When I asked my grandmother who’d taught her how to cook, her answer was always “el exilio”. Married in the 40’s and raising children in early 50’s Havana, she was very much a part of a generation that believed every modern convenience was invented to limit their time in the kitchen – a movement that if she hadn’t followed, she would have invented. Then like many women emigrating to Miami and starting over in a new country with less help and fewer resources to feed their families, the one guide they all shared was Nitza Villapol’s Cocina Criolla.
Known as the Cuban Julia Child (if those two things aren’t in fact mutually exclusive), her book became the center of every cuban kitchen in exile, providing a way for them to see their family’s through a difficult transition and begin recreating what they’d left behind. A controversial figure, whenever I have a basic question about Cuban cooking the first suggestion is always to check el libro de Nitza. Reading through it now, I find all kinds of idiosyncrasies. Cubans are unrepentant Francophiles so while they’re french terms sprinkled throughout, there’s an entire section that puts “pie” in quotes and names ingredients by their American brand names. Only available in a slight, paperback edition that looks dog-eared even when it’s new, it’s a popular gift even now for Cuban women who are either getting married or leaving home, whichever comes first. My own copy found me when I was helping to pack my grandmother’s belongings after she’d passed. I was shocked. First, that she owned a cookbook and second that it had clearly been used. Read more