cookbook club: Diasporican

Note: I’ve been avoiding writing this one. Of the dozens of books our Cookbook Club has cooked from, none have triggered so many impassioned responses as Diasporican. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible here. I’m still including some strong opinions of this book while trying to limit the discussion to what was relevant to our Cookbook Club’s experience.

Welcome to the final book of the Savoring the Diverse Flavors of Latin America season of Cookbook Club.  Our delicious journey through Latin America is coming to a potentially contentious close. For starters, despite being a Spanish-speaking culture, Puerto Rico is not “technically” part of Latin America. It’s a Caribbean island and a Commonwealth of the United States. 

There’s also the question of the subject matter of the book. Diasporican: a Puerto Rican Cookbook is, by the author’s own declaration, not a Puerto Rican cookbook (despite the subtitle). In her own words,

“This book is for the Diasporicans – the 5.5 million people living Stateside who continue to cook the food of our homeland. This is for the tribe of the Ni De Aquí, Ni De Allá (‘not from here, not from there’).”

Illyanna Maisonet, Diasporican

Those aren’t the only points about this book that raised some eyebrows (and a few tempers)… but I get the impression that this is exactly what author Illyanna Maisonet was hoping to do. 

four cookbook covers

about the book

This may not be a Puerto Rican cookbook (I agree with the author on that point), but it is an education on the life of the Puerto Rican diaspora throughout (most of) the US. And it’s an important one… one that includes raw revelations of “generational poverty and trauma with glimpses of pride and laughter… (as) catalysts of ample good food” (Introduction, page 1). 

Good food, indeed. We learned how various ingredients became part of the Puerto Rican food lexicon and how they’re used. We also learned how those items translated for the diaspora living far from their island home. Maisonet offers an array of delicious, authentic-to-the-diaspora recipes that are as likely to rely on traditional Puerto Rican ingredients as they are on canned pantry staples that working-class Americans are all too familiar with. 

And then there’s the delivery… 

The depth of knowledge shared in this book is only equaled by the unapologetic rawness of the personal narrative. In an era where there are trigger warnings noted in podcast notes, Instagram posts, YouTube videos, etc. Like an album cover, this book should have included a “parental advisory” label. Why?

Profanity: check. In abundance. 

Graphic content: check. Whole animal butchering images don’t affect me, but other people mentioned them, so I am. 

Violence: check. Totally unexpected in a cookbook. If images of sexual violence are triggering to you, maybe skip reading the introduction to the Rice and Other Grains section. 

But if you’re the type of person who needs these warning labels, you are definitely not the intended market for this book. Maisonet makes that abundantly clear in the introduction. 

Beyond the f-bombs and a few personal narrative TMI moments, you’ll be rewarded with a valuable education. You’ll learn of a culture with roots from Caribbean indigenous Taino, Arawak, and Carib tribes. The culinary contributions of enslaved Africans, and Spanish colonizers, and a glimpse into a culture that is everywhere around you in the US. 

Everywhere, but nowhere in history books, nowhere in most of your day-to-day life, or most of mainstream culture. I say “most” because unless you live in NYC or other large east coast urban areas, it’s unlikely that you’re exposed to Puerto Rican (Boricua) culture at all… J-Lo doesn’t count. And if that statement offended you, don’t read the book. I’m being delicate here. 

about the author

Illyanna Maisonet is a noted food historian of Puerto Rican food culture. “She has dedicated her career to documenting Puerto Rican recipes, including her family’s, and preserving the Puerto Rican diaspora’s disappearing foodways through rigorous, often bilingual research.” (from author’s website). 

Her San Francisco Chronicle column, Cocina Boricua, which focused on food throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora, was the first of its kind, making her the first Puerto Rican food columnist in the U.S. That column won Maisonet the coveted title of IACP award-winning narrative food writer before it ended in 2019. 

During the pandemic, Maisonet redirected her research and her voice toward the creation of this book, and all that has come from it: a unique and prolific platform, collaborations with some of the most important voices in the culinary world (Jose Andres and Michael Twitty, to start), and a collaboration with Burlap & Barrel spicesfor her Adobo and Sazón seasoning blends (sold out at the time of publishing). And I’m sure this won’t be her last word!

the cooking part…

For each cookbook, I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions; many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. Here are a few items they had to choose from:

Soup, Stew, Snacks

Mami’s Chicken Soup with Bisquick Dumplings
Halibut with Mojo Isleño
Mojo Braised Chicken
Carne Guisada

Nina DeeDee’s Beans
Puerto Rican Habichuelas
Funche (Caribbean polenta) 

Flan de Queso
Brazo Gitano
Ron del Barrilito Rum Cake

notes on what we cooked

There were a lot of plantains used this season, and this book was no exception. But more interestingly, there was a lot of Campbell’s Mushroom Soup used this time. And with very good reason! Our number one favorite dish (besides the Coquito, which is a drink) was Mami’s Mushroom Chicken. Nearly everyone made it, everyone loved it, and most of us have adopted it into our regular weekly routine. Most of us chose thighs and legs instead of wings, but whatever works for you. 

Other favorites included Nina DeeDee’s Beans, a simple yet flavorful comfort food staple; Carne Guisada; and crispy addictive Bacalaitos. And for a little something sweet on the fly, try the Quesitos de Queso y Guayaba. No need to fuss over getting the pastry just right. This recipe calls for frozen puff pastry dough (thank you!). 

Don’t get the idea that all the recipes rely on packaged foods. There are many opportunities to go deeper into the days-long cooking process that is good Puerto Rican cuisine… and at no time will you use canned beans! Want to get a little fancy? Try the mofongo with lobster, Caldo Santo, or one of so many other rich and rewarding dishes.

A special thanks to Steve & Felice for the great photos!


I’ll close with the wise words of our friends at Kitchen Arts & Letters, from their website’s description of Diasporican, in this book, “There is no attempt to be definitive so much as a demonstration that there are many other stories left to be told.” 

Personally, I believe these stories must find their way into the world. They’re very much needed. I just hope that, maybe in the next round, they’ll be told in a way that more people will feel welcome to hear them. 

in closing

If you’ve read this far, you may be one of the people who noticed that I’m still a couple of months behind on these posts. Not to worry – I’m getting back on track now and you’ll see several more books added in the next month or so before we begin our Spring 2023 season!

So, more very soon! Meanwhile, if you’d like to catch up with past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.

As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and all our friends at the 92nd Street Y for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and cultural enrichment. 

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