Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part 1

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To say I come from a long line of inept cooks is an understatement. My grandmother – a well-heeled dame from Philadelphia’s Main Line – was so artless at the stove she used to have Thanksgiving catered; our observations that she’d mistakedly put the gravy on the green beans and drenched the potatoes in vinaigrette were met with a call for a fresh gin and tonic. In her mind she was a martyr: her mother had live-in help, an entire staff to dress the vegetables and cook the bird. All this living large ended with my mother, the quintessential black sheep who was black balled from the family when she got knocked up at 19.

Four kids and a lousy divorce later, the wolf was at our proverbial door. We were headed for the skids and stories of these lean times endure. There was the time we survived on nothing but oatmeal, three times a day, every day (see note 1) and the Christmas when my mother somehow scored a ham. As we slept, she dog tired from trying to make a poor Christmas joyful and us kids tossing and turning in anticipation, our beloved beagle Barney pawed open the refrigerator door and wolfed that whole ham down. What we awoke to wasn’t carols and candy but Mom, furious as we’d rarely seen her, chasing that beagle with a rolled up newspaper. Needless to say, that was the end of Barney (see note 2).

Some years later, we’d volunteer one Saturday a month to cut mammoth slabs of tasteless cheese into manageable blocks that we received in kind from the Park Slope food co-op near where we lived. One time, when there was another windfall like the one that brought us Barney’s Christmas ham, Mom bought half a cow. It was cheaper that way. “Bessie” sat in our freezer for a year getting eaten little by little until a Cuban-style blackout forced us to cook all those cow parts in one fell swoop.

Except for the week or two of oatmeal (family accounts differ as to how long we actually had to survive on that slop), I didn’t realize how poor we were when it came to the dinner table. Sure, we knew our classmates were eating burgers and fried chicken while we sat down to ratatouille, jambalaya, and moussaka (see note 3), but we figured it was an insatiable interest in other cultures that brought these exotic dishes to our table and not precarious finances. But the fact is, most ethnic food is poor people’s food, made with whatever happens to be on hand.

In “food insecure households” such as ours, it pays to know how to cook and I’m convinced my mom learned her way around a kitchen out of necessity (see note 4). My brothers, sister, and I followed suit, habitually making stock from chicken bones; reviving old bread with a few sprinkles of water and some minutes in the oven; transforming stale crackers into breading as tasty as any herbed panko; and hacking mold from cheese and scraping surface scum from maple syrup and sauces (see note 5).

All of this is to say that this culture of waste not, want not is serving me well here in Cuba.

To be continued….

Notes

1. To this day, none of us can stomach the sight of it. To us, oatmeal is survival gruel.

2. Before you get all PETA on me, let me underscore the premise here: if an animal, any animal – pet, barnyard, or wild – is taking from your children’s mouths, the beast, in my opinion, has got to go (what my buddy Jack calls the “25 cent solution” – apparently this is what bullets cost in his stomping grounds).

3. This last was usually meatless – no lamb, no ground chuck – meaning it was pure eggplant. We dubbed it “moose kaka” a name that stuck.

4. Incidentally, my mom is not only a creative cook, she is also efficient (and somewhat diabolical: every year on Halloween, she’d make us sit down to big bowls of pea soup before we could go trick or treating. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!) When we were young, she used to cook a week’s worth of dinners each weekend and freeze them so she wouldn’t have to come home from several jobs and work some more cooking for us. Monday we’d extract a meatloaf, Tuesday a lasagne and so on. Sometimes however, her system had dramatic, unforeseen results…

I remember when I was 11 (a brutal age for girls then, now, and evermore), I was desperately trying to make friends. Being the poor daughter of a divorcee made me an easy outcast, plus I was generally considered just plain weird, so when someone had the bright idea for me to host a Valentine’s Day party with all my little prospective girl friends, I was game. There was a pretty successful scavenger hunt, plus candies of all sorts of course; all in all, everyone seemed to be having a helluva time. As the afternoon drew to a close, it was time for the party’s highlight: a beautiful heart-shaped chocolate cake made with all the love in the world by my mom during one of her marathon weekend cooking sessions. When Stephanie – the most popular girl in the 5th grade and the prime target of my fledgling attempts at friendship – cut into her cake, out tumbled a chunk of ham. Apparently the offending cube had straggled behind, escaping from being cooked into what would be Friday night’s quiche and slipping into the cake batter instead. That was the end of my attempt at pre-teen popularity; thereafter I was truly weird.

5. We have friends that didn’t grow up like we did, who aren’t down with reviving old food like we do. So when Mom recently hauled out a sack of year-old madeleines from the freezer to invent something, there were gasps. A year old! Frozen that whole time! No matter that the cookies were from Café Baloud. But mom knew better and whipped up that poster child of poor folk dessert: bread pudding. M’hija. That year-old-Baloud-madeleine bread pudding was so delicious even the naysayers couldn’t wait for dinnertime, spooning it up to wash it down with their morning coffee.

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15 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad

15 responses to “Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part 1

  1. Sandra Gorry rocks. That is all.

    xox

  2. jems

    I grew up in Japan where we had “help” until we moved back to The US of F*CKIN A. My mother couldn’t cook ANYTHING. The first time I went into a grocery store I was 14 and completely overwhelmed. We (the whole family) went through the store in about 3 hours coming out with nothing. Later that day my father brought home our first TV and I saw my first commercial for Hamburger Helper. The next day we went back to the grocery and bought 30 lbs of ground beef and thirty boxes of hamburger helper . This was the beginning of my illustrious cooking career. I’m now a chef in New Orleans!

    • Jems, I have no idea who you are, but with this post, you have obliderated any lingering doubts I had about the utility of blogs. HILARIOUS!
      I can imagine your family wandering around the store thinking – 25 different types of toothpaste, 18 brands of TP and what the hell is head cheese anyway?!
      Hamburger Helper?! And I thought my Spam vice was bad….
      By the way, your post is also very timely – just last night I spent some time with a friend who is from Nola and oved back a couple of years ago. This is one city Ive never been to and visiting post Katrina didn’t really appeal (being from NY I know how a city can change – for good and bad post disaster). she changed my mind and your fair city is now back on the to visit list.

  3. Conner, I can totally relate! I grew up on food stamps off and on, but I managed to eat better than most of my friends. My parents figured that home-cooked food was an easy and relatively cheap pleasure and made sure no meal was wasted.

    I never wound up with ham in my cake, but one year the genoise cake my mom made for my birthday did not turn out properly. One guest yelled, “What’s in this cake?! Mozzarella cheese?” The difference, though, was that these guys had crashed my party, and I didn’t really like them anyway…and I was older and already settled into being the weird one.

    That rep settled in early, when I made the mistake of bringing a can of sardines and saltine crackers for lunch. Not popular, to say the least. But I still appreciate those cheap little fishies…and I feel very lucky my parents instilled an appreciation of food (and an urge to cook) in me.

    • You people make my day! Sardines and saltines? You go fishy girl!!

      By the way, loved your foodie photos from mexico (www.rovinggastronome.com) – especially the pollo asado served on a bed of lap and tortillas with pumpkin seeds.
      !Buen provecho!

  4. Alexandra

    Great Writing! I laughed out loud.

    And I am so sorry if I ever offered you oatmeal…

  5. jems

    The great and wunderkind WAM from Can o Whupass pointed me toward your blog, and since Cuba is one place I’ve always wanted to live I read it faithfully. BTW, When you DO decide to trot our way, let us know, and we can fix you up with free eats and treats from all over this city, come during Mardi Gras, and we can double the fun.

    • Sounds great, though “double the fun” with anyone remotely connected to WAM sounds dangerous (and possibly illegal!).

      BTW – I used to work with a hottie born and bred in New Orleans whose mom used to ship a “king cake” up north each year. Tasty stuff.

  6. Glad you like the pics, Conner!

    And definitely go to Nola–wonderful, wonderful city, despite/because of Katrina misery.

  7. Pingback: Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part II « Here is Havana

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