I recently sat down with Venezulean-born Claudia Deen, who married Southerner, Cooking Channel host and cookbook author, Bobby, last summer at his mom’s home in Savannah, to talk about culture, food, her health blog and how she and her hubby blend their own Latin American mash.
We had never met before and opened with normal introductory conversation, my notebook of talking points to the side. But a couple minutes in, as she realized that I had met my husband in Havana, not Miami, and that he moved to the U.S. only 10 years ago, she was suddenly the one asking questions.
Forward in her seat: “How did he like it here? Was it hard?”
“Yes,” I said over a mild laugh. “It was intense.”
She asked how old he was when he came here and how he managed. He was 27 and it was tough.
From her line of questioning, I knew it must have been for her, too.
Born in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, Claudia didn’t know a soul when she headed this way in 2010 to attend the Savannah College of Art & Design for a Master of Fine Arts in Television and Film.
She had studied English since a young age and traveled to the U.S. twice a year to see family and various parts of the country, making it relatively easy to understand the foreign language, but as a new student required to keep up, talking and writing were “super hard.”
Compounding that was her chosen career, a collaborative one that puts television producers at the head of twenty-member crews, all of whom spoke English.
Beyond logistics, wriggling into cultural changes took some adjusting.
The big turns: Caracas is a city of eight million and she drove everywhere. Without a car here, Savannah is a town with a much slower pace, but there was an immediate upside.
“In my country I couldn’t walk,” she said. “So being able to walk in the streets, I was fascinated by that. Safety was huge.”
Even before the current uprising, Venezuela has long been a dangerous place. Her mom was kidnapped, which she mentioned almost dismissively. “It’s normal,” she said. “It was only for a day.” Her father was held up at gunpoint four times and she was once, sitting with a friend at a restaurant.
In her Catholic-dominant country, the display of various church branches – Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal – was another eye-opener.
So was Kroger. She wandered the aisles for hours taking in the vast amount of food options, though cuisine proved to be a road block of its own. In Venezuela, like most Latin countries, they primarily cook whole foods from scratch. New and trying to fit in with American friends she indulged in her share of processed foods and a beer here and there that she didn’t really want.
On came an extra 10 pounds and eventually she hit the gym where she met Bobby, but they were both dating other people at the time.
After graduating, Claudia moved to Chicago for an ad agency job and also started a health blog- Chicaloverde.com – highlighting her growing passion for fitness, specifically running and yoga, as well the benefits of eating a clean diet.
But soon, a year-and-a-half after she first met Bobby, “my husband went to Chicago to get me,” she told me, laughing.
“The truth is, as soon as I met Claudia, she became one of the best people in my life,” Bobby wrote on his blog. “She and I share a lot of the same values, we both have a deep love for family, she’s an incredibly kind soul and she’s dedicated to bettering her life inside and out.”
They dated several months before getting engaged.
I learned that Venezuelan tradition is to have a small, legal ceremony performed by a judge or lawyer, typically hosted by the groom’s family, a few days before the much bigger church bash. So last July, Claudia and Bobby married at his mom’s with a larger-than-normal group of 80 people, including her parents, who now live in Panama City, Panama and other family.
In a sweet gesture from Bobby, he surprised Claudia with nuptials in both English and Spanish and later guests munched on a blend of bicultural plates: fried, green tomatoes next to empanadas, or meat-filled pastries, and arepas, which are made of ground maize dough, among others.
Months later, the formal wedding is tomorrow in Panama. The ceremony will be completely in English, as all of Claudia’s family and friends speak and she wants Bobby to understand every word. “It seems like the right thing to do….,” she wrote in a later email. “But other than that it will be VERY Latin!”
Translation: it’s bound to be festive, colorful and have some serious dancing. Bobby doesn’t speak Spanish, but has been working on his salsa and rumba. He plays guitar and has long loved Latin music, said his bride, and dances well.
Influence on one another continues in many ways.
|Before they were even married Bobby put a Venezuelan flag next to his U.S. one.
|They run 5k’s together as Claudia trains for the New York Marathon, and in the kitchen it’s an interchange with Bobby’s low-cal, healthy versions of Southern food he was raised on and Claudia arepas, plaintains and love of all things sweet, the latter of which inspired the final chapter of his newest cookbook, Bobby Deen’s Everyday Eats.
She loved sharing her first Thanksgiving dinner with Bobby’s family, trying her best to stick to grilled meats and greens, though the decadent Southern desserts were hard to ignore, and Christmas with her husband and parents in Manhattan.
“I’m happily married, I feel good with myself,” she said. “Now I’m trying to motivate and help others achieve the same through exercise and healthy eating habits.”
Currently, she is taking online classes to become a health coach by the fall. It is her hope is to educate people on small lifestyle changes that make a powerful impact on overall health.
Her heart is only heavy with the chaos in her home country.
She told me that in 2002, under former President Hugo Chávez, the whole country stopped. Schools closed for three months and she and her family, along with everyone else, only attended protests during that time. Claudia was hit by tear gas once and thought she had gone blind, but noted that the overall response to protestors was more peaceful.
No more. Now a month into deadly protests, citizens are fed up with up President Nicolás Maduro, elected in April of 2013. There is no toilet paper or milk for anyone to buy and the government has shut down most forms of traditional and social media in response to the confrontations. There’s no way to really know what’s going on, she told me, except through Twitter feeds, a maddening thing for someone with a grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends still living there.
So this weekend’s wedding ceremony is even more poignant, gathering friends and family she hasn’t been able to contact during the upheaval.
Once back home, she will continue doing what she can from abroad, asking for prayers and peace for her country on Facebook, such as on March 2nd: “Soooo happy to see all the beautiful pics from today’s protest! Venezuela is fighting for its freedom and its hungry for peace! Although I’m not physically there, my spirit and soul haven’t left my country!”
Claudia is also organizing an event, Yoga for Venezuela, in Savannah at month’s end.
Hope to see local folks there.
Great fitness tips, recipes and photos
Instagram + Twitter: @claudia_deen
CLAUDIA’S RECIPE FOR AREPAS
|Photo credit: onevanillabean.files.wordpress.com
Arepa [aˈɾepa] is a flatbread made of ground maize dough or cooked corn flour prominent in the cuisine of Venezuela and some regions of Colombia. It is eaten daily in those countries and can be served with various accompaniments such as cheese, avocado, chicken, beef, eggs, ham, or (especially in Venezuela) split and used to make sandwiches. Various sizes, maize types, and added ingredients are used to vary its preparation. Arepas can also be found in Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Canary Islands since some of their inhabitants migrated to Venezuela and returned home later.
To make arepas (Claudia eyeballs ingredients):
Mix corn flour (the most popular brand is Harina PAN – you can find it at some grocery stores like Publix) with water, a touch of salt and oil (she uses coconut, sesame or olive).
She likes to add superfoods like chia seeds, hemp seeds, oats and maca powder for an extra boost. Mix all well with your hands, form patties and cook them in the skillet. For an extra crunch pop them in the toaster following.