditional Puerto Rican foodways in the San Francisco Chronicle made Maisonet the first Puerto Rican food columnist in the United States. The Sacramento-based writer is as fierce an advocate for the city as you will ever find—particularly when it comes to the immigrant and working-class food businesses that populate her neighborhood in South Sacramento.
And when the glossy food magazine Bon Appetit had its racial reckoning moment of 2020, those who know Maisonet were not surprised that she was the one who kicked the whole thing off. Her series of tweets about the rationale the magazine offered for rejecting one of her pitches—and about the publication’s glaring lack of Puerto Rican food stories overall—ignited such a high-profile discussion of tokenism and racism in food media that the company eventually underwent a massive reshuffling of its leadership and staff. She’s never been shy about speaking truth to power.
She also happens to be a beautiful writer. Maisonet’s full powers are on display in her forthcoming debut cookbook, Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook. “Culantro,” she writes, describing an herb central to Puerto Rican cooking, “is like cilantro’s cousin who comes to visit from the hood. Yeah, they’re family. But it’s also way more ‘punchy,’ ‘vocal,’ ‘spirited’—all those politically correct euphemisms—and possibly wearing FUBU.” About the salted codfish fritters known as bacalaitos, Maisonet writes, “The center was toothsome like our gente’s—our people’s—resistance, salty from the tears we’ve shed, but the edges were delicate and vulnerable, like when we reveal our underbellies.”
As its title indicates, Diasporican isn’t meant to be some all-purpose handbook on Puerto Rican cooking. Instead, it’s specifically a book that documents Maisonet’s experience as a Puerto Rican living in the diaspora here in Northern California—and the way the mix of cultures here has informed her cooking. It’s a book that deals with grief and childhood trauma and the long-reaching effects of American colonialism. It’ll also make you want to drop everything and immediately cook up a pot of arroz con gandules or carne guisada, or a sizzling hot plate of tostones.
In advance of the book’s Oct. 18 release date, KQED chatted with Maisonet about nostalgia, the Bay Area’s (somewhat sparse) Puerto Rican food scene and why it took her six years to find a publisher for her book.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Despite the success of your Chronicle column, you (very publicly) had a difficult time finding a publisher for this cookbook. I remember seeing you tweet about the multiple rejections you received. At one point the celebrated chef-humanitarian José Andrés even took up your cause—still to no avail. Why was the idea of a Puerto Rican cookbook such a hard sell, and how were you able to overcome that challenge?
I can only make assumptions based on my experiences. So when you see “101 Ways to Keto/Paleo/Instant Pot Vegan Beans” for the hundredth fucking time, and there are maybe 10 mass-published Puerto Rican cookbooks from the history of ever, you can only assume that the only difference between you and them is skin color.
That’s the only thing I can see. Because what everyone said—between the agents that rejected me and the editors that rejected me and the publishers that rejected me—they all had the same thing [to say], which was that there is no market for the book.
I personally think that they are underestimating their audience. In a way, they think consumers are stupid. Clearly we have totally evolved in the ways of global food to the point that Chinese food is not just this amalgamation of what Chinese immigrants think Americans want. Now, Chinese food is based on region, and people are requesting it by region. It’s the same thing for Mexican food. And the same thing can be done for other Latino foods.
They say, “There’s no market,” but technically there wasn’t a market for any of this shit to begin with. By the time I finally got my book published, that proposal had been schlepped around for six years. Almost everybody in the industry had seen it.
I’m the kind of person who slips in through the cracks during a transition. So I was ready when 2020 hit and brands and publishers and everybody else were scrambling to do the performative activism and find content creators and artists of color. I was already ready.
I literally got my offer the month that George Floyd got murdered. If that wouldn’t have happened, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be in the position that I am right now.
A lot of what’s great about Diasporican is how fresh and bold the writing voice is. Given how challenging it was for you to get your book deal to begin with, did you also have to really fight to keep that voice intact?
I know [my writing] is not for everyone because a woman already gave me two stars on NetGalley for cursing. [laughs]
But because I worked with [since-departed Ten Speed Press editor-in-chief] Lorena [Jones], I did not have to fight to have my voice heard. Remember, this was 2020. This was post-Bon Appetit, post dragging everyone on Twitter with screenshots. Lorena already knew what she was getting into.
I feel like some people [in the publishing industry] are prepared to take the risk because they know that money can be made. But mostly, the people that we have to deal with are the middle man, like the acquisitions editors. They’re not hired to have that kind of risk assessment or vision. They’re just there to do what’s comfortable.
I didn’t have to go through a middle man. Lorena was the man.
Your book is chock full of delightful recipes, but it also deals with a lot of heavy subject matter—violence, grief, trauma. You write in the intro, “How I became a cook is not a romantic story…There would be no passing down of heirloom cookbooks (I don’t think my grandma ever owned a cookbook), words of encouragement, or time to enjoy a childhood.” While your cookbook is nostalgic in certain ways, it also seems to be fighting against the sentimentality that pervades a lot of food writing, especially the kind trafficking in recipes passed down by grandmothers. Can you talk about the balance you wanted to strike?
I am a nostalgic person, but sometimes nostalgia can be very dangerous, like we’re living in the past or creating a more romanticized version of the past. I am and am not a romantic. I’m not in terms of American consumerism—chocolate and roses for Valentine’s Day.
But I am a romantic in the sense that I can see the beauty in a lot of shit that people pass every day. The reason I was able to come to the middle in the book is because so much time had already passed. (Also therapy. That shit really works!) I was able to dissect [my childhood], heal, and kind of see why my mom and grandma were the way that they were.
My grandma died in 2015; I started writing the book then. It’s kind of like my grief journey.
What is the biggest misperception that people have about Puerto Rican food?
I feel like almost everyone I’ve spoken to thinks that Puerto Rican is spicy. But why would it be? We do have some condiments that make things spicy, but the food itself isn’t spicy. People are always surprised about that when they dig in. They’re expecting spice, and what they get is flavor. Those are the two things I always hear: “Oh, it’s not spicy” and “Oh, it’s so flavorful.”
Most people’s preconceptions are that French food is the top tier, be-all end-all. But there are other cultures that share the same [characteristics] when it comes to flavor complexities. In the Caribbean—and a lot of South America and Mexico—there’s a baseline of simple foods that are built with layers of flavor. That’s why a lot of my recipes can’t be whipped up quick.
You write that Diasporican isn’t strictly a Puerto Rican cookbook. Instead, you write lovingly about your neighborhood in Sacramento and about all of the ways that the ingredients and the different food cultures in California have influenced your cooking. Can you explain what you mean by “diasporican” and talk about a recipe that reflects that approach?
I didn’t want the “Purity Ricans,” which is what I call them, to go in with the misconception that the book was only going to be purely traditional Puerto Rican recipes, the way their grandmother used to make it. (And by the way, a lot of their grandmothers are terrible cooks.) That’s the disclaimer: I already warned you. This book gave me the permission to accept that I’m not one of them Puerto Ricans. I was trying my damnedest to prove that I was. I’m not and that’s OK.
It allowed me to do more experimenting without apologizing because it’s my experience as a Puerto Rican growing up in California in the Central Valley, where there were a ton of Mien, Hmong, Lao and Cambodian people, especially when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. They were coming to the West out of the post-war trauma that they were going through.
Saying I’m a “diasporic” and from California allows me to do things like my Puerto Rican laab. That recipe was just me putting things together in my brain—the Lao family that I was living with [as a teenager] making papaya salad and laab, and noticing that a lot of the ingredients are really similar. Even though [Puerto Ricans] don’t use fish sauce or padaek, we do use a fresh herb base. That’s sofrito. I always add some at the end [of the cooking process] because it’s that wallop of flavor that I’m looking for.
In Lao food, they use a mortar and pestle; we use a pilon. They mash the garlic; we mash the garlic. They put in the shallots, we put in the onions. Then goes in the basil and the lemongrass and the tomatoes. I was like, Goddamn, that looks so similar to Puerto Rican food. I wondered if I could merge the two.
So that laab dish is just another application of sofrito.
You have always been a big advocate for Puerto Rican food businesses in Northern California. What are your strongest recommendations?
In San Francisco, the best place to go is Parada 22, but not everything is good. You’ve got to get the sampler. It comes with yucca, tostones, maduros, the pernil and fried chicken. It’s hella good—that’s the only thing I get there.
If you’re looking for vegan options, you can really only go to Casa Borinqueña because everybody else cooks with some kind of animal product.
If you’re in the East Bay, your only option, in my opinion, is to go to La Perla. They have really good bacalaitos, which is codfish fritters. And if you go on the weekend, they have amazing pernil, which is the roasted pork shoulder. They make it the good way where they get the skin nice and thin and crispy, which is super hard to do.
Diasporican is out on Oct. 18 from Ten Speed Press.