After my book on Catalan cuisine came out in 1988, well-meaning friends would sometimes introduce me as the American who knew all about Spanish food. No, I'd always say, I just know a little about the cooking in one corner of the country. The American who knows all about Spanish food is Penelope Casas.
Born in Queens, N.Y., to Greek immigrants, Casas majored in Spanish literature at Vassar, spending a semester in Madrid. There she lodged as an exchange student with a family whose son, Luis Casas, was then a medical student. The two fell in love and eventually married. He became a prominent urologist, while she wrote a book about the gastronomy of the country she had come to love, The Foods and Wines of Spain. It is a classic, a definitive collection of recipes and basic lore about the way people ate and drank in a country that was widely considered, back in 1982 when the book came out, to be pretty much devoid of culinary interest. "I don't like Spanish food," people would say. "It's too spicy." Those who knew a little more about the subject would propose that other than gazpacho and paella, there weren't any interesting Spanish dishes.
Casas introduced her readers to tuna-filled empanadillas, gently garlicky sopa de ajo, arroz a banda (rice cooked in rich seafood broth), chicken with figs, duck with olives, and, yes, real gazpacho and paella. Three years later, she wrote the first comprehensive book on tapas for Americans, followed by volumes on Spanish rice cookery (paella and beyond), home cooking, regional specialties, and more.
She may have been a Greek-American from Queens, but Casas was Spanish when Spanish wasn't cool.
Casas died at home last week, after having undergone treatment for leukemia.