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How Two Friends Forged a Future in Wine

I met Laura at the storied Clermont Lounge, a strip club in Atlanta.

I was a regular there in my early 20s, mainly because my buddy Robyn was a bartender. I made lots of friends, and on a bleary-eyed weeknight, I met Laura Brennan-Bissell, another bartender.

At the time, Laura and I worked odd jobs at restaurants, got around on bikes and spent way too much time in bars. We learned that, despite my Puerto Rican roots and her Virginia/Washington, D.C. heritage, we had similar upbringings. We’d both experienced financial hardship, struggled with unstable families and survived extreme violence.

Wine and food emerged as a way for us to connect and carve out a future. I talked to Laura about the famous buttermilk-brined fried chicken from the Watershed, where I was a host. She showed me how to make baked mac and cheese, inspired by the black Southern women who’d taught her mother to cook. We talked for hours about grocery shopping, knife skills and what made things taste good.

Wine and food emerged as a way for us to connect and carve out a future.

Laura left Atlanta less than a year after we met. In the 12 years since, she has traveled across Asia and lived in Barcelona, where she fell in love with natural wines and decided to become a winemaker. She ended up in California and started her own brand called Inconnu. I relocated to New York City and became a radio producer and food writer, traveling to Cuba, Oaxaca and across the U.S. to record oral histories about Latino food and culture.

Laura and I came together to organize and host an evening of food and wine at 18 Reasons, a nonprofit community cooking space in San Francisco. The chefs there will prepare recipes from my cookbook, Coconuts and Collards (University Press of Florida, 2018), and Laura will pair with her wines. It will be a hybrid of my Puerto Rican and our Southern backgrounds: fried plantain soup, slow-cooked pork ribs with guava barbecue sauce and coconut-braised collard greens. We’ll bridge our pasts over rosé and sofrito.

“It’s unusual for women like us to end up here,” she said on a recent phone call.

She’s right. It’s no secret that the world of food and drink needs to diversify and celebrate the contributions of women. My hope is that Laura and I—two friends who met over cheap drinks—can pave the way for more scrappy, independent women to have a place at the table.