When the journalist Von Diaz was just a few years old, her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta for her dad’s Army job. “I traded plantains, roast pork, and Malta for grits, fried chicken, and sweet tea,” she says. As she grew up in Georgia, Diaz picked up on the nuances of good Southern food, like the stark difference between microwaved instant grits and slow-simmered coarse-ground grits sprinkled with black pepper. Still, Puerto Rican food—and the memories of her mother and grandmother cooking with fresh lime juice, beans, and plantains—remained a lifeline back to the island and her earliest memories. That dialog between past and present is at the core of Diaz’s new cookbook, Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South.
It’s too simple to call Diaz’s dishes fusion food. What emerges through these recipes is something greater than the sum of its two cooking cultures—the mainland South and the United States’ island South. “The goal was to interpret the flavors and dishes that I love from my childhood and adapt them to a style of cooking that looks more like how we cook on a day to day basis,” she says. Take her Coconut Braised Collards, which Diaz seasons with soy sauce and keeps verdant instead of cooked to death. Serve them alongside her Coconut Grits, which owe their creaminess to the magic of grains simmered in rich coconut milk. Save room for the Rum Cake that Diaz’s mother is known to bake for every party and family gathering. Diaz, like her mother and countless other Southerners, has the dessert’s ingredients on hand at all times—“in case there is an event, potluck, or any other cake emergency.”