Mom's Kitchen and the One-Minute Cook
We're now entering the "eatin' season." Thanksgiving is over; like the Pilgrims, we thanked God for the blessings he bestowed on us, including the freedom to gather with our family and friends to share His gifts. Freedoms that Habaneros once had.
Cubans enjoy good food and good eating. This they share with other ethnic/national groups, such as Italians, Spaniards, and Southerners. As in the American South. And don't tell me I don't know what I am talking about! I am married to a Tarheel who's a "heyul of a good cook." And I LIKE grits.
From a young age, I remember mom's good cooking, learned from her mother, my grandmother Maria Fernandez de Granja, who made a "picadillo" which was second to none. Grandmother Maria was ably assisted in the kitchen by one of her sons, my uncle Mariano Granja. See? Cuban guys can cook!
Around holiday time, and in fact, throughout the year, the wonderful smells of picadillo, carne asada, boliche, bistec de palomilla con cebolla, masas de puerco, arroz y frijoles, platanos fritos o salcochados, papas fritas y rellenas, yuca con mojo, boniato, etc, etc, would permeate the household. Mom and dad also enjoyed their salads with lettuce, tomatoes, "berro," oil and vinegar. Salad is where I drew the line, though. At least back then. I couldn't see any reason for munching on something that seemed suitable for cows only.
Forgive me for not translating the above-mentioned food items and descriptions, but much would be lost in translation. Besides, I am no gastronomic expert, and my descriptions and feeble attempts to describe the smell and taste experiences of these wonderful dishes would not do them justice. Respectful suggestion: Find a good Cuban restaurant in your home town - and I mean a REAL Cuban restaurant, not those that advertise aberrations such as "Cuban burritos"-ain't NO such thing-and try Cuban cuisine. If you've found the right place, you will not be disappointed.
Failing in that, the next best thing is to find a good Cuban cookbook. And, in fact, mother acquired the "Bible of Cuban Cuisine," Nitza Villapol's "Cocina Al Minuto," when we still lived at calle LaCret 378 in Santos Suarez. Mother still has her original copy, having made sure she packed it in the suitcase when we left Havana-she knew it would come in handy, whether in Havana or Hialeah. Most Habanero households had a copy of this cookbook, usually kept close at hand, ready to be consulted as needed. Nitza Villapol could be described as "the Julia Child of Cuba," and like Ms. Child, had her own cooking show on Cuban television, which I watched more than once, in glorious black-and-white. I know why I enjoyed watching it: it made me hungry and ready to dive in as soon as dinner was ready. And don't think you can't learn to "do" good Cuban cuisine - the Tarheel in my life can whip up a MEAN picadillo with rice-n-black beans. Blessed with mom's Seal of Approval, which is as difficult to get as it is to get your gadget approved by Underwriter Laboratories.
Since Cubans enjoy desserts, "Cocina Al Minuto" had many dessert recipes. Since we are now in that time of year where dessert takes a more prominent than usual role at the dinner table, here are 3 Cuban desserts enjoyed by Habaneros and other compatriots from the 6 provinces, circa 1954-you may want to try your hand at replicating them; point to the image and click on it so you can get a more readable version:
Yes, the recipe is in Spanish (or Cuban?); sorry, but decided it was best not to attempt a translation of the original-and an original it is, as attested to by the stains on the page, a testimony to the fact this was and still is a well-used cookbook. My poor translation skills would be a recipe for...culinary disaster.
Cubans celebrated their relationship with their cuisine by writing songs about food and the fruits of the land. No doubt other cultures do the same, but can't help but recall the many songs and ditties about food and eating, while still a sprout back in La Habana. Artists such as Celia Cruz and orchestras/musical groups such as Orquesta Aragon sang and played songs about national gastronomic delights.
And in fact, there is even a song about one of the desserts in Nitza Villapol's book, made popular by one of my favorite comic duos back in Havana, Leopoldo Fernandez, nicknamed "Pototo," and Anibal De Mar, nicknamed "Filomeno." The nicknames are untranslatable, but funny to those of us who "were there." So, click on the link, sit back, relax, pretend it is 1956, you are in Havana listening to Radio Progreso ("La Onda de la Alegria") and you've tuned in to a song about dessert-which you may enjoy-the song and the dessert-together with a sweet cafe Cubano...or perhaps you heard this first on "Radio Suaritos." And if you remember "Radio Suaritos," you're even older than I am!
Tune-in here. You may need a plug-in to a media player-sorry, no technical advice and no recommendations here-dealing with my own screw-ups is enough. Please consult your local Technical Expert, as needed.
Que lo disfruten. Long live Havana, Cuba, el boniatillo, Pototo y Filomeno!