Cookbooks Tell the Story of Our Lives: Remembering Penelope Casas and The Foods and Wines of Spain

Penelope Casas, an expert on Spanish cuisine, passed away last week, not too long after the death of yet another one of my favorite food writers, Leslie Land.

Now this may seem strange to you, and it does feel odd to me at times, but through the books these writers wrote and the recipes they shared, I felt a bond with them, because their books and recipes slowly inserted themselves into my life, their presence like big sisters or favorite aunts standing next to me as I wiped my flour-coated hands on my “kitchen” shirt or whisked eggs and cream in a ceramic bowl.  I never met either of these writers and I never sent them a fan letter – now I wish I had.

In particular, Penelope Casas’s books stayed with me through my many peregrinations, her recipes fed my family, and once caused a Spanish friend in Honduras to wipe his eyes as he ate a piece of potato tortilla I cooked from her recipe, saying, “It tastes just like my mother’s did.”

But until I opened Ms. Casas’s I really knew very little about Spanish food, except for paella, gazpacho, and what I gleaned from Peter S. Feibleman’s The Cooking of Spain and Portugal (1969, Foods of the World series, Time-Life). I bought a later printing of Ms. Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain (1982), I think it was the third, in a bookstore in Gainesville, Florida.

And I carried that book with me back to my then-home in Honduras, where I cooked as many dishes as I could, using the fresh food produced by the students at the Escuela Agricola Panamericana (Zamorano). At that time, I’d never stepped foot in Spain, but I felt I knew the place, at least a little, because you can’t live in Latin America and not feel the Spanish presence with just about every breath you take or every blink of your eyes. I’d spent years reading about the conquest of Mexico and Peru, the great Spanish fleets laden with silver, the horrors of the encomienda system, and the Reconquista.

The ingredients for potato tortilla (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The potato tortilla calls up memories of Middle Eastern eggahs or kukus, testimony to the 800 years of Islamic rule of Spain.

Potato tortilla on the page (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

One of the best uses for potato tortilla – perfect picnic food – I found out after a picnic on Mahdia beach near Kenitra, Morocco. Served cold, with roasted red peppers swimming in pungent green olive oil, wrinkled black olives, and sliced dry sausages – nothing better.

A recalcitrant potato tortilla! (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Although I have access to many other books on Spanish cuisine, I still turn to Ms. Casas’s, in part because her cookbooks bear stains witnessing the progression of my life, which can be said to be true of most of the well-loved and well-used cookbooks that surround us.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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