Growing up as a first generation American I was aware of how different my experience was from my peers at school. My parents’ immigrant status, their other worldliness extended to me. It made me stand apart from my classmates because my home life—the language we spoke, the pop culture we consumed and the food we ate—was so different from everyone else’s. Because I straddled two worlds—the Hispanic culture of my homelife and the American culture the was just outside our front door—I saw my parents as aliens from strange, foreign lands, that may have well been another planet for what little I understood of their upbringing and their homelands.
As I grew older, I started to read a lot about Cuba and Ecuador. Every chance I got, I would make one the subject of a class assignment. But over time, my interest in Cuban culture outpaced my interest in Ecuador. Cubans, with their rapid-fire way of talking, rhythmic music, rich literary tradition and legendary nightlife, are much more vibrant than the Ecuadorians, who I often think of as the “Midwesterners” of Latin America. Even the island’s history—marked by constant turmoil and freedom that was always within the nation’s grasp but never quite attainable—was much more epic in comparison to Ecuador’s.
Of the two parents, my mother was more open about talking about her life as a child and young woman in Ecuador, which drew me closer to her because she was willing to share of herself. My father was a different story altogether. He was a master of saying a lot but revealing oh so little of himself, making him an enigma to me. Having arrived in the states a few years after the Cuban Revolution, his elusiveness about the details of his life oddly mirrored how Cuba presented itself on the global stage—a communist nation that perpetually celebrated the revolution but offered little interaction or diplomacy except for a few, like-minded nations. What I learned of my father came from the activities he shared with us—his love of the outdoors, nature and food.
Though my father enjoyed cooking, he didn’t cook a lot of traditional Cuban dishes. He never made ropa vieja or vaca frita—two popular menu items in every Cuban restaurant that I’ve ever set foot in. The only uniquely Cuban food he would prepare included rice with black beans, Cuban sandwiches and guava with cream cheese. The rest of the dishes in his repertoire were either derivatives of Spanish and Latino recipes (estofados or stews, empanadas and fried plantains) or inspired by my grandfather, a Chino-Latino (Hispanic of Chinese origin) who owned a bakery.
All my life I dreamed of visiting Cuba, meeting my father’s family, seeing the bakery (or rather the building that once housed it since Fidel Castro made private business and property illegal when he took power), and visit the beachside town he grew-up in. This summer I will finally make my wish a reality when I travel with my family to Cuba for a quinceañera. You can only imagine how excited I am for this trip and to experience it with my son, sister and mother.
Ironically, the one thing that is making me nervous about this trip is the food. As a foodie, I always research places to eat, looking for restaurants that are unique and local to the area, or are exceptional for the food and service. But for many years, the Cuban government rationed the food on the island that people were able to buy on a monthly basis. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union when Cuba lost its financial backing of the Soviet government, the nation fell into fiscal despair and the food rations became scant. Luckily the Cubans did bounce back. The government began allowing private enterprise in limited numbers, with paladars, residential-based restaurants, being among the first private business to flourish since the revolution. Tourism was revitalized as Cuba became a favorite playground for Canadians and Europeans. Foreign companies have been allowed to establish businesses locally, sometimes in partnership with the Cuban government but always under ever-changing regulations.
There is no doubt in my mind that food will be in abundance as a tourist. However, I am afraid that I may have experienced the best of Cuban cooking stateside because of the limitations to food on the island and trade with the outside world. I have started researching what the island’s food situation currently is. I am comforted that there are efforts underway to grow more fruits and vegetables, but I remain uncertain about the quality of the food. I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised but keeping my expectations in check. Still, I have developed a list of food-related experiences that I would like to have during my week in Cuba.
- Visit the site of my grandfather’s bakery Panadería Eleodoro.
- Score a memento of the bakery
- Get a few family recipes
- Visit the Havana Club rum distillery, occupying the former site of the Bacardi rum distillery
- Bring back some good stories to tell
I can’t wait to share my trip with all of you.
In case you were wondering, the feature photograph is a close-up of Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo’s Cafedral, a cathedral made of old espresso pots like the one my father had when I was growing up. The art installation was part of a 12-day celebration of Cuban art, dance and music at the Kennedy Center earlier this month.