MEET A TRAVELER
Writer, self-taught cook and career wonderer Von Diaz talks travel, food and more.
As a child, Von Diaz moved from her native Puerto Rico to Atlanta and spent time in Western Europe while her military family was stationed in the Netherlands. These days, the New York–based writer and radio producer travels almost continuously for work. She also travels to eat. We talked with her about travel, similarities between Puerto Rican and Southern cuisines, and more.
Q Were there any particularly formative experiences that led to your passion for food?
A Spending summers in Puerto Rico with my family as a kid shaped my appreciation for bold flavors and the way different cultures influence each others’ foods. I began to understand how much you can glean about history based on what and how people eat. There, I was also given my first cooking lessons in the kitchen with my grandmother, Tata.
Q How would you describe Puerto Rican cuisine? How would you describe Southern cuisine? Do they intersect?
A Puerto Rican food can be both rich and flavorful, and bright and tropical. Southern food similarly has a roundness of flavors that is complemented by an abundance of herbs and vegetables in the region. Both of these cuisines are also types of soul food with deep roots stemming from African and indigenous cultures. Another quality they share is that they are often exclusively seen as being heavy, fattening cuisines, but Southern and Puerto Rican food have tremendous potential to be healthful and nourishing.
Q Describe your perfect meal.
A Cheese grits topped with spicy, tomato-laced sautéed shrimp and simple greens.
Q Why do you think food has become central to travelers’ experiences?
A Figuring out what to eat while you’re traveling can be a mixed bag, but ultimately great food experiences truly make a trip.
When I’m on vacation, I check the food options before I check the weather. Food is such a strong marker of culture and history, and I find I learn just as much from tasting as I do from reading guidebooks.
Q Favorite travel destination?
A My homeland, Puerto Rico! There’s nothing like the flavors of my island, and the deep nostalgia I feel when I smell and taste tropical fruit, savory roast pork, and codfish fritters from roadside stands.
Q What destination would you most like to visit?
A Patagonia. I saw Chef Francis Mallmann on Chef ’s Table and was entranced by the place he lives. I’d love to see it.
Q What one place would you most like to return to?
A Singapore. The hawker stalls blew my mind, as did kaya toast (coconut jam served on hot buttered bread), fresh durian, spicy steamed cockles by the ocean, Hainanese chicken, fried dumplings, crispy dosa and so many other dishes.
Q Tell us something about your book.
A Coconuts & Collards (University Press of Florida) is both a cookbook and a memoir of growing up Latina in the Deep South. Throughout, I aim to introduce readers to flavors from the island I was obsessed with while growing up, while peppering each with ingredients and techniques from my Southern home. I often feel as Southern as I do Puerto Rican, and am honored to get to celebrate my two homes.
Q What are you working on next?
A I hope to expand my exploration of Puerto Rican food more broadly across the Caribbean in order to better understand the food history of the region, and the similarities we share through our African and indigenous roots.