Von Diaz introduces her new book, “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories From Puerto Rico to the Deep South,” with a simple confession: She’s a terrible salsa dancer, is prone to saying “y’all,” and is Puerto Rican. Through the rest of the book, Diaz explores how she has merged two cultures and two cuisines.
Diaz’s story begins with her birth in Puerto Rico and continues outside Atlanta where she was raised by her single mother. In the American South, and on many visits back to Puerto Rico with her beloved grandmother “Tata,” Diaz develops a love of food and story. The unique recipes that Diaz creates are influenced by learning to cook in Tata’s kitchen in Puerto Rico, perusing her grandmother’s well-loved copy of “Cocina Criolla,” and the foods she grew up cooking and eating in her kitchen at home. Diaz is a writer and radio producer who lives in New York.
Q. Have the Puerto Rican and Southern parts of your identity always coexisted happily?
A. No. In many ways this book was an exploration of the process through which I resolved my feelings about both and came to a happy place. I say that I felt often that I’m not Latina enough and not Southern enough at the same time. Particularly when I was young, I didn’t feel that I belonged in either place fully. I really found my way back to center through food and cooking and eating. I found that food was a shared language in both of my cultures.
Q. You were very young when you moved to Atlanta. When did Southern food feel like it was yours?
A. That’s an interesting question. I think that resolution came more as an adult, living on my own, and starting to cook for myself. When I was going to the grocery store to stock my own pantry, I found the ingredients that I felt were staples were not the staples that other people maybe had in their own kitchens. I always had Goya Sazón, and also Old Bay. I always had olive oil, but definitely also butter. When I got to the point where I started to have dinner parties, I found that I was blending the foods that had been the food of my life. I might make a Puerto Rican roast pork shoulder for a dinner party [and serve it)] alongside grits. This sort of happened organically.
Q. Was there a time when you really became aware of the connections between the two cuisines?
A. I used to work at Watershed, a really well-known traditional Southern restaurant that was then in Decatur, Ga., where they make everything, absolutely everything, from scratch down to the mayonnaise. One of the chefs there was making a pork shoulder and he made it, to me, almost exactly the way that we would prepare it in Puerto Rico, except that he would stuff it with whole bay leaves and use slightly different seasonings. But the preparation, the cut, were exactly the same. That was one of the first moments where I was like, this is interesting.
Q. Why do Southern and Puerto Rican styles of cooking connect so well?
A. The way the cuisines sit really easily alongside each other has a lot to do with our shared African ancestry and what we know about what Southern cuisine and Puerto Rican cuisine were intended to be, which was sustenance and nourishment versus more elevated cuisines that might be more celebratory, more exquisite, a little bit more of a show. I think traditional Southern food and traditional Puerto Rican food are comfort foods. I remember so vividly throughout my childhood, one of the things that really made me obsessed with food was the feeling of being really full from a giant bowl of cheese grits or a big plate of mofongo. This fullness just brings so much joy and was so satisfying. I found that I had both of those feelings in both of those cuisines.
Q. Have you been back to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria?
A. I haven’t had the opportunity to get back. My family is OK. My friends who I mention in the book, it’s been a little bit of a struggle for them, but they’re rebuilding and seem to be in good spirits.
Q. With so many Puerto Ricans leaving the island, many more young people are having experiences like yours.
A. Puerto Rican migration to the mainland has been increasing steadily over the years. We have some sense that a lot of people have already come here since the hurricane. So the mainland, which has had more Puerto Ricans than the island for some time now, is going to have a significantly larger Puerto Rican community that will in many ways, rightfully, feel that country didn’t take care of them when they needed them. I hoped that this book gives people like me who grew up kind of between two worlds, between two cultures, it gives them something to connect to and imagine how they might resolve the culture of the island with wherever they land here.