Buen Provecho: 500 Years of Hispanic Cuisine (1995), is one of a very few community cookbooks in my collection that focus on a specific cuisine. In some of my older cookbooks you can interpolate the ethnic origins of the community – it’s easy to tell when a congregation was founded by German or Polish immigrants – but I’ve only got a handful that focus exclusively on a particular type of food. Even cookbooks from a region known for certain foods, such as the American South, tend towards a broader, more homogeneous national cuisine. But we must consider the source. Buen Provecho is a compilation of recipes from the New Jersey Chapter of HISPA, the Hispanic Association of AT&T Employees. HISPA was founded as an internal employee resource group but took on a broader interest in advancing academic achievement and providing role modeling and mentoring. This cookbook was prepared to raise funds for the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund (now simply the Hispanic Scholarship Fund), a long-time partner of HISPA. HISPA lives on today as an independent non-profit, and has provided educational opportunities for more than 13,000 students.
The book itself is on the fancier side for a community cookbook, with a hard, laminated cover and custom photography and cover design published by the now defunct Fundco Publishers. The cookbook title is printed on the side of the familiar plastic binding, and the interior is printed in a distinctive royal blue type, punched up by custom sketches. It includes a glossary of unfamiliar terms as well as a couple of mail order sources for hard to find ingredients (none of which are still in business). Buen Provecho comes to me by way of friends, a married couple, who were clearing out bookshelves before moving to South America. Neither have any connection to AT&T or New Jersey, but both have close ties to the local Hispanic community and taught me quite about about the complexity and variegation in both culture and cuisine. We even had a band for a while, playing what we called “eclectic Latin music” which a repertoire spanning from just south of the American border to the very tip of Chile.
The recipes in Buen Provecho are as diverse as our set list. This is a broad and inclusive group of dishes, including traditional Mexican food, Mexican-American cuisine, Spanish and Basque recipes, and popular dishes from Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. The breadth of the collection challenges usual conceptions of authenticity. There are a few dishes presented reverently, with an anthropologist’s eye towards preserving history, but most of the recipes are simply stuff that people like to eat. Some recipes have been altered to account for local ingredient availability, the evolving palate from living in North America, or just plain personal preference. They are all arguably “authentic”, in that they trace back to people with loosely shared ancestry, but individual recipes often bear little resemblance to each other.
I’ve found that the term “traditional” better captures the spirit of cooking-as-cultural-appreciation. Traditional recipes try to preserve the cooking methods and ingredients used when and where the recipe originated. And there are plenty of traditional recipes in Buen Provecho. Some are regional specialties, such a Yucateco sopa de lima, a rice dish from Zihuatanejo, and a hearty Pastel de Choclo, arguably the national dish of Chile. There are a half dozen different versions of flan and picadillo, as well as multiple regional variants of gazpacho. Others are nakedly Americanized, like a mayonnaise-rich Mexican dip or the hilariously named Latino Yuppie Green Rice.
And then there’s a few I’m just not sure about. One of my favorite dishes in Buen Provecho is the odd Mexican Chicken with Prunes and Bananas. It comes with a disclaimer, reassuring the “startled” reader that the recipe “really is delicious”, but not clue as to the recipe’s origins. The flavor profile bears some resemblance to sweet, fruit-studded Oaxacan cuisine (see also Instant Pot Oaxacan Chicken Tacos) but I can’t find anything remotely resembling it anywhere else. The author is right, it really is delicious, but I wish I knew more about where it came from.
Buen Provecho: 500 Years of Hispanic Cuisine is a cookbook I’d consider quitting my job to cook in its entirety. In the two or three years I’ve had it I’ve only found time to cook a half dozen dishes, and I’ve still got a dozen marked up with Post-It notes for some far-off future meal. So many unique dishes: creamed hearts of palm soup, a Hollandaise with guava, wine bread and cracker pudding. There’s just not enough time. Buen Provecho can be found from time-to-time on Amazon, and a few of the recipes have found their way into the usual online collections. But it’s a particular treat in my collection.