Mi Familia, ¡Con Gusto!—Leila's Self Portrait
I am not an experienced cook, but I have always loved my grandparents’ Puerto Rican food and have wanted to be able to cook it for myself. My grandfather, especially, is a little bit protective and secretive about his recipes, but this year even he was happy to show me the secrets to his success. For my project, I wrote down some of my grandparents’ recipes in a book, which I then illustrated.
My project began with my cooking food with my grandparents. I helped them with the cooking, as they told me the ingredients, quantities, and what to do. While I cooked, my mom wrote it all down in a notebook, for me to translate and transcribe into my book later. Soon after I began my endeavor, my grandparents went back to Puerto Rico, so I had to make some of the recipes with my grandparents instructing me over the telephone or by video calls. For other recipes, I had help from my aunt or my father, who both cook well. At the beginning I wasn’t sure if I wanted anyone but my grandparents helping me with the cooking, but when they went back to Puerto Rico, it became apparent that I would need to involve other family members. Most of my recipes were main dishes, desserts, and other appetizers and sides that my family wanted to show me, but I did make some requests, because I had some favorites that I wanted to make sure were included.
For the cookbook itself, I bought a blank sketchbook with a blank cover and then proceeded to make it a work of art. I painted the cover with popular ingredients used in Puerto Rican cooking, like avocadoes, cilantro, garlic, onions, and adobo. I then wrote down the recipes in the cookbook, drawing and painting ingredients and designs on the pages to go with the writing. In the beginning of the book, I included an essay I wrote in Language Arts about my grandmother when she was growing up. As I worked on the book, I had to make several decisions. I wanted to be able to add recipes into the book for years to come, so I tabbed each section and left multiple pages blank, for future use. I had to decide whether I would paint or draw, and I decided to do a mix. Then I didn’t know whether to do watercolor or acrylics, but I had to rule out watercolor, because the paper in my book wasn’t thick enough to absorb the water. I used acrylics, which actually worked out a lot better than I thought they would.
For this project I combined my love of art and cooking to make my book. I love painting and drawing, and I wanted to make sure I was able to include them in my project. Puerto Rican food has been part of my life since I was born. My family used to visit Puerto Rico a lot when I was younger. My aunt and cousins moved here when I was about five or six, and now, my grandparents visit and stay with us a lot, so I get to try and eat a lot of Puerto Rican food. Both of my parents were always there for me while I worked on my project. My dad shared with me what he knew about Puerto Rican cooking and helped me make some dishes, always there when I had a question. I always asked my mom for her opinion on how the book looked, and she never lost patience with me, even though I would get upset over small mistakes. She helped me fix them, or if they were unfixable and not a big mistake, to ignore them and look ahead. I look forward to sharing my book with my family.
While I worked on this project, I learned about my heritage and about Puerto Rican cooking. It was very interesting, because my grandparents always cook without recipes. Everything comes from their head, and they never use measurements, either, so I had to interpret and standardize their measurements for the cookbook. One time my mom was learning how to make hot cereal with my grandmother, and she asked how much water to put in. My grandmother told her to stand the spoon up in the pot and when the water reached a certain point on the spoon, it was enough! At the beginning I wasn’t so sure how I felt about the lack of standardized measurements. I didn’t want to put in the wrong amount of something and mess up the recipe. But I realized that as we cooked, we tasted everything constantly. We would put in a little bit of salt, then taste to see if it was enough. If not, we would put in a little bit more. Everything was by taste, and we would never put something in without tasting the food first, to see if it was needed, so the recipes would be a success. I learned that I kind of enjoy that, because it’s fun to not have to follow a recipe sometimes. I learned that sometimes I can get caught up with little mistakes, and that if they are unfixable, I just need to move past them. I also realized that I enjoy cooking a lot more than I thought I did. I learned to use different techniques and different ingredients, to end up with different kinds of food. I also learned that, when I have recipes in my head, like the Puerto Rican food I learned to make, I feel a lot more confident when cooking. I feel that now I can cook for my family if I want, like my grandmother was expected to do when she was my age.