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— Mirta Ojito, author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus
"Readers looking for standards like tostones and cubanos will be satisfied and then enchanted by unique recipes that could only come from Carballo's experiences."
— New York Post
"Havana Salsa is food-as-memoir set at a diverse and often eccentric table....[Carballo's] Cuba will never be filled with decaying buildings, rationed supplies and difficult goodbyes. All she has to do is go into the kitchen, and the vibrant pulse of her homeland is revived in a whiff of ripe mango [and] the sizzle of calabaza fritters on the stove."
— The Orlando Sentinel
"A delicious combination of tales about [Carballo's] quirky family and recipes for dishes that are seared into her memory."
— The Miami Herald
Let me make clear that this book is neither a dance manual nor a Cuban cookbook per se. And if you are looking for new dance steps or an old black bean recipe you won't find them here. What you will discover is a remembrance of the Havana that was and the food we ate before the Castro catastrophe. Havana Salsa is a group of connected stories, all absolutely true, at least 98 percent of the time. With some name changes and to the best of my recollection. The remaining 2 percent consists of a pinch of fantasy and a dash of sentimentality. Much like life itself.
This book has been rattling in my head since Mrs. Prieto, my first-grade teacher at Ruston Academy in Havana, told me I had either a very vivid imagination or a very remarkable family and that, in either case, I should someday write about it.
As time passed things all around me got even more "interesting" and as I retold the stories they seemed harder and harder to believe. But the truth is that my reality was magical in itself; the Havana of the forties and fifties, with its corruption, turbulent politics, delicious decadence, and my eccentric family, is indeed, the stuff of myths.
Born in 1939, I grew up in the Cuba of the forties, when magical realism was first being defined. We may not have recognized the concept in our daily lives, but we were living it — the fusion of the real and the fantastic. A Catholic country famous for its decadence, our Cuba was shaped by opposing perspectives — one rational, the other supernatural. With the continual social and political upheaval, the endless struggle for a political ideal, and the reality of a revolution, the extraordinary was taking place in our lives every day.
The Cuba I knew in pre-Castro days has disappeared, a place in time and space that will never be again.
Cuba now is filled with sadness, crumbling buildings, an agriculture in ruins, an economy in shambles. Long gone are the days filled with music and laughter, the closeness of family now obliterated by a diaspora that started in the early sixties and continues to this day. The sense of humor, the very lust for life that defined the Cuban character, has given way to emotional depletion and a life of extraordinary hardship. Cuba has become a third-world country with little available food, power outages, and water stoppages every day. This is not the Cuba I knew.
Wanting to pass on the mythical quality of my country and that of those around me, I decided to write down my own Cuban history.
At every family gathering, inevitably centered around food, my U.S.-born nephews and nieces ask me to tell them stories of the Cuba I lived in. They know the historical facts as taught in school; they know the politics from reading the papers; they know the traditional food trapped in the fifties' nostalgia of the popular Cuban restaurants in Miami, but the smells, the tastes, the sounds, the soul, the physical feel of the country — that Cuba — they only know through my generation's memories.
Essentially this book is a collection of those stories about my family, a rather eccentric group who conducted their lives against the extraordinary backdrop of Havana. This is a snapshot of who we were and the way we ate with the people we loved. And since there is no bigger cultural trigger than food, the book is set up as a series of vignettes showcasing the food and recipes I associate with each family memory, beginning with my childhood in the forties through the sensual fifties and then the first eighteen months of the Revolution. Havana Salsa tells the history of Havana, my Havana, through the sortilege of its food and the mirror of my family.
When my parents met in the late thirties, they were both married to others, but the difficulties they had to overcome to be together only intensified their passion. I was born in 1939, almost a year before they married each other.
Cuba was just emerging from the economic crisis of the Depression and the bloody regime of Gerardo Machado. Student revolts, strikes, and protests led, in 1933, to a military coup headed by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, who became the de facto ruler through a number of presidents who served in name only. But it was a time of renewed possibility, with newly enacted social measures: a minimum wage, eight-hour workday, women's right to vote. Batista was legally elected and served as president from 1940 to 1944. In 1948 he was elected senator, only to organize another bloodless coup, this time against President Carlos Prío Socarrás in 1952, an event that in part led to the Castro revolution.
My father, Carlos Carballo, a.k.a. el Professor Carbell, was an astrologer with a certain notoriety as adivino, healer, psychic, and medium, who claimed he could diagnose health problems by reading auras. Whatever it was he did (or perhaps because of his clients' need to believe), he was very successful. He wrote for magazines and newspapers and had a flourishing private practice, a rich source of eccentric characters in itself. My father was a man of many friends and passions, and one of these was food.
Mami too liked exotic foods but she was more of a meat and potatoes kind of cook, which for her meant a rare filet mignon and fried green plantains for breakfast. She couldn't be bothered with the everyday running of the kitchen and relied on Dulce, our cook, for the daily chore of feeding the family. Yet she had a repertoire of unusual (for the forties) dishes she was always happy to prepare for special occasions — a Mexican pozole, white gazpacho, and magnificent zabaglione to spoon over a citrus sponge cake, a family favorite.
Our family extended not just to my schizophrenic Aunt Berta, my deaf Uncle Octavio, and my senile but gloriously beautiful grandmother Doña Monona, but also to Tía Patria, the aunt who indulged everyone. The family included my half brothers, my mother's ex-husband, and even his wife and daughters. In addition, there were the family members connected by heart: Pupen, my godmother, Kiki, Pastorita, Ramón, Don Juan and his dog, and many more, all unique in their own way.
Dulce, our cook, was a follower of Santería, a religion that combines Catholic saints and African deities and was first practiced by the African slaves in Cuba. While Dulce let me watch her cook, she would recount the legends of all the deities of Santería, teaching me about their favorite foods and how to stay in their good graces.
Kiki, a gay former aerialist with a country carnival, was my father's general factotum, my mother's confidant and hair colorist. Kiki ironed the fine linens, mended our clothes, sewed on buttons, hemmed my dresses, came early every morning to make the first café con leche of the day, and on occasion made chocolate and churros exclusively for me.
Our landlady, Pastorita, was retired from the oldest profession and lived in total seclusion in the downstairs of the once great house we rented. She took it upon herself to teach me how to make the proper cafecito and how to light a cigar. Ramón, the numbers runner, came every Saturday morning to take my father's bets and bring us fresh pastelitos from the neighborhood bakery. Don Juan, el carpintero, who lived in one of Havana's shantytowns, and his dog Joselito were frequent visitors. For Don Juan and Joselito, my dad would drop whatever he was doing to go buy fritas, the chorizo and ground beef Cuban answer to the hamburger.
Outside of my home, Havana was an enchanted and enchanting city. Remarkably beautiful, green, luscious, scented, built around a protected bay, its urban rectilinear plan became the blueprint for other colonial cities of the Americas. Squares, fortresses, plazas, promenades, wharves, churches, great houses, palaces, monumental buildings, and miles and miles of columned arcades showed a diversity of styles: Renaissance, Mudéjar Baroque, Neoclassic, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Cuban Baroque, and innovative twentieth-century construction. The city was magical and its beauty had a heady effect on me. I left briefly to attend Catholic boarding school in the States "to perfect my English and learn some discipline," but I never forgot the city of my heart.
Back in Havana in 1956, for my seventeenth birthday, I surrendered myself to the pervading sensuality of the city and its warmth and rhythm, colors, sounds, smells, and tastes — the indolence that infused our lives. One could physically feel the vibrancy of the city, the frisson of danger. In the fifties, even at the height of government corruption, or perhaps because of it, Havana was a nonstop party.
Food and music were at the center of the culture influencing who we were and how we lived. It is hard to believe now, but even as teenagers we frequented the best restaurants and nightclubs. One of our favorites was the improbable Tropicana with its crystal arches and chorus girls who danced on the catwalks among the trees. At all of the clubs, we danced to the music of every great orchestra that played in Havana — Sonora Matancera, Beny Moré, Fajardo y Sus Estrellas, and any number of others.
But by the late fifties, the political reality of the country loomed over our lives. Fidel Castro had been in the Sierra Maestra since the mid-fifties waging a guerilla war against the Batista government, and by 1957 the revolution had been brought to Havana. Small bombs were being planted in stores, movie houses, and cafés. While they didn't cause major damage, they did cause some injuries and widespread fear. I narrowly escaped two bombings myself.
In the middle of this political turmoil I met Roberto. We dated for about three months, became engaged, and promptly married in December 1958. I was nineteen, he twenty-eight. We had been caught up in the ever-increasing urgency of a society out of control.
In the early morning hours of January 1, 1959, we awoke to the news that Batista had fled the country, providing the de facto triumph of the Revolution. At first we were elated, hoping for a better life out from under Batista's corrupt regime. But soon our joy turned to desperation as new restrictions were put into place hour by hour. Civil liberties were curtailed. All our illusions for a return to democracy were shattered. The slogan of "¿elecciones? ¿para qué?" became the new cri de guerre. Fundamental Law was established and in the immediate revolutionary fervor many suspected of being against Fidel or the Revolution were summarily executed.
A few months later the U.S. embargo went into effect and food shortages increased. Out of necessity, my cooking became frugal, limited to the few ingredients available. My father was arrested on trumped up counter revolutionary charges and sentenced to an indefinite number of years in prison. I never saw him again. He died in an psychiatric hospital two years after I left Cuba.
In April 1961, a few days after the Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel declared Cuba a Communist country. It became clear I had to leave. My husband, Roberto, had no choice but to stay behind. His position as assistant professor at the University of Havana was considered essential to the Revolution and he was not allowed to leave the country.
After much anxiety, many tears, and hurried good-byes, I arrived at the Miami airport on May 20, 1961, with the clothes on my back and no idea when I would ever see my country, my husband, family, or friends again.
It's been over forty years, three-quarters of my life, since I left Havana, but Havana has stayed with me. I have traveled extensively through several continents and earned the Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and a bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from Fordham University in New York. I also studied regional cuisine in Spain. Certainly these experiences have enriched my life and influenced my cooking, but what defines me as a person are my experiences in Cuba — my family and friends, the "characters" of my childhood, the food and music, the sensual memories of an extraordinary city. These are those stories.
Copyright © 2006 by Viviana Carballo