Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz: Remembering Her Latin American Food Writings

She was British, he was Mexican. 

And from a meeting at the United Nations in New York came a surfeit of riches of cookbooks and food writing. Articles for Gourmet and House and Garden flowed from her pen. thanks to the support of José Wilson, editor of House and Garden, who opened the publishing door for her.

Born June 17, 1915 in Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex, at the age of eight years Elisabeth Lambert found herself in Jamaica, where her marine-engineer father took the family for a while. Then they transferred to Australia. Her heart led her to a short-lived marriage with a RAF pilot who died in the Battle of Britain. In 1949, no doubt in search of a change from some routine journalism jobs, she ended up in New York at the United Nations. There, in 1959, she met César Ortiz Tinoco, a Mexican diplomat educated in the United States.

César’s large family welcomed her in Mexico City, where her eyes opened to the vast culinary history of all the Americas. From there, as she traveled with César to various postings over the years, she delved into the pots and pans of markets, private homes, and restaurants, seeking connection through many different kitchens. 

And by chance I found her The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking, the Foreword of which captivated me. Like her, I lived a life demanding international moves every few years because of a loved spouse’s job.

Arriving as I did from snowy Wisconsin to sunny, tragic Haiti one March day, how could I not feel a connection with her words, based on memories of her first sight of Jamaica:

It had been snowing, and the trees were lacy black skeletons against the white fields. The sky was pal blue, with a faint yellow winter sun. Coming by ship into Kingston Harbor in Jamaica, with everything a blaze of color, all reds and yellows and deep vivid greens, a sun like fire in a deep blue sky, and the sea – the beautiful Caribbean sea – ranging from jade at the shore, through turquoise to indigo, it was almost more than I could believe.

Last year, my paperback copy of The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking fell apart, dividing itself into at least a dozen uneven blobs. And so I bought another copy. A hardback.

This new copy presents with tight pages, a colorful and pristine cover, even though the book is twenty-five years old, a 1995 printing. It lacks the grease stains, the scribbled notes, the forbidden dog-eared pages, and especially the dibs and dabs of chile seeds and salt crystals between pages 322 and 323. Hot Pepper Sauce, from Saba. A medley of  Scotch bonnet peppers of various hues, mixed with finely chopped yellow onion and minced garlic, drowned in hot water bath of vinegar and water and sea salt. A delight with light, crisp fried plantains chips.

All Ms. Ortiz’s recipes demand real ingredients, not a bouillon cube in sight. The perfect book for those seeking the more authentic dishes of the past.

Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz also participated in the publication of the Caribbean volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series and many of the recipes were those she’d collected during her travels throughout the Caribbean region.

Although she continued to study and write about the cuisines of Latin America, she never fully recovered from César’s death in 1992.

Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz left the known world on October 27, 2003.

A list of her books, with some repetition due to differences between British and American editions, reveals the breadth of her interest and expertise. The following is an incomplete list, but here lies proof of her steadfast commitment to Latin American food writing, when it was not the “thing”:

The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking (1973)

The Best of Caribbean Cooking (1975)

The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking (1976)

The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking (1976)

Caribbean Cooking (1977)

The Book of Latin American Cooking (1979)

Exotic Fruits and Vegetables (1983)

The Spice of Life (1984)

Cooking with the Young Chefs of France: Contemporary Interpretations of Traditional Cuisine (1984)

From the Tables of Britain: Exploring the Exciting New English Cuisine (1986)

A Taste Of Excellence: Recipes from the Best of British Chefs (1986)

Little Brazilian Cookbook (1986)

The Food of Spain & Portugal: The Complete Iberian Cuisine (1989)

Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices and Flavourings (1992)

The Festive Food of Mexico (1992)

Taste of Mexico: 70 Fiery and Flavourful Recipes from South of the Border (1996)

The Flavour of Latin America: Recipes and Stories (1997)

Bottling, Pickling and Preserving (1998)

The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking (1998)

A Taste of Latin America: Recipes and Stories (1998)

Best-ever Mexican: 50 Authentic Recipes Full of Fire and Flavour (2000)

Mexican Feasts (2000)

Mexican: Cooking Around the World (2004)

The New Complete Book of Mexican Cooking (2004)

70 Classic Mexican Recipes: Easy-to-make, Authentic and Delicious Dishes, Shown Step by Step in 250 Sizzling Colour Photographs (2007)

*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.”