Nostalgia, for a homeland long departed, lies at the core of the Cuban diaspora’s quest for cultural identity. Dishing out memories at the kitchen table is one way that the legacy is passed on. Written for Financial Mail Travel Magazine, May 2017
The Havana We Left
Her father has told her about the vegetable vendors that line the street corners, how the cobblestones, buffed smooth with wear, buzz underfoot with the vibrancy and clamour of tourists. He has described the overflowing baskets of volcano-red chilli peppers that shine like rubies in the sunlight, how he, still a young child, can not resist touching one, in spite of his mother’s, her abuela’s admonitions. This is the Havana he recalls fondly, the one he left for Miami at the collapse of the Batista regime at age seven. The markets I see in Havana are dreary, the produce bedraggled, earth crusting the foot-long yuca (cassava), flies circling the plantains, chilli peppers that are yellowing, shrivelled. The state-run stores (there is no other kind) in Calle Obispo, the main drag in Old Havana are sparse and filled with Chinese imports. The once-lavish high-rise hotels and their famous bars built with American investors’ and mafia money in the 40s and 50s wear the neglect on their exteriors; state-run, the staff in starched whites are surly, terse. Lime juice for mojitos is poured from a Tetra Pak.
Havana’s are the tales that she, almost thirty-years-old now, a chef in Boston who grew up with these immigrant stories in their Miami family home, recounts. They have fused with her identity as a Cuban-American, with her recollection of Comidas criollas, the Creole childhood meals eaten in her mother’s kitchen, of the Spanish language spoken with a Cuban accent. She’s learned that her mother, who left Varadero with its fluffy white-sand beaches, prefers the black…