Cookbook author Penelope Casas died last week at the age of 70. Casas was considered an expert on Spanish food, and wrote several celebrated cookbooks that explore the cuisines of Spain throughout her career, the last of which comes out next year. See the New York Times obituary and a remembrance from cookbook author Colman Andrews. here now, writer Regina Schrambling explores Casas' legacy:
I've never cooked anything from Penelope Casas, who died August 11 at 70, but I always assumed she wrote the Spanish equivalent of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Little did I realize how apt that was. Not only was her Foods & Wines of Spain edited by Judith Jones at Knopf, who also shepherded Julia's opus into print. But Casas was also an American who established herself as the authority on a foreign cuisine.
And I don't know how I missed this food fight, but the all-knowing Nach Waxman, owner of cookbook mecca Kitchen Arts & Letters, had an interesting response when I emailed him to ask about her importance:
There had been books on Spanish food before Casas, but The Foods & Wines of Spain seemed to carry with it an air of authority that for years after made it pretty much the only show in town. Needless to say, there were plenty of snipers around to remind us that Casas wasn't really Spanish and to suggest that her food was not the real thing, but that did not obviate the fact that she was in fact a fine cook who worked comfortably and inventively within the Spanish culinary idiom. She probably has been surpassed by now, but she was there at the beginning and, in a sense, it was she who made it possible for her successors to see their books published.
Waxman, who never met her, also observed: "It strikes me that she is one of that cohort of writers and teachers of the 1970s who made a serious effort to acquaint Americans with authentic but accessible versions of 'foreign' cuisines: Marcella Hazan for Italy, Madhur Jaffrey for India, Diana Kennedy for Mexico, and quite a few others."
Now that chorizo is almost as ubiquitous as bacon, and smoked paprika as common as cayenne in spice racks, it's probably hard to imagine a time when Americans knew as little about Spanish food as they did about sushi. Casas, who majored in Spanish literature at Vassar, traveled extensively in Spain and was married to a Spaniard, really did open up the Old World, translating the likes of gazpacho, paella, flan, and especially tapas. As the cliché has it, no one is as devoted as a convert.
Her obituary in the New York Times almost reads like an elegy for the way the food world once worked, though. Casas owned Spanish the way Marcella did Italian and Madhur did Indian. Today everyone's an expert. Casas got her start by attracting the attention of Craig Claiborne and the Times; once they had established her authority, she connected with Jones. Today, as another cookbook editor told me recently, "everyone has a platform" thanks to the Internet and social media.
And, of course, today Spain is associated almost more with Ferran than with flan. But Casas kept up until the end — he is included in her last book, 1,000 Spanish Recipes, due out next year.