Learning to Cook Cuban: A Personal Note on Food, Memory, and Identity.
This blog, dedicated to food history and historical foodways, has existed in one form or another for the better part of a decade (nine years this month) and during that time I have posted about Cuban food only once, when I talked about casabe. Part of that, as I explain on the post, is because I felt that, since I am Cuban, it would be cheating, or that readers would see it as biased and as too personal to be of value to others. So, instead, I have spent time and energy researching, practicing, and writing about other people’s cuisines, other people’s food cultures, while neglecting the very rich and varied food traditions and foodways of the culture and people I call my own.
Many of my early childhood memories revolve around family and food, always food. I have vivid images of my grandmother setting the table for lunch and dinner daily; tablecloth, place settings, servingwear, the works. I grew up in Cuba until I was a young teen and that is just what people did, at least in my provincial town. My grandfather, a very traditional man of his time in all the senses, insisted on this arrangement. Regardless of the gendered implications, these are happy memories I hold dear.
Another set of memories that I feel more nostalgic about still are big family gatherings, usually on New Year’s Eve, when the entire extended family – by which I mean two or three dozen people – would celebrate, cook, play, laugh, and, as the crowning glory, roast a whole pig. If the pig was roasted on a spike, we took turns rotating it while everyone else danced, talked, or played dominoes. Preparing the pig and calling it done was men’s work; the women made the rest of the meal: congri, yuca, mojo, salad, dessert. As an adult, I am deeply aware of the gendered dynamics of these experiences, but it does not take away from them.
But food memories are not always happy memories. I was old enough during the fall of the USSR to experience the sudden shift from the relative food abundance (relative being key here!) afforded by the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union to the extreme food scarcity of the Special Period. This period, known to Cubans as the Período Especial, was a period of economic depression that began in 1991 and was ushered in by the dissolution of the USSR. One of its most egregious effects was the extreme reduction of already rationed food, leaving an entire country in a state of famine for years. In truth, Cuba has never recovered.
My food memories of this time are grim. Scarcity, yes, but also the loss of dignified living. While my family, as far as I know, did not have to resort to these measures, it is widely accepted that domesticated cats all but disappeared from Havana streets and ended up on dinner plates. That people illicitly sold foods that were often not food at all, unbeknown to the buyer, but rather were inedible goods, like mopping cloths seasoned to taste like steak and sold in sandwiches, or pizzas topped with melted condoms instead of cheese. These are not things that people willingly admit to having done, and so it is difficult to ascertain where the truth ends and myth begins, but it would not be a stretch to imagine that at least some of it was true.
On a more concrete level, I remember decimated food stores, empty shelves that had formerly held staple foods like rice, beans, and oils. I remember children no longer receiving milk rations after they turned 7 years old. I remember my mother, as by then my father had left the country, begin to fear visitors because we only had enough for us, and we were the lucky ones.
I remember standing in line as a tween to purchase the meager meat rations that came once every few months, and consisted mostly of an unidentifiable paste, purported to be made from geese, or ground beef that was more soy protein than actual beef. The latter is the reason why many Cubans who lived in Cuba during this time and now live in the US refuse to eat soy anything.
And while I don’t want to romanticize perseverance through scarcity, oppression, and human rights violations, through all those things, through all those hardships, I remember people still coming together, even with food.
But, sadly, negative memories often hold more power over us than the good memories for as long as we let them, and for too long I let them hold power over me.
When I moved to the United States, I lived in Miami, Hialeah more specifically, a largely Cuban, or last least Hispanic, enclave in Florida. I was a teen and my mother still did all the cooking, mostly because that was just the way she was raised, and partly because money was always tight and we rarely ate out. But when we did, we ate, yes, Cuban food. I did not need to learn to cook, specially Cuban food (I learned to make one soup!). My mother never tried to teach me and she was not, and still is not, one of those people who relished the task.
When I decided, on my own, to learn to cook in my late teens, it was not Cuban food I turned to, it was American food.
My lived experiences had led me to see Cuban cuisine as a cuisine of austerity, and American cuisine as plentiful and the standard to attempt to emulate. This feeling became much more present and a much stronger driving force when, as I left home to join the military, I found myself for the first time in my life in the situation where I was a minority.
I am a white-passing person, but I felt that to truly fit in and BE American, I had to let go of the ethnic things that marked me as an other. This, I learned anecdotally later in life, is a very common experience for immigrant children and the children of immigrants.
In my case, living far away from home and with the privilege that my light skin, Euro-passing features, and quick command of the English language with very little accent afforded me, it was food, my appetite for the Cuban food I could not find ready to eat, that held me back. And so, at some point in my late teens and early twenties, I made the subconscious decision to let go of that too.
I never learned to cook Cuban food, and I learned to cook other foods instead. And so, I spent the better part of my young adult life distancing myself from my ethnic heritage.
When I moved back to South Florida and settled there, I still didn’t need to cook Cuban food because I could just buy it, and although I was no longer in the minority, I continued to silence the parts of me that were “ethnic.”
In fact, it was not until after I moved to New York for graduate school that I began to regret not ever having learned to cook Cuban food.
This was in part because there is very little (good) Cuban food here, but also because as I have gotten older, I have started to regret having spent so much time and energy trying to put a great distance between me and my “Cubanness.”
And just as subconsciously as I decided to create that distance, I resolved to erase it.
It started by going professionally by my full name, Juneisy, rather than the nickname I had been given in high school, June. Then I began using my maiden name, which has for over a decade been my middle name, writing it out and speaking it rather than using my initial or not using it at all.
But the true turning point came when I decided that I, finally, wanted to learn to cook Cuban food.
Much of that was nostalgia for early childhood food experiences, which had finally triumphed over the memories of the Special Period.
The first thing I learned to cook, and which is on the stove as I type this, was ropa vieja. That literally translates into “old clothes”, but it is shredded beef in tomato sauce. It has been a favorite of mine all my life. I have mastered it and make it often now.
Unsurprisingly, given my love of cookbooks and my interest in food history and historic cookbooks, my attention quickly turned to finding as much as I could about Cuban food history and foodways from the times before the Special Period, before the Castro revolution, before scarcity.
I wanted not just to learn to cook Cuban food, I wanted to learn the culinary and food history of my birth country.
I scoured the internet for historical Cuban cookbooks, some of which I knew about, like those of the most influential Cuban cook of all time: Nitza Villapol, to those I had never heard about like ¿Gusta Usted?. Finding these books proved to be a learning experience on its own, as well as an expensive endeavor. Who knew that a 1950s copy of Cocina al Minuto fetched $350? I did not buy that one.
I learned, for example, that Cocina al Minuto, the most well-known title in Cuban cookbook history (it’s not THAT extensive), was not one book but rather several different books named the same and published between the 1950s and the early 1990s. I learned that the content of each book reflects the changing political climate of the island and the drift from plenty to famine. I learned that Villapol, despite being one of the most well known figures in Cuba, was born right here in New York.1
My search for Cuban cookbooks began with Cocina al Minuto because cookbooks, too, are the source of some of my most cherished childhood memories.
One of my most vivid childhood memories of my father, who has always been an excellent cook, is of him making some pastries for my little brother’s birthday in 1991 or 1992. The sweets were the “Danish pastries” – which are not Danish at all – from what I have now learned was a 1980 edition of Cocina al Minuto. When my father left Cuba shortly after, I came into possession of the book and held it dearly. But when it was time for me to emigrate, I had to leave it behind.
Ever since, even through my distancing phase, I have regretted not taking the book with me. When I started buying these books recently, I wanted to find a copy of that particular edition for no other reason than sentimental value. I could not have my father’s book, and this was the next best thing.
A few of these books now sit on my shelves, both physical and electronic, and I hope that you enjoy reading about them and about the food in them, along with all the other content I’ve relied on for years, as I wrestle with learning to cook Cuban food beyond the three things currently in my repertoire. And as I attempt to learn more about Cuban historical foodways.
And so it came to be that food, the very thing I used to put an imaginary barrier between my heritage and me has become the tool through which I intend to reclaim what I so willingly and readily gave up. Food, more than almost anything else, has the ability to restore our sense of who we are, where we came from, to connect us to our roots, and, if all goes well, show us that our place in the world does not have to be marked by trying to distance ourselves from our culture, because being different is not inherently bad.
1. Suzanne Cope, “Nitza Villapol: The Woman Who Taught Cubans to Cook Just About Anything,” June 16, 2016. NPR WNYC. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/16/481397800/nitza-villapol-the-woman-who-taught-cubans-to-cook-with-just-about-anything