Seated quietly inside Pages Bookshop in Detroit’s Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood, a small gathering listened intently as Von Diaz read in agonizing detail from a passage in her newly-released cookbook Coconuts and Collards the heartbreak she experienced when she and her husband’s marriage fell apart.
“The emptiness I felt in my body was immense, a black hole that nothing could fill,” she read, tears welling up in her eyes, as she clutched the hand of friend and photographer Cybelle Codish, who sat next to her.
I’ve felt that emptiness before and just hearing those sorrowful words read out loud created a momentary tick in my own throat as if I could start weeping right along with her.
Diaz continued on, describing how, during a trip to her native Puerto Rico after the breakup, she overcame months of starvation, induced by profound grief. Toward the end of her stay, Diaz recalled visiting a restaurant in Yabucoa, a mountaintop rainforest, where the chef, Berto, overheard her talking about her sadness and self-inflicted hunger.
“Bueno m’ija — hoy si que vas a comer!” he exclaimed. “Girl, today you’re going to eat.”
There are so many reasons why this reading felt special.
First, just the way Diaz described the food that can only be found in her homeland: piles of carne frita — boneless pork ribs marinated in adobo and deep fried; spicy tostones (smashed and fried green plantains); cups full of fresh coconut water and whiskey. She draws from her abuela’s collection of old recipe clippings from magazines and an old copy of Cocina Criolla, considered in Puerto Rican households as ubiquitous as the Joy of Cooking has been for generations on the mainland. Her prose in storytelling and modern takes on classic dishes, along with Codish’s illuminating photography, are enough to make our mouths water.
With ease, Diaz also illustrates for us the universally healing power of cookbooks, describing how food can be used to nurture us both body and soul. Food can help us to power through even the most traumatic of life’s events and take us to a place that feels like the comforts of home.
More than that though, as lauded food writer Julia Turshen (who also happened to be at the reading) noted in a recent piece in Eater, cookbooks can be more than collections of recipes: They can act as catalysts for change.
All too often the recipes inspired by traditions that span the globe and that fill the dining sections of newspapers and magazines everywhere are reinterpreted by white authors and are typically void of cultural context. In contrast, Diaz is a Puerto Rican-born writer and radio producer who grew up in Atlanta who is able to document in intimate detail more than 50 recipes that intersect her upbringing on the island and the American South. It’s a level detail that simply cannot be replicated by a white author spending a few weeks or months on the island “taking in the culture.”
On a personal note, my mother’s last name also happens to be Diaz. Having lived in predominantly white suburbs on the West Coast at different points in my childhood, my mom, sister and I would collectively cringe every time we heard her name butchered by a bank teller, telemarketer or store clerk. Just witnessing another Diaz grace the cover of a nationally-noted cookbook feels like redemption.
Von Diaz’s book reading coincided with the Feet in 2 Worlds “Immigrant Food Stories” workshop offered last week to aspiring food writers during the annual Allied Media Conference. The objective, empower writers of color to tell their own stories on their own terms, which Diaz exemplies with grace.
We’ll have more thoughts on the AMC’s food programming at a later date. For now, we’ll leave you with this excerpt from Coconuts and Collards, a recipe that’s perfect for entertaining on a warm summer’s day.
Camarones a la Vinagretta (Shrimp in Citrus Vinaigrette)
My parents gave me my first shrimp to peel when I was five years old, and I had a real knack for it. This simple recipe pairs tender shrimp with bright herbs, crisp citrus fruits, and creamy avocado. It’s great to make ahead of time, though be sure to save the avocado until you are ready to serve. These camarones make for a great light dinner or an appetizer or lunch served over mixed greens or butter lettuce.
2 plum tomatoes, diced
3 tablespoons fresh citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, or a combination)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
⅛ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh culantro
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 quart water
3 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 bay leaves
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and coarsely chopped
Make the vinaigrette: Combine the tomatoes, citrus juice, oil, mustard, oregano, cilantro, and culantro in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Poach the shrimp: In a large saucepan with a lid, combine the water, 1 tablespoon of the salt, the peppercorns, and bay leaves and bring to a boil over high heat. While the water is coming to a boil, prepare an ice bath by emptying a tray of ice cubes into a large bowl and adding the remaining 2 tablespoons salt and enough water to cover.
Add the shrimp to the boiling water, turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for 1 to 2 minutes.
Drain the shrimp in a colander, then transfer to the ice bath. Stir well and let sit until fully cooled, about 5 minutes.
Drain the shrimp thoroughly, shaking the strainer and dabbing the shrimp with a clean paper towel to remove excess water.
Add the shrimp to the bowl with vinaigrette and toss to incorporate. Add the chopped avocado, taste, and add salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately.
(All photos courtesy of Cybelle Codish. Check out more of her work on camera here.)
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.
Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!