If Cuba will soon be a travel destination for Americans, what do we think we know about this neighbor that is so close geographically (93 miles south of Florida) and yet politically so far?
For Ana Sofia Peláez, author of The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), this is a question that has accompanied her through life. A Cuban American raised in Miami, she tasted Cuban food and culture in exile. Her grandparents learned to cook only after their arrival in the United States. It was their way of returning home through the familiar tastes. Yet the hunt for the right ingredients mirrored their search for roots in a new land. Peláez absorbed their quest as she went with her grandfather to the butcher or vegetable market, or watched the couple cook together in their apartment kitchen. After her first visit to Cuba, Peláez discovered what a far cry that kitchen was from the one they had left behind in Havana.
For Ellen Silverman, her photo exhibit of Cuban kitchens fanned an interest that became the collaboration between food and photos for this book. Peláez worked through cooking and Silverman through images to provide a window into daily life in Cuba. For anyone weary of food magazine photography, this book (¡gracias a Cuba!) is the antidote. Food tastes as delicious on mismatched plates as it does on matching ones. America’s craze for urban food trucks is simply the metal-clad version of what provides street food on the island. The forms of two-wheeled transportation are an eye-opener.
Cuba has more than 3,000 miles of coastline. What is the least consumed food on the island? Fish. Peláez will explain but not solve the puzzle. She will also identify the foods that are never in Cuban cooking (not matter how much we keep looking for them). On her two trips to Cuba, she met relatives, friends’ relatives, and strangers who became friends. It all took place mainly in the kitchen. That’s where you learn the secrets.