Posted on Wed, Jun. 06, 2007
A month on Cuban rations spurs memories
By ANITA SNOW
Associated Press Writer
The fragrant smell of onions and coriander wafting from the bubbling pot
of beans on my kitchen stove conjures up the memory of my mother, a
Southerner who would have recognized and appreciated many of the humble
dishes I am cooking for my study of how and what Cubans eat.
From a poor Virginia family that struggled through the Great Depression
and later lived through the rationing of World War II, my mom's stories
of her early life were similar to those Cubans now tell me: struggles,
scrimping and saving, wearing hand-me-downs and adding extra water to
the pot for one more hungry person at the supper table.
She talked a lot about the food. Steaming plates of black-eyed peas
ensured good luck every New Year's Day. A Christmas ham glazed with
pineapple was a rare treat for folks who regularly ate more lima beans
As I sit at my kitchen table, writing this in a journal while eating my
dinner of black beans, rice and steamed spinach, I realize I'm studying
not only Cubans' food, but my own family's food as well. Much of the
simple fare my mom grew up with and loved – okra, sweet potatoes, ham,
bean soups – is similar to what has nourished Cuban bodies and souls for
I'm still in my first week of a monthlong project to eat as the Cubans
do – consuming only the types and amounts of food that average Cubans
get with their government food ration, plus what they can buy at farmers
markets on an average salary.
Compelled under this self-imposed program to buy and prepare my own food
- picking through the dried beans and rice and rinsing them thoroughly
before putting them to the flame – I am reminded that this most basic of
all human needs is about more than calories, protein and carbohydrates.
Food, especially when cooked and shared with others, ties us to our
families, to our cultures and to humankind in general.
The okra known as quimbobo in Cuban farmers' markets is the same
vegetable brought by African slaves to both this island and the South.
It's the same vegetable my mother ate as a child and tried to make me
eat when I was little.
The collard greens my mom enjoyed are similar to the Swiss chard known
here as acelga.
Like many Cubans, my mom also grew up ladling thick stews of beans and
chunks of vegetables onto her plate from an impossibly large pot on the
stove, flavored with a big old ham hock, lots of salt and maybe some
bacon if there was a little extra money that week.
Although sweet potatoes in Cuba are white inside rather than the orange
more familiar to Americans, my mom would surely have recognized the
tuber the islanders call boniatos. Cubans often deep fry them in
vegetable oil like russet potatoes or drown them with butter and sugary
syrup for a popular dessert known as boniatillo.
That tasty island dish is not so different than the candied sweet
potatoes Americans eat on Thanksgiving, but in Cuba there are no little
marshmallows to sprinkle on top and melt in the oven.
The women in my mom's family would have cooked them differently –
boiling, mashing and sweetening them even more before baking the mixture
into heavenly sweet potato pie.
All these scents and flavors come back to me more than two years after
my mom's death, from a stroke at age 74.
On my last trip to see her before she died, I made one of mom's favorite
dishes, a traditional Southern-style 10-bean soup, foregoing the ham
hock and bacon for my vegetarian sister, but still baking the cornbread
that it tastes best with, smothered with honey and sweet butter.
Now I know how I will mark the end of my project. I'll pass on that
juicy steak I first talked about, and instead make a 10-bean soup with
all Cuban products – lentils, black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzos,
red beans, white beans, lima beans and any others I can find to make
sure I end up with 10.
I'll try for cornbread with the corn meal I've seen at the farmers'
market near my home. If that doesn't work, I'll try baking bread with
cassava, the stringy white tuber Cubans know as yuca.
And I'll invite some good friends to join me – because food is just fuel
if it is not shared.