En Saveur: My Search for Nitza:
“You will need to cook for yourself now,” my mother said, standing in our yellow-tiled kitchen in 1988. I was moving away to college and she wanted to make sure I could take the Cuban dishes of my Miami childhood with me: a lavishly spiced ground beef dish called picadillo, and comforting fricassé de pollo, tender braised chicken in a tomato sauce dotted with olives, capers, and raisins. She handed me Cocina Criolla, the bible of Cuban cooking, written more than 60 years ago by Nitza Villapol, the island’s most influential culinary figure.
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It was during this time that I first traveled to Cuba to meet my extended family, a few years after I’d received that fateful cookbook from my mother, years before I would learn Nitza’s story. I traveled to the outskirts of Havana to visit my grandmother’s sister, Tia Mamita. A wisp of a woman, she hugged me tightly, her embrace erasing years and distance and even the fact that we’d never met before. The sun was unforgiving, and I remember the tall glass of cold water she offered, which I guzzled gratefully. I left my aunt’s home thinking how nice it was to meet her and how small she looked in comparison with my grandmother, who lived in the United States.
This was at the tail end of Nitza’s career. She was running out of ingredients for her show, focusing instead on fashion and gardening. It was a tragic turn for the Castro supporter who had dedicated herself to the idea that even in the most dire moments, a plate of food could preserve dignity. Her show went off the air in 1993, and the last episodes were difficult to watch. The kitchen, like Cuba itself, was neglected. Its famous host wore a sagging housedress and her eyes were filled with defeat. A few years later, at age 74, Nitza died of heart failure.
Shortly thereafter, I returned to Cuba, stopping at Tia Mamita’s home to drop off a package. “You must come in and stay for a while,” she said. I had plans that day to see friends, but she insisted. “You must come in and eat something. The last time you were here all I could offer you was a glass of water. I had nothing in my refrigerator that day, and I was terribly embarrassed.” Her eyes welled. “So when you left, I went out and bought a can of peaches.” She showed me a plain tin with no label. “I have been saving it in case you would one day return. I don’t have much in my refrigerator today, but my child, these peaches are yours.”
I thought about my friend waiting for me outside with his motorcycle still running, and I hesitated. But when I looked into my aunt’s brown eyes, I understood the sentiment: the consummate Cuban custom of bestowing generosity on a visitor, whether family, friend, or stranger, driven by the notion that hospitality is our ultimate measure of grace. It is the grace that Nitza knew to be present in a plate of food, whether made in times of ease or struggle. The same grace tucked into the pages of the precious cookbook my mother would give me just a few years later. I turned and yelled out at my friend. “Park the bike! We’re going to eat some peaches.”