Armando Scannone, A Culinary Anchor

June 29, 2023

Armando Scannone, A Culinary Anchor

Armando Scannone, the civil engineer-turned-gourmand who published one of Venezuela’s most important cookbooks, passed away last year. As Venezuelans continue to flee en masse, his legacy of cultural preservation lives on.

Words bY Jose Ripol

Editor’s Note: This story is published in The Legacy Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

Harrowing journeys of Venezuelan migrants leaving a nation in decay have become a fixture of the international news cycles. As of 2022, over 25% of the country has migrated to places far and wide, from Australia to the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. The arrival of approximately 50 undocumented and asylum-seeking Venezuelans—who after crossing the Mexico-U.S. border into Texas were sent to the wealthy Northeastern enclave as part of a political stunt designed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—has generated considerable attention given the ideological battles that have snarled the American political system in recent years. 

One of those stories reported a seemingly innocuous detail of a Martha’s Vineyard resident bringing plates of Venezuelan food to welcome the new arrivals—a reception emblematic of the fact that, along with language and religion, cultures are defined by their culinary practices. What and how we eat is so central to people’s sense of identity that it remains a cultural marker even when the landscape changes. While people leave behind their families, homes and vocations, what they eat remains who they are.

Although he didn’t cook, Armando Scannone knew how deeply connected our sense of self is to what we eat. What he didn’t know was that his name would become synonymous with Venezuela’s gastronomic identity, or that a book he began writing in the 1970s as a way to organize and preserve the recipes he’d grown up with would remain one of the most sold in Venezuela to date. 

At face value, Mi Cocina: A La Manera de Caracas, is a simple cookbook—a collection of recipes bound in a plain red jacket with a plain title in plain serif font. Void of accompanying pictures or introductory notes that would typically entice an audience, it reads like a manual full of methodical instructions that border on the pedantic. Scannone was, after all, a civil engineer, and his systematic tone permeates every page. 

Despite the book’s stylistic choices, something in the formula struck a chord with the public when first published in 1982. It may have been replicability—a quality that’s to be expected of cookbooks, but not necessarily of home-cooking. Home-cooking often implies a certain level of culinary intuition, which as it happens, is not a gift everyone has. Moreover, it leaves those without it at the mercy of the few who do. 

Seen through that lens, oral histories can be a tenuous form of cultural preservation. “When a recipe is not replicable, it’s no more than a beautiful anecdote,” Chef Sumito Estévez states. “Hence the importance of properly writing a recipe if we wish to rescue it from oblivion.”  

Whether he intended to or not, that is precisely what Scannone achieved with Mi Cocina—the rescuing of recipes from oblivion. However, the reason the book resonates with audiences to this day goes far deeper than replicability. Sure, following instructions, which at times can be as over-wrought as measuring ⅛ of a teaspoon, is a guarantee of achieving the perfect polvorosa de pollo—but this meticulousness may have done more for the national character. 

In publishing Mi Cocina, Scannone did much more than painstakingly organize a body of previously fragmented local recipes. He legitimized and elevated Venezuelan cuisine among Venezuelans altogether. On one hand, the book served as a tool for promoting “Venezuelan gastronomic literacy,” as phrased by Dr. Ocarina Castillo of the Central University of Venezuela. On the other, and perhaps more profoundly, it added value to the national cuisine. Miro Popic, a leading food critic and author in Venezuela, states that Scannone’s work “asserted that what’s eaten at home has value.” 

This notion of valorizing a sense of gastronomic identity is even more crucial when taking into account the historical context of Scannone’s upbringing and the book’s publication. A descendant of Italian immigrants, he came of age during a time when Caracas was in the midst of a modernization push brought about by the oil bonanza. Those were the days of “Saudi Venezuela,” the golden years of a national economy that birthed a bourgeois society and restaurant scene heavily modeled on European precedent. 

But the good years eventually came to an end, ushered by a series of events that began with the nationalization of the oil industry and culminated with the steep devaluation of the national currency in February of 1983—a year after the publication of Mi Cocina. In retrospect, Scannone’s timing couldn’t have been better. At the same time, women were entering the labor force at an increasing rate. This brought significant changes to family dynamics, particularly as they pertained to food culture. For many, eating three home-cooked meals a day became a thing of the past.

Instead, a proliferation of street food—fast food, in particular—sold convenience at the cost of tradition. It’s in this context of gradual economic decline and national gastronomic erosion that the “red book,” as it came to be known colloquially, makes an entrance—rescuing (by way of documenting) a range of elaborate recipes that no one had time to make anymore. According to Popic, in the throes of this evolving landscape, the red book became “a raft that restored our identity around the table.”

Scannone recognized the importance of his contribution and went on to publish the “blue book” 11 years later—a sequel under the same name that includes recipes that steer away from colonial or traditionally criollo cuisine, making room for recipes that attempted to better represent the multicultural diversity of 1990s Venezuela. He also later released the “green book,” a project that adapts the traditional paradigms of the red book for an audience with conditions like diabetes or those seeking a healthier diet.

Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 1999 unleashed a new era of socioeconomic decline in the country—giving way to a proletariat revolution built on empty promises and mounting authoritarianism. After issuing a constitutional rewrite that would allow for unlimited presidential re-elections, the Chavista regime increased government control in virtually every aspect of civilian life, chipping away at the nation’s democratic and economic institutions. An early example came in 2002 when Chávez carried out a televised shake-up of PDVSA, Venezuela’s government-run oil company, replacing nearly 18,000 skilled workers with party loyalists. But PDVSA was just one aspect—scenes of Chávez expropriating private businesses around the country in the name of “the people” became a common occurrence on Venezuelan television. 

Chávez died in 2013 after nearly 15 years in office, handing the reins of the country to his vice president, Nicolás Maduro. The last two decades of Chavismo have marred the country’s history with unrelenting waves of hyperinflation, food insecurity, poverty and unrest, resulting in the displacement of nearly seven million Venezuelans to date. Chef Mercedes Oropeza, who still lives in Caracas and specializes in traditional Venezuelan cuisine, says “one of the only good things that has emerged from Chavismo is that we’ve turned our gaze inward again.” 

Whether fueled by scarcity within the national borders or a sense of nostalgia from the diaspora, many Venezuelan chefs are returning to their gastronomic roots. Oropeza adds that Scannone was “instrumental in getting younger generations excited about Venezuelan cuisine” and that his books remain a “foundation from which we continue to innovate.”

Venezuela’s exodus has become the largest in the Americas, with a scale that’s only comparable to countries at war—notably Syria and Ukraine. In light of this new Venezuelan reality, Scannone’s work as a gastronomic documentarian has taken on a whole new meaning. Popic describes Mi Cocina as a vessel that preserved national identity at the time of publication, but today, the iconic red book can be seen as an anchor that keeps Venezuelans moored to a sense of cultural unity while drifting farther apart and away from home. 

Four decades after the publication of Mi Cocina and almost a year after his passing at the age of 99, Scannone continues to remind many Venezuelans of who they are—no matter where in the world they happen to be. His legacy is not just what he left behind. It’s what folks are taking with them.

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