By ANITA SNOW – Associated Press – June 06, 2007
HAVANA (AP) _ 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 than meat.
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 centuries.
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.