her first James Beard Award in 2012 as chef
of Cucharamama, her South American restaurant in Hoboken. She won her second a
year later for her fifth book, Gran Cocina
Latina: The Food of Latin America. Traveling
across those lands for that 900-page opus
fired her fascination with peppers to what
she calls “obsessive” levels.
By the time the Obama White House
called her in 2009 to cook for the first
Fiesta Latina, she was so deeply into
peppers that, when they asked her about
flower arrangements, she insisted on filling
glass cylinders with fresh peppers instead.
“It was the first time Latin American
peppers arrived at the White House,” she
says, “and I’m so glad it was me who did
it.” She even used a few peppers from the
First Lady’s garden. Dessert included her
version of a 1644 Mexican hot chocolate.
Meanwhile, peppers were taking over
not just her garden, but her house. She
moved her macaws and Amazonian parrot
into the dining room to devote the room
they had occupied to growing peppers
from seeds she had gathered in her travels
or that her family in Cuba sent her.
In late spring, she moves seedlings into
the garden, covering them with cages to
protect them from squirrels. Her two dogs
can be scamps. One likes to nibble on
leaves, and both like to play with the pods,
so she places the pots on trestles. One dug
under a support, collapsing the trestle.
“Comes a point, they get bored with it,”
she says, “so by midseason it’s fine.”
Eventually, Presilla realized she was
gestating a book. “Peppers, like cacao,
are Latin-American staple plants,” she
explains. “These are our treasures we are
giving the world, so it made sense to do.”
Tending her garden, she is both the
cucharamama (“mother spoon”) and the
scholar who earned her PhD. in medieval
history. “I talk to my peppers, and they tell
me if they need fertilizer or water,” she
says. “I check them two or three times a
day and take copious notes on every detail
of their growth. I bought a microscope.
You can tell the species by looking at the
shape of the seeds.
“I grow eggplants and tomatoes, but I
absolutely love peppers,” she says. “To go
into the garden and pick peppers for cooking is so pleasurable.” Given her gifts as a
chef, the eating is probably even better.
FLearn more at the book’s companion website,
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