Food & Drink

NC cookbook author finds the spot where Southern/Latino overlap

Sandra Gutierrez of Cary sees Latin American and Southern foods coming together.
Sandra Gutierrez of Cary sees Latin American and Southern foods coming together. Courtesy of Sandra Gutierrez

When you meet Sandra Gutierrez, you’d never guess that she’s a home-cooking double agent.

A prolific cookbook author and cooking teacher who lives in Cary, she calls herself “as American as apple pie – with a Latin accent.” Born in Philadelphia while her father trained as an oral surgeon and raised in Guatemala, she’s bounced from North Carolina to Canada and back. And for 30 years, she’s been documenting a Latino overlap with Southern cooking.

Gutierrez will be at the Levine Museum of the New South on June 18 for an afternoon talking about the cross-cultural cuisine and signing copies of her new book, “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America.”

When she first started talking about it years ago, “many of the food scholars pooh-poohed it,” she says. “I was like, ‘No, this is going to grow, this is going to be big.’ I was seeing it in people’s homes, I was seeing it among my (cooking) students.”

After writing a piece for the Cary News, predicting that one day we’d eat pulled pork with guacamole, she got a contract to write her groundbreaking cookbook, “The New Southern-Latino Table” in 2011. It was followed by “Latin American Street Food,” “Beans & Field Peas: A Savor the South Cookbook” and now “Empanadas.”

What Gutierrez noticed, she saw first in her own life. When she came to Cary as a newlywed 30 years ago, she wanted to cook the food she grew up with. But finding ingredients was tough.

“Do you know how hard it was to get jalapenos? You couldn’t find cilantro. Chipotles? Forget it.” She’d dog the Wellspring store in Chapel Hill, waiting for shipments of black beans. She adapted Southern ingredients, like making tamale dough with grits instead of masa harina.

That’s when she started to notice that many Southern and Latino ingredients were similar. Grits and masa are made by the same process, it’s just that masa is ground finer.

Then she noticed other people doing it. Her students were adding smoky chipotle peppers to barbecue sauce and subbing pork for goat in traditional stews.

It snapped into place: Latin American countries and Southern states had many of the same ingredients – pork, peas and beans, nuts. And the food of both regions descends from the same three ethnic groups: Indians, Europeans, particularly Spaniards, and Africans.

“You look at any other part of the world, no one has the same three cultures at the base of their cuisine.” Even cooking techniques overlap, like slow-cooking pork in pits. Barbacoa, she says, probably came to the South from the Dominican Republic.

“It’s not replacing one culture for another,” she says. “It’s a new branch of Southern food that’s growing.” And while we sometimes think of Latino food as only Mexican, she sees influences from more than 20 countries and a wide variety of social strata, from migrant workers to professionals.

“Food is a very powerful predictor of society,” she says. “You understand other cultures better if you study food.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

‘The New Southern-Latino Table With Sandra Gutierrez’

Gutierrez will talk, offer food samples and sign books from 3-5 p.m. June 18 at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. 7th St. Tickets are $10 for members, $20 for non-members. Registration is required: www.museumofthenewsouth.org/register.

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