Saturday, May 12, 2007

Let them eat cake!

And cookies, and other sweets - "pastelitos," perhaps - delicious little flaky pastries stuffed with savory sweet fillings of guava or other tasty things, ground meat and such. You can find them at Cuban-style bakeries in Miami and other places filled with the Cuban presence, still.

Wash it all down with Jupina - tilde over the "n" - a sweet pineapple soft drink; or Materva, or Maltina, Coca-Cola, Pepsi,Cawy - another native soft drink; now made in the USA-whatever you like.

What is this leading to? Well, Cuba Nostalgia 2007 is "taking off" next week in Miami; inspired by that, and a significant anniversary for yours truly, decided to "gift" the long-suffering readership with a little personal "Cuba Nostalgia" of my own.

For, you see, this photograph, depicting an almost seven-year-old and his sister was taken at the garden level of the Focsa building on May 12, 1957.

Exactly 50 years ago as this is written, to be precise.

Then the party was on; I see little sis had her finger on the cake even before "Happy Birthday" was sung and the candles were blown out. Yes, we sang "Happy Birthday" at birthday parties in Havana and other Cuban places in those days. Whatever we wanted to sing, without frowning looks from bearded types.
Cousin Manny was nattily dressed in his white, long-sleeved shirt that day; cousin Gina, to my right-that would be your left, from your perspective, looks as if she's ready for the photo session to end so she can begin to party. Then there's the nice-looking lady in the spotted dress, smiling - Maria, or as we knew her, "Mari." From Spain she was; took excellent care of us - just like having another mother, and a beloved part of our family, though not related to us either by blood or marriage. In fact we "lost" her when she married, a couple of years later. And many years later, birthday boy heard she was in New York. If she could ever be found, it would be the greatest birthday present of all time - at least to this old kid and his sister.

The cake probably came from "La Gran Via," a well-known Havana bakery catering to the capital's sweet tooth. Any reader who has a copy of the 1958 Cuban Telephone Company directory should find this fine purveyor of cakes, breads, pastries and palatable delights within its pages. "La Gran Via" had a second - and successful - life in Miami, after the original enterprise was squelched by frowning, bearded types who hate it when you sing "Happy Birthday." Ah, well. Their loss, our gain.

Perhaps the cake was homemade and concocted with a set of fine Wecolite cake-making and baking aids, but this is unlikely; am pretty sure "La Gran Via" did the honors that 12th day of May, 1957. At least, there is no recollection of mother making a mess in the kitchen in the process of baking a cake.

The young 'uns sang "Happy Birthday," ate cake, drank soft drinks, ran around, screamed, smashed the pinata (tilde over the "n" again!) - yes, there was a pinata with those little flimsy favors inside we who have smashed one know so well. I wish I could get hold of our Time Travelers - you know, those guys and gals flying around into the Past and the Future, the Once and Future Cuba, in their unusually-equipped Delorean - if you have been reading this blog carefully you should be able to locate them - and travel with you back to that fun-filled day, fifty Mays ago. We'd have a great time. The kiddies would have to forego the beer for a day, though - since we'd all be under age. Then again, you might prefer Cawy, Materva, or Maltina.

Happy birthday, Tauruses of Havana and other provinces, the 50 states, and the whole world, for that matter. May someday another group of happy Cuban children and their loved ones celebrate their special day and sing "Happy Birthday" with abandon, or whatever they want to sing in whatever language they desire to sing it, on the once-again green grounds of the Focsa building.


At 3:15 PM, Blogger Manuel A.Tellechea said...

There's a resurrected Gran Vía in Union City, N.J., too, as well as a Fénix and a La Guardia.

Of course, the offerings are not as good as they used to be. They never are. The Jews ended up with unleavened bread in their wanderings and we haven't fared much better. Well, at least we were spared the bitter herbs.

My special gripe is with the croquettes. The chief objective of our Cuban brethren who make ham croquettes for commercial purposes is to create the sensation of ham without actually using any ham, or using the least possible amount of ham. I really don’t understand this capricious economy because no meat is cheaper than a shank of ham, which rarely costs more than a dollar per lb. And, of course, the hammiest ham croquette would require much, much less than a pound of ham to make (though they sell for as much or more than a pound of ham). Still, there seems to be some equivalence in the Cuban mind between ground ham and gold dust, because ham is used as sparingly in the confection of so-called ham croquettes as gold is in gilding, with this diffeence: an ounce of gold leaf can cover an entire capital dome and it will shine as brightly as if it were encased in solid gold; but an ounce of ham will not impart any of its essence to a dough-mix from which a hundred or more croquettes will be made.

So what exactly do our frugal Cuban gourmets put into their croquettes? Well, parsley, lots of parsley. And, of course, bijol to color it a pleasant pink. And, finally, a good amount of salt to disguise the blandness.

The final touch the hapless customer adds himself: namely, his recollection of the taste of ham, which he wraps around these flour-missiles like a protective second coat to make them palatable.

Apparently, the hamless croquette makers believe that aging improves the flavor of their vegetarian concoctions. So, in effect, there is no such thing as an “old” croquette, and they will sell them until the skin literally separates from the “masa.” It is only when penicillin cultures develop on the croquettes that they will deign to dispose of them — usually by recycling them in a new batch of hamless croquette dough.

O tempora, o mores."

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Albert Quiroga said...

To which I can only add that, to this day, and forever, my family and I will miss grandmother Maria Fernandez's homemade ham croquettes, laden with REAL HAM, the tasty, salty, hammy flavor still lingering in the palate; and for those who like fish croquettes - yes, they do exist - nothing could beat the ones created by her son, my uncle, Mariano mistaking the taste and the slightly oily, yet creamy texture.

They would have given the commercial croquette purveyors a real run for the money.

At 11:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Father, Step-Father, Father-In-Law, Uncles, an Aunt, as well as most of the men among my parent’s friends were all WWII vets. I know they would thank you for this wonderful post, as I do. Al, muchas gracias y abrazos.

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Albert Quiroga said...

Oops! Ziva meant her comment to go with the "I Am Here Because They Were There" post, so it will be displayed there as well. It is here, and it is there. There it is!

At 2:05 PM, Blogger Vana said...


Your recollections of 1950's Havana, are very warmly taken by me, for they remind me of my life there, I too celebrated my 7th birthday as you did, among Happy Birthdays in 1957, what a life that was, just like you, very much missed by me, though I seldom comment here, I often read your blog, for you remind me of my childhood in Havana in the 1950's


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