Monday, March 03, 2008

Cuban cooking

Not too long ago was the inaugural Cuban cooking class. It's being documented over here.

I have been wanting to do this for years. I have talked about doing this for years with family and friends and it's finally happened. I am so happy about it. It means a lot to me. I don't know if I can put it into words but here goes. I didn't grow up here in Miami. I grew up in Northern Virgina and so my sense of "being Cuban" is VERY different from that of my friends who all grew up here.

In fact, growing up my family didn't talk a lot about Cuba and their life there, their exodus etc. I caught bits and pieces because I learned early on how to sit quietly and listen. Grown ups tend to forget that you are there and you pick up on all kinds of things. In any event, the gist is that Cuba wasn't a part of my upbringing the same way it is if you grow up here in Miami. My parents and grandparents all spoke perfect English. I didn't even study Spanish in high school. I studied French and by the time I graduated high school I spoke that better than Spanish. My Spanish was negligible and I couldn't read or write it all.

My grandparents and parents actually went to school here in the states and therefore acclimated very easily to American life. They had homes in the states, in Cuba, Madrid, Miami and Tampa since the early 30's and travelled back and forth with ease. My parents were very American and brought us up that way. I didn't grow up on the Cuban-American hyphen. My mother was adamant that we were American. I know that was a sore spot between my parents. My grandparents and father were very active in politics (that was why they relocated to Northern Va.) and therefore made many friends and enemies Cubans, Cuban-Americans and Americans alike. My father always put me and my brother in the forefront of any march or protest. I don't remember all the causes but I remember all the arguments. My mother always won only allowing us to participate if we carried American flags not Cuban flags because we are American not Cuban. Period. And so with that as a background, you can understand that meals at my home were meatloaf and mashed potatoes not palomilla and frijoles. My grandmother never cooked anything, it's just not her style. My paternal grandmother was the cook and although she ended up in Elizabeth NJ, working in a factory after her jet-set life, I always thought of her as my only proof of 'being Cuban'. Since she lived so far away, I never shared those things with her but I am always told that I am a lot like her.
I didn't grow up with the Cuban smells, sounds and tastes. I only experienced that in the summers when I would come to visit in Miami. It was a whole other world. Honestly, I never thought I'd live here. I always associated Miami with vacation not life, work and real world stuff. Nevertheless, here I am. For years, I talked about learning to cook the recipes that my husband's grandmothers made for us by heart, with a pinch of this and a little of that. Sadly, it never happened and we have since said good-bye to both of those ladies. And as I am now watching his parents, aunts and uncles get older and a little more tired I am determined to learn these things because I want to be able to pass them on to my grandkids and not have these meals just be a memory that my kids talk about to them but I want to pass them on to them.
I know there are a million restaurants that we can go to and buy the food already made but it's not the same. (I'm the one who makes Thanksgiving completely from scratch-just because.) When one of my kids ends up in Timbuktu and I can make Arroz con Pollo or Carne Asada and Flan, it will bring back a flood of memories and help create new ones for others. I love when 18 walks in the house when I am making Ropa Vieja and says "It smells like abuela's house when I was little." It makes me smile.

The kitchen is the heart of the home and I don't want to loose the Cuban beats. That's why I was so excited about the lesson a few weekends ago and look forward to those to come. We were taught to make ham croquettes. When my husband bit into a freshly fried one he said "I remember these." I later fried a few to take to my GM at the rehab center and when she took the first bit she said they were just like when she was little. It brought tears to my eyes. It took her to such a happy place and that meant so much to me to be able to do that. Memories...more and more I am convinced that's what it's all about...memories. Que siga la tradicion...
Mom, I know I'm American but I think I am much more than that and I embrace it all.


Stephanie said...

wonderful post. I remember as a kid, walking into my great-grandmother's house and all the smells of the Cuban food that were associated with it. She's been gone for over a year now and I wish I had asked her for all those recipes when I was growing up...

Hilda said...

Beautiful post...and I agree with every word.