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A conversation with Illyanna Maisonet.
Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook by the writer and recipe developer Illyanna Maisonet tells a story of Puerto Rican cuisine that is so personal to Maisonet’s West Coast diaspora experience to the point that it operates effectively as a memoir. That’s also because she’s a brilliant writer: The recipe headnotes are not after-thoughts but come with vivid detail, as do her biographical essays—and the recipes themselves combine archipelago tradition with her California spin.
I spoke with Maisonet, whom I’ve known for years now, about how she ended up writing a cookbook, her specific perspective on Puerto Rican food, and navigating the world of food writing. This has been condensed and edited.
Alicia: We have put this conversation off many times, as you've reminded me. I've wanted to talk to you for ages, but I always wanted it to be the right moment. I wanted people to be able to buy the book; I wanted people to be able to maybe have sat a bit with the book if they've already bought it, because I want people to have the sense of you that I feel they should have, which is as a brilliant writer and a thoughtful memoirist, and just a person who is, on the sentence level, one of our best food writers in the United States right now. And so now is the moment because we're gonna get people to buy this book for Christmas. We're gonna get them to wrap it up for Christmas.
Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Illyanna: In South Sacramento, which is a neighborhood that's still pretty—it's an unincorporated part of Sacramento. It's the part of Sacramento that no one talks about when they talk about Sacramento or when they talk about Lady Bird, the movie Lady Bird. And, you know, depending on where I was, at first was my grandmother, and we ate Puerto Rican food, you know, rice and beans always on the stove. And if I was with my mom, then she would make kind of more semi-homemade meals, like Americana type of food. But because of the way that part of South Sacramento is, you know, it's relatively—it's not old, in the sense of Puerto Rico is old, but it's old, you know, like, twenties, thirties, turn of the century. So there's a lot of fruit trees everywhere: persimmons, walnuts, pomegranates, you know, all those types of things. So we always have access to that stuff.
Alicia: You’re really multidisciplinary in your work. You're an artist, you're a cook, you're a writer, you develop recipes—how did you come to embody so many roles?
Illyanna: You know more than anyone else that it’s because we have to. We don’t set out, you know, to be all those things. I set out to be a writer first, you know, and then I became a columnist. I was like, Okay, well, I guess now we're going to do some recipes. And then from there, you know, Paolo [Lucchesi] is like, here is the Ten Speed stylesheet, this is how you would write a recipe. That's how I started to really develop everything else. I didn't know I was gonna become all those things. And I feel like unless you have access to money, or people to do things for you, it all comes with being different things at different points in our career.
Alicia: You worked with folks on Diasporican to get it done. Can you delegate? Have you learned how?
Illyanna: I definitely took advantage of that situation. Maybe sometimes a little too much. You know, I was working. I was working with a small crew, according to them. I was working with a smaller crew; even my brother-in-law, who's a photographer, last weekend, he told me, you know, if we do a second book, I'm gonna need an assistant. I think that he learned that it was like, a lot. And then he would help, you know, just to make it a little bit easier. And then I only had a friend Jillian [Knox], who was the food and prop stylist, and she brought in an assistant, but I think she originally wanted two assistants. I'm like, I can't afford that. We were a very small crew.
The publisher gave me what seemed like a large amount. They don't give us that one lump sum. They give us the advance in small increments over the course of like, three years, you know what I'm saying? So technically, I'm only making like, 20,000 a year here, like, calm down. There were days that they came in way before me. I would show up maybe like 30 minutes to an hour later, you know, and sometimes I would come in, and they would have things set up. It's kind of like, I'm a diva. But also, I don't want to toot my own horn, oone of those days is when we got one of the better shots that I like from in the book from what they had originally set up. You know what I'm saying? But they're the ones that did all the hard work. They did all the cooking. They did all the carrying and all the heavy lifting. You know, they did all that shit.
Alicia: We both focus a lot on Puerto Rican food, obviously. But when you do that, you realize that it's like this never-ending chasm of stuff. It's just never ending, there's so much there—and there's so much that's changing, like, there was that really cool archaeological paper—we both are always finding the same academic papers—that was about how corn was so significant to the indigenous people. And, you know, whereas we think of corn in contemporary Puerto Rican cuisine as something that came with the U.S. and with, you know, poverty at the beginning of the 20th century, but that's not true. And so, you know, how did you decide how to contain, you know, your vision of Puerto Rican food in the book in Diasporican?
Illyanna: It's really hard, because I feel like there are more recipe than people think because they're so used to, I don't know—I knew that I wanted to include what is considered the greatest hits of Puerto Ricans, right? I want people to like, you know, Puerto Ricans to look in the book and see the things that they associate with, but that also have strong emotional ties to them, which is kind of like what we call the Christmas platter, right? For sure those things are going in the book, but then I also want to discuss some of the things that come with more kind of, I don't know, like, historical ties and how it got there. Why is that there and if I can find enough information on it to talk about it at length, and how this has kind of evolved.
I remember going into a chef's demo, in San Francisco years ago at the farmers’ market, the Ferry Building. I was just working on that recipe, which is now called Califas Shrimp, right? So it was like the funche with the shrimp and stuff like that. And in the beginning it was a tomato-based sauce. You know, with the shrimp because I was going off of the ditch wood that was originally right so it was like funche with coconut milk which that recipe has not Change. And then topped with bacalao. So it's like, you know, kind of chopped up a little bit and tomato sauce and sofrito and stuff like that. And that is what they would serve, like, you know, the enslaved Africans and the Tainos that they enslaved to do labor. So I was kind of riffing off of that.
And I remember a Puerto Rican man had come across my column, and he started coming to me, he started emailing me a lot and was saying, you know, like, I've been looking to invest like a Puerto Rican restaurant or like a Puerto Rican chef, that I—this is what he say—that is up to my standards, and I'm like, Okay, that's great. Like, you know, what do you want me to do? So he came out to that demo. And then when he saw what I was cooking he immediately just dismissed it. And he was like, that's not Puerto Rican. He's talking to his friend while I'm talking and the host was talking. He was talking over us, right to his friend, just like totally being dismissive. And then finally, the host, her name is Carrie. I don't think she's there anymore. She's like, Um, excuse me, like, Can you shut the fuck up? You know? And then he's like, Well, this isn't Puerto Rican food.
And so I was like, Okay, I said, But what part isn’t, though, like, is funche Puerto Rican? Well, yeah, but I don't eat that. And then that becomes a bias thing. Now we're talking about economics—like classism, because we know that a lot of Puerto Ricans don't want to be associated with funche because it's considered a poor people's food. And now, just because I'm using shrimp instead of bacalao, but everything else is the same, is that not Puerto Rican? And he's like, Well, yeah, I think the what is the issue because the two didn't traditionally go together. That's the type of thing that it's like, comes with a lot of education. Hard to do, but necessary.
Alicia: You've also written about other stuff for different publications that is not Puerto Rican. Have you felt boxed in by this association at all? Is there stuff you want to write about that you don't get to?
Illyanna: I've definitely felt boxed in, you know, because I'm trying to pitch stories that weren’t Puerto Rican and it's just immediately dismissed. There are maybe two editors that will let me write about something else other than Puerto Rican food, and that's my former editor from the Chronicle—of course he's one of them. And I love to write about the history and stories of restaurants or brands from California, but no one is interested.
I’ve been trying to pitch a story about a company called Spudnut that's been around for a long time; it was maybe like one left in this part of Northern California, and the history of that is important, but when I tried to pitch all these things, they just see a story about a doughnut, but I'm trying to go into the, you know, the history of doughnut stops being owned primarily by Cambodian immigrants and stuff like that, but all they see is doughnut.
So I've been trying to sell a story for years about Thrifty ice cream, which is a huge California institution that a very specific type of Californian grew up with. Throughout their history, they've been sold so many times because they've always been attached to a big box drugstore and the people who are selling the drugstores always use Thrifty ice cream as leverage, so they understand the value in it. And since the company that now owns it, Rite-Aid, has been closing stores, it's like, what's next for this ice cream that so many people have all these memories attached to? What's next for them? Will they also just get rid of Thrifty ice cream? Why aren't there more stand-alone Thrifty outlets like there are in Mexico—somehow Thrifty ice cream extended to Mexico and there's all these stand-alone ice cream parlors. It's like this super-weird, bizarre thing when it started in L.A.
Alicia: That's really cool. How the hell has no one bought that story?
Illyanna: I've been pitching that story for years.
Alicia: I mean, I guess you gotta write about how California has better bagels than New York. That's how to talk about California.
You texted when I sent you these questions. You texted me about this question, because I guess it's a touchy question. But I wanted to talk about the reputation you have as as a rabble-rouser of food media. I think someone else used that phrase once about you, rabble-rouser, in public, otherwise, I wouldn't use it because I don't say rabble-rouser.
You're someone who will speak your mind. You're someone who talks about the publishing processes and how hard they are to navigate as a writer, as a marginalized writer, how there's so much gatekeeping; how you don't even know what to ask for most of the time in this industry unless someone has told you what to ask for. But you talk about this really openly and honestly, and people don't like that all the time. I wanted to ask, why do you think it's controversial to actually talk about how structurally unsound and unfair this industry is?
Illyanna: The question, like you said, “you're somebody who will speak their mind, regardless of the career consequences.” And I'm like, is that what I'm doing? I never think that I'm doing any of that. I never think that I'm stirring the pot. I never think that I'm risking my career. I swear to God, I never think any of that. Because all I see is that I'm asking questions, first of all, and just trying to find the information, the answers, and standing up for myself, really, because that's the one thing that people keep saying is, nobody is going to be a stronger advocate for you than you.
Alicia: At some point, you can't advocate anymore for yourself.
Illyanna: I talked about this on The Sporkful: I have a really hard time code-switching because of where I grew up and how you communicate in that type of environment, especially with my family. So to learn how to communicate and sort of listen—let’s fucking say the passive-aggressive way that the professional world, corporate world speak, it's very hard for me to learn how to do. I mostly have to learn how to talk like that in therapy: you have to learn how to not use words like “confrontation,” and switch to “an invitation to dialogue.” You know what I'm saying?
It's also like, the amount of time that it takes to just focus on that as opposed to focusing on the real situation, which is we do good work, is exhausting. Why is there so much why there's so much focus on tone and how I'm saying things and all this shit when I'm still doing good work, you know? It's almost like the kids now who created quiet quitting? We've only been trying to do that forever and now it's called quiet quitting.
It's extremely hard. And it's—I don't want to say there are no rules. But definitely everyone has not just different knowledge and opinions, but different answers; it really depends on who you talk to and what their experiences have been, so when you are looking for answers, I found that it's very subversive because there's not necessarily one right way to go about things. Even when I was asking about how to get an agent, and with the book—people are like, “You have to really show up for your book.” Those are people’s answers and it’s like, bitch—what do you think I’ve been doing over here?
Alicia: How do you define abundance for yourself?
Illyanna: I don't know. That's a good question. I guess I'm like, what's the word? I'm not superficial, but materialistic, maybe.
When people say money can't buy happiness, which may be true, but are you sure? Can you create a life for yourself that's full of peace and contentment? I'm sure that the things that I want are pretty similar to what my, you know, my grandparents and my great-grandparents wanted, which is, you know, contentment, peace, land, family—just basic, simple shit that this world kind of makes it almost impossible for certain people to have.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will include a lemon-rosemary olive oil cake that is a nice, bright addition to holiday dessert spreads—light, acidic, herbaceous. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing! But a couple of pieces are forthcoming still for 2022.
I read a great piece in Gary Indiana’s Fire Season about food writing—spurred by Holly Connolly’s note in this book roundup—and thus ordered a copy of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen, which I remember from when it came out in 2013 but for whatever reason I never bought or got around to. Now, I fix that, and it’s likely the right time! Indiana is effusive in his praise of the book versus all other food writing, which he thinks sucks, and since Charlotte Druckman and I had our conversation, I’m always seeking out non-food people’s thoughts on food writing.
See last week’s missive.