Doņa Petrona (June 28, 1896 – February 6, 1992) was Argentina’s answer to Julia Child and Martha Stewart. From the 20s to the 80s, she was the domestic expert in the eyes of millions. To this day, her massive cookbook entitled El Libro de Doņa Petrona remains #3 on Argentina’s bestsellers list five decades after its initial publication. As a newlywed, my mom bought me edition No. 81. I think the publisher is on edition No. 102.
My first brush with La Doņa came not from the T.V., an old family cookbook, or from research. It came, appropriately enough, from an insult 28 years ago in my mother’s kitchen. Like Child and Stewart, Doņa Petrona had a bit of a personality. She had a commanding presence, one never more evident than in her cooking shows, where all of Argentina watched her lord over her poor assistant, Juanita Bordoy. I may have been ten years old and trying my hand at a pancakes recipe. I may have been bossing my mom around, asking her to fetch me this and that. I may have moved not a muscle to help her fetch said this and that.
She may have dropped a bag of flour on the counter, somewhat roughly, and said, “I AM NOT YOUR JUANITA!”
She may, to this day, call me La Doņa when I am in the kitchen.
I may be very, very bossy in and out of the kitchen.
But I will neither confirm nor deny.
When my mom gave me my 81st edition of the book, I decided I would prepare all the recipes. Then I realized it was in Spanish and used metric measurements. All of a sudden, the idea of a decorative cookbook sounded fabulous. I decided to wait for the English version. It’s been 11 years. Sixty years if you count the original publication date. Something tells me an English translation isn’t going to happen. (If I am wrong, and I would love to be wrong, please let me know!)
This means I have no choice but to crack this beast open and cook. I’ll translate the recipes and post them here with standard measure, even though I am now a fan of metric. I’m shooting for one recipe a week, and because the cookbook is the size of a door stop, I’m keeping it to recipes I can afford to make and am willing to eat. Sell aspic somewhere else, Doņa. I have my Spanish-English dictionary from college (also decades old–I think it was my mom’s college dictionary), an apron, and family willing to eat anything homemade. All I need is a beleaguered domestic servant and I am good to go! Better call my mom and see what she’s doing on Thursday.
I couldn’t resist. Here are some excerpts from Doņa Petrona’s T.V. show. Some moments of awesome to note:
- The way she makes the Pan Ducle (Pannettone) completely by hand like it’s nothing.
- The way the announcer breaks in and gives the recipe in the second video. Life before internet! There is no downloading of recipes. You sit your butt in front of the T.V. with a steno pad, a pencil, and a quick hand.
- The 1960s typeface.
- Juanita Bordoy’s patience. Or subservience. Yes, it is indicative of pervasive elitist attitude and a clearly defined class structure unfortunately quite common in Latin American countries, but damn. I don’t know how Juanita doesn’t dump a bowl of flour on Doņa Petrona’s head.
- Can you hear the difference in Spanish spoken in Argentina? Listen to to “y” and “ll.” It sounds like a zzh. Instead of “yo me llamo” it’s “zzho me zzhamo.”
- I’m fascinated by the way Doņa Petrona refers to her audience as “Seņora” and uses the formal Usted. It’s as if she is talking to the housewives personally, but with respect and formality. This isn’t chit-chat among friends today, but her show was heralded for it’s “folksy” and approachable tone in the 50s and 60s.