My Eternal Cuba

By Maricel E. Presilla

Published on August 5, 2003

The day I left Cuba in August 1970, my family and I watched as a government official placed a seal on the door of our house, and then we walked to a waiting car without looking back. Because we had chosen to emigrate to the United States, we were forced to leave everything behind—our home, our furniture, our clothes, our relatives, even my fiance, Alex, who I wasn't sure could join me later on. It took me a long time to recover from the unbearable pain of that parting.

In the years that followed, I was able to compose a textured, happy life for myself, tempered by loss but anchored in my Cubanness. Alex managed to swim across Guantanamo Bay to the American base there three months after I left, and we were married in Florida. I became a footloose traveler and historian and traipsed all over Spain and Latin America for my research. Visiting Cuba, though, was for decades not even a possibility because of the travel restrictions imposed on exiles. By the time those were eased, in the early 1980s, I was determined not to return; I would never let anybody make me feel that insecure and afraid again.

So I kept Cuba alive in my kitchen. With every recipe I followed, I conjured up grateful, bittersweet memories of the women who had taught me how to cook and the kitchens where I had learned. I still remember making my first dish—congri, the traditional rice and red kidney beans of Oriente, my region—on the long, tiled charcoal-burning stove in the house of my maternal grandfather, Santiago Parlade. I was so small that Ines, the family cook, had to help me climb on a stool so that I could see the insides of the pot.

My grandfather's house, perched high in the mountains surrounding Santiago de Cuba, in eastern Cuba, was a gentle world of teachers, poets, and musicians, presided over by my aunts, five women who loved to cook. We lived not far from my grandfather, and I spent some of the happiest days of my childhood at his house, eating beautiful food on elegant china, listening to piano music, and going to afternoon soirees. I was also close to my father's family, who lived down in the old colonial core of the city. I can vividly recall my paternal grandmother, Paquita, a stocky, powerful woman, stirring a burbling pot of ajiaco (a big soup chock-full of meats and tubers) and calling in her no-nonsense voice, "To the table, kids! The ajiaco is getting cold." And I once grew squeamish in my American kitchen while cleaning a cow's heart, but got my strength back thinking of my maternal aunt Belen Parlade, a refined but resourceful woman who could play Mozart on the piano after having wrung the necks of a few chickens for lunch.

They are all gone now. In the wake of their absence, as the aromas of cherished family dishes drifted up from my stove, I realized that soon I would no longer have a chance to learn from the cooks of their generation who had stayed behind. It was time to go back. Yet nothing could have prepared me for what would be a heart-wrenching trip, an emotional journey as well as a culinary one, and one that helped me more fully understand what it is to be Cuban. Landing at dawn in Santiago de Cuba, I was dazzled by the glow of the early-morning sky, and I felt deliciously at home as the tropical sun enveloped me in a cocoon of warmth. Although the core of the old city had been spruced up, everywhere else there were signs of decay: buildings in ruins, throngs walking in the streets for lack of public transportation— the same hardships we had endured during my final years in Cuba, but in a city that seemed to have lost the explosive vitality I remembered. I reached Paquita's old house under a glaring sun, steam rising from thescorched pavement. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never known the house without her, and the thought shook me. I found the door ajar and peered inside. A smiling young girl rushed toward me, shouting, "Tia Ana Luz, Mama, hurry! Maricel is here!" I was stunned. How did she know who I was? The girl was the daughter of my cousin Any, whom I had last seen when she herself was a child. Then Any and my aunt Ana Luz, in her late 80s but still handsome, emerged. We all locked in a long, tight, tearless embrace without saying a word, three generations erasing nearly 30 years of absence in a single moment.

Once the dizzying joy of reuniting with my family had subsided, I was hit hard by their pressing needs. It was strange to play therole of adult, buying food at the tourist shops and taking everyone out to eat and paying with dollars. Especially in the hotels, th efood was so bad that I could not relate it to anything I had ever before eaten in Cuba, even when things were really rough in the late 1960s. Yet nobody but me complained about the stale, dense bread that was a far cry from the crumbly, light Cuban bread of my memory, or of the shrimp reeking of iodine. Once, as Ana Luz picked up a limp, greasy toston (a fried green plantain round), shelooked at me and said in her melodic Santiago accent, "Ay mija, beggars can't be choosers. You should have been here in 1991." Shewas referring to the economic crisis in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cubans received two eggs a month and a mocksteak made of ground plantain peel was all the rage. I shrugged, resigned, and put a lid on any further restaurant reviews.

Ultimately I gathered the courage to go and see what had becomeof my maternal grandfather's house, now occupied by strangers. The house had been split in two, and the family living in the front graciously let me in. They had painted the house a harsh white, so different from the warm mustard yellow I remembered, but my grandfather's favorite mango tree (the one he had grafted himself, the mango Parlade) was still growing in the yard. The dining room and the kitchen at the back now belonged to another family, who would not let me enter. Perhaps it was for the better; I don't know how I would have responded to seeing other hands stir the potson that old stove. I suddenly missed my silver-haired, storytelling, guitar-playing grandfather and ached to be back with the Parlade clan of writers and readers and fabulous cooks. But what I wanted was long gone. The house I knew lived as a perfect Platonic form in my mind. This house was not real, and I did not want it.

Now I was seized by an urgent need to connect with some part of our family past that hadn't been taken away or swallowed up by hardship. So I decided to visit my father's relatives in the countryside some 120 miles to the east, in the mountains of the Jauco region, and then to the north, in the town of Baracoa. My grandmother Paquita was born in a place called Cañas, a forest paradise on the edge of the Jauco River. When she was barely 15, my grandfather Jose Espinosa Cespedes courted her, swept her off her feet, and took her to Santiago, where they raised a large family. As a child, I had visited Cañas and had been moved with wonderment at a way of life so deeply rooted in the soil of Cuba.

With me came Tia Ana Luz and another beloved aunt, Tia Juanita; my cousins Jesus Espinosa and Carlos Espinosa; and my sister-in-law Amarilis Presilla and her daughter Katia, all of us crammed into a friend's 1940s Ford Willys alongwith gifts and essentials like toilet paper, soap, and detergent from the tourist shops. We drove east, past Guantanamo Bayand along La Via Azul (The Blue Way), past cliffs, cacti, and an indigo sea breaking into froth on the pointed limestone rocks called dientes de perro (dog's teeth). We had been advised to turn north at the mouth of the Jauco River to get to Cañas. What we hadn't been told was that no actual road existed, so our fearless driver steered the Jeep straight up the riverbed. Unfortunately, we soon got stuck in mud and rising water and were rescued by an old Russian army truck, whose very drunk but friendly driver towed us all the way to Cañas.

At last we reached the town, deep amid violet-rimmed mountains and cultivated patches of cacao and Arabica coffee. We stepped outof the Jeep and were quickly surrounded by the Ferrer clan. My father's cousin Eve, a robust woman in her 70s with round cheeks and bushy eyebrows, held me close, then raised her hands up in the air and cackled, "Dios mio, look at this girl. She is the spitting image of her grandmother." "And you, you look like her too," I replied, laughing.

The afternoon of my arrival, I trekked uphill to visit the grave of my great-grandfather Francisco Ferrer. He was born in Alicante, Spain, and traveled to Baracoa as an officer of the Spanish army in the 1880s. There he fell in love with Jauco-born Maria Desideria Matos, and the couple settled in Cañas, where Francisco built Maria Desideria a cedar home under a huge ceiba tree. Theirs was an exceptionally happy marriage that came to a tragic end when Francisco was killed by Spanish soldiers in 1895, during the war of independence, because of his support for Cuba's guerrilla fighters. My grandmother buried him herself on the slope of a hill near a cacao field. A simple wooden cross marks his grave, which is lovingly tended by his grandchildren and their children.

That night, a dozen of us sat around a cauldron of suckling pig soup, eating and talking. The men had cut the pig into small pieces and simmered it with chives, leeks, garlic, whole onions, tiny peppers, culantro (a cilantro taste-alike), and allspice berries. First we drank the deliciously light broth from tall glasses. The morsels of meat remained in the cauldron, and fresh lard was added to the pot. The morsels were fried until they were crunchy on the outside yet so tender and moist inside that you could even eat the tiny bones.

Skilled carpenters, my father's elderly cousins had built their homes and furniture out of local woods. Near each palm-thatched ormetal-roofed house was a conuco (a plot mainly devoted to starchy crops) as well as flower and vegetable gardens and achiote (annatto) plants, covered with bright red, hairy pods that yield tiny seeds used to imbue food with a golden orange color. Pens hold pigs, goats, and chickens at night (during the day they roam free).

With the Ferrers, I finally found what I was looking for: Cuban hospitality at its best, with no money exchanged and people growing almost everything they ate. I spent the next few days cooking with the women and men of the family, both outdoors and in kitchens with rudimentary wood-burning stoves. The cooks of my family used blackened cast-aluminum calderos (pots), long wooden spoons, and a pierced gourd filled with achiote seeds and attached to awooden handle— an ingenious culinary maraca— which they immersed in sauces to color a dish. With my cousin Nelson, an extraordinarily talented cook, I prepared a specialty of Baracoa called bacanes (tamales made with green plantains and coconut milk)and a red snapper braised in rich tomato sauce. Eve showed me how to make pork, chicken, and goat stews delicately flavored with fresh herbs that she— like everyone else in Cañas— grew in planters propped up on stilts to keep them out of the reach of the chickens. Eve's rice with calabaza squash was a gentle foil for these spicy, saucy dishes.

In Cañas, I sucked on the ivory, sweet-tart pulp of cacao pods as delightedly as I had when I was a girl and drank my family's own coffee, hand-roasted, hand-crushed in a huge mortar, and brewed with a cloth cone filter. It was so smooth and refined that drinking it was like sipping a liquid fragrance.

Not surprisingly, I detected a strong Spanish presence in much of what the Ferrers cooked. My ancestors here went native like the plaintain, living off the land, growing indigenous tubers. But they clearly retained the flavors of their homeland's cuisine; their stew of white beans and game birds could easily have come from a kitchen in Alicante or Catalonia. And they had a very Spanish predilection for suckling pigs rather than the older, larger pigs preferred in most of Cuba. Their cooking was wonderful because the ingredients were fresh— goats, pigs, and chickens, all killed on the spot and seasoned with just-picked herbs and spices—and also because it was done on a wood fire, which gave the food a fabulous aroma.

It took us hours to load up the Jeep and say good-bye to everyone, including the swarm of young children who followed us everywhere. We drove away laden with fruits and vegetables and carrying my great-grandmother's worn-out kitchen mortar and her gigantic wooden pestle for grinding coffee. But I was carrying much more in my heart.

I still hadn't seen my father's favorite cousin, Jaime, who lived in Baracoa, on the coast some 30 miles to the northwest, so that city was our next stop. A master carpenter, Jaime has a quiet manner and a clear, blue-eyed gaze that seems to radiate goodness.He visited us often in Santiago when I was small, and he always brought us a Baracoan treat called cucurucho, a mixture of coconut and other tropical fruits cooked down to a paste and wrapped in a cone made from the sheath of the royal palm. And so, when I at last knocked on Jaime's door, the first thing I asked him was "Where is my cucurucho?"

Baracoa, founded in about 1512 by the Spanish explorer Diego Velazquez, is one of the most beautiful places in Cuba: it has pristine beaches, clear rivers, and dark green mountains framing the city's port. Though the Taino people who originally inhabited the area disappeared long ago, you can still detect their legacy— chiseled faces, bronze skin, and long, silky black hair— in Baracoa's rural population. Certainly the tubers they cultivated, such as yuca and sweet potato, are fundamental to the area's cooking. In addition to its Taino and Spanish roots, Baracoa's food has an Afro-Caribbean component; coconut, for instance, is more widely used here than in the rest of Cuba's cuisine. Because of its isolation, some of Baracoa's dishes cannot be found in other parts of the island: yuca buñuelos (coiled yuca fritters dyed gold with achiote); cucuruchos; sweet potato bread; bacanes; bacanes perdidos (shrimp in coconut sauce with plantain dumplings), which I made in Baracoa with Jaime's daughter; a type of atole (porridge) of spiced tubers; and a tiny fish called teti, cooked a number of ways. Today you must look hard to find any of these— even the cucuruchos, which are now made in a factory. But Jaime and his family had hoarded ingredients so that we visitors could enjoy all of Baracoa's traditional foods.

In the Cuban culinary vocabulary you don't merely set off to"buy" groceries; rather, you go out to conseguir, or scrounge, food, or you manage to encontrar, or find, it. Now, returning to Santiago from Baracoa, determined to bring back as much food as possible for the family there, I found myself plunging back into all the old strategies I had learned while living in Cuba. There were no street vendors, but we stopped whenever we saw passersby carrying food. With a woman on the side of the road, I exchanged a tube of toothpaste for tomatoes. Later, I traded a pen for onions and garlic. Dollars bought us plantains and tamales.

We had to pass several checkpoints along the major roads, which was terrifying because transporting certain foods, such as meat or seafood, from one region to the other is forbidden and violators risk paying heavy fines or spending several years in prison. We did have coffee, which is subject to strict regulations, but we had obtained written permission to carry a few pounds of coffee from the Jauco cooperative. Tia Juanita sat on top of the coffee just in case— but there was little she could do to disguise its pungent aroma wafting through the car!

By the time we reached Santiago, the car was filled with coffee, sugarcane, tomatoes, citrus fruits, yuca, cucuruchos, and tamales, plantains, onions, and garlic. Every ounce of food spoke of hope and victory, and I marveled as my aunts and my sister-in-law distributed the cache among their friends and neighbors, keeping little for themselves. In Cuba the sharing of hard-won food is the ultimate gesture of generosity, a way of bringing normalcy to a life full of angst. This is the side of Cuba, reaffirmed for me after 30 years, that will keep me coming back if I am allowed to return. Yes, deprivation is a fact of life, but the Cuban love for food and for cooking is undiminished. In Cuba, every meal celebrates the love of family and the precarious triumph of the cook. This is the part of Cuba that is true and eternal.

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.