"We are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream" by Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa (Chronicle Books, $29.95).
Photo: Handout
Photo: Handout

Recipes that heal divisions in new cookbook ‘La Cocina’

Elvia Buendia remembers the time a man told her that, as an immigrant, she’d never be able to fulfill her dream of opening a bakery. She proved him wrong.

Since 2013, she’s been the proud owner of La Luna Cupcakes in San Francisco’s Crocker Galleria, where she applies the techniques she learned from her mom in her native Mexico to such specialties as Pastelitos Tres Leches —vanilla cupcakes filled with “three milks” (sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream) and topped with whipped cream.

Her story and recipe, featured in “We are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream,” made me hungry enough to bake a batch. Judging from the speed at which they were devoured, it’s no wonder her bakery is a success.

Had it not been for La Cocina, a kitchen incubator based in San Francisco’s ethnically diverse Mission District, she may have never gotten the opportunity to give it a go. Since its inception in the 1990s, La Cocina has been helping working-class entrepreneurs — mostly women immigrants and women of color — get the capital and training they need to compete in the food business. Today, it’s regarded worldwide as a model for addressing issues of economic inequity.

La Cocina directors Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa chronicle the nonprofit’s inspiring work in “We Are La Cocina,” along with the individual journeys of 40 of its alums who have brought their cooking traditions from all over the world into its 2,200-square-foot communal kitchen. Along with their tales of struggles and triumphs, we get a sampling of the recipes that helped them launch restaurants, food trucks and food product lines — from a hibiscus drink (bissap) brewed and sold as ice pops by a Senegalese woman, to the lamb pastries (sfeeha) a Palestinian baker makes to tell the history of her homeland.

Bound by a common ethos, these eclectic recipes tell a greater story of how — as the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende writes in the introduction — we can heal divisions within our own communities “by listening to one another’s stories and sharing the food of diversity that La Cocina offers.”

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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