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All-American town is unexpected springboard for culinary career 

Sandra Gutierrez at her home in Cary

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Sandra Gutierrez at her home in Cary

There is a perception, not entirely unfounded, that Cary is a town that so closely guards its well-groomed, All-American image that it allows as much room for diversity as it does for red roofs and oversize signs. Which is to say, not much.

Don't tell that to Sandra Gutierrez, a native of Guatemala who traveled extensively before settling there 20 years ago to raise two daughters with her high school sweetheart husband, Luis.

"Go figure that little Cary, N.C., was open enough to hire a Hispanic or Latino writer for their cooking section in 1996," says Gutierrez, a former columnist for The Cary News and author of The New Southern-Latino Table, which UNC Press released in 2011. "I never imagined I'd be such a maverick."

Just weeks after she started that life-changing job, however, a reader demanded to know why her local paper hired a Latina to write about Southern food.

"I owe so much to Jane Paige, who hired and defended me," Gutierrez says while deftly assembling, frying and sugar-dusting glistening empanadas in her cookbook-filled kitchen. "Jane's response was, 'Why don't you wait and see what she brings to the paper?'"

Eight years later, when she resigned to focus on freelance food writing and teaching, Gutierrez heard from the disgruntled reader again. This time she said how much she enjoyed Gutierrez's writing—and how much she'd be missed.

"I think it was one of the most touching things that happened to me in my career," she says. "If I could change her mind, maybe I had changed the minds of other people who had been prejudiced to realize that we're not that different after all."

Gutierrez's power to persuade is easily quantified. Before she finished writing her first book, she signed a deal for her second: Latin American Street Foods: The Best Flavors of Markets, Beaches and Roadside Stands From Mexico to Argentina, which is scheduled for a Sept. 3 release. She's already on contract for a third title to follow in 2015.

Gutierrez credits superstar agent Lisa Ekus, who recently received the Outstanding Career Award at the prestigious Paris Cook­book Fair, with helping her find her niche.

"I was very much a generalist in the beginning because people were not interested in me writing about recipes with Latin accents," she says. "The same thing happened when I first started teaching. People wanted to learn classic French technique, or traditional Southern foods, and that was it."

But about seven years ago, things changed. "Latin cuisine really took off—and I took off with it," she says with a bright smile. "Let me tell you, I was ready."

A shy child, Gutierrez starting cooking at age 6 as a way to gracefully avoid the grand soirees presided over by her socialite grandmother, who frequently entertained international dignitaries. "I would say hello at parties and then run and hide in the kitchen," she recalls. "The cook told me I could stay so long as there were no idle hands."

She did the same with her adored great-aunt, who catered lavish functions for influential clients—who intentionally dropped tittle-tattle for her to share in her other job as a gossip columnist. Wearing her own apron, Gutierrez started with small tasks, like shelling peas and learning about fruits and vegetables that grew in the garden. She quickly found herself creating recipes to accommodate unexpected but always welcome guests.

"I learned a lot about international flavors and spur-of-the-moment cooking," she says. "From my great aunt, I learned technique: how to chop properly, how to measure. These things all contribute to who I am today."

She expressed this foundation of multicultural cooking in The New Southern-Latino Table, which merges flavors for approachable recipes like Chile-Cheese Biscuits and Latin Fried Chicken with Smoky Ketchup. In Latin American Street Food, she takes a more direct approach, delving into the diverse cuisines of 21 countries.

"I think it's the right time for this book," says Gutierrez, who was thrilled by the choice of an Argentine cardinal to serve as pope. "We've stopped thinking of Latin food as only Mexican food, and people are a lot more open to Latin flavors. It's great to see publishers publishing cookbooks that represent our new reality."

The Pew Research Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., defined this new reality in a February report that found that the Latino population in the U.S. rose 47 percent from 2000 to 2011. Mexicans continue to dominate, but the rankings encompass 22 distinct places of origin.

Pew ranks North Carolina as having the 11th-highest Latino population, with 828,320 residents, or 8.6 percent of our total 9.6 million. As with national trends, the number of Latinos born here continues to increase, along with rates of educational attainment and occupational success.

"Latinos are coming here from all over Latin America, and with us comes our food," says Gutierrez, who is especially impressed by the Peruvian fare served at Mami Nora's and Machupicchu, both operated by immigrants. "We are making our mark in very positive ways."

Just as she won over readers at The Cary News, Gutierrez hopes her new book will help to banish stereotypes. She sees it as both a celebration of her culinary heritage and an invitation for home cooks to experience Latin America's distinct, fresh flavors.

"It's sad that, for so many people, our first experience with Latin American food is processed refried beans from a can," she says. "Real Latin American food is not all fried and full of cheese or crazy spicy—just as real Southern food is not greasy, or delicious but bad for you.

"Latinos are changing the culinary landscape, and no one is afraid of that anymore," she says as she nibbles an empanada. "The United States is still a melting pot. There's lot of room left for great flavor."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Cary Latinista."

  • "Latin cuisine really took off—and I took off with it. Let me tell you, I was ready." — Sandra Gutierrez

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