Remembering Penelope Casas, a Greek-American Food Writer with a Spanish Heart*

Paellas five rice recipes from Spain on wood table

Now this may seem strange to you, and it does feel odd to me at times, but through the six books Penelope Casas wrote and the recipes she shared, I felt a bond with her.

Over the years, her 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 her before her death from leukemia in 2013, and I never sent her a fan letter – now I wish I had.

As a Vassar student, Penelope Casas spent a year in Spain and met her husband, Luis Casas, there. That’s how it all started, really.

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 first book 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, a volume in Time-Life’s Foods of the World series. I bought a later printing of Ms. Casas’s The Foods & Wines of Spain, published in 1982, I think it was the third printing, in a bookstore in Gainesville, Florida.

Ms. Casas took a circuitous route to fame via Craig Claiborne of the New York Times. She engaged in a correspondence about baby eels with him, his anguillas versus her angulas. Claiborne finally admitted she was right. He introduced her to that midwife of cookbooks, Judith Jones of Knopf Publishing.

That’s how The Foods & Wines of Spain came to life. Most cookbook aficionados now consider it a classic.

And I carried that book with me 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 (El 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 blink of your eyes. I’d spent years reading of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, the great Spanish fleets laden with silver, the horrors of the encomienda system, and the Reconquista.

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

One of the best uses for potato tortilla – a 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 – there’s nothing better to enjoy while gazing at the endless ocean.

Although I now 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 me.

*Note: This month of Women’s History, I’m featuring several women whose names might be fading in the flurry of food-related social media and the extreme focus on the so-called “influencers.” All photos except that of Ms. Casas and the featured image were taken by Cynthia Bertelsen.

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