Saturday, June 18, 2016

Nitza Villapol - The Woman Who Taught Cubans To Cook With Just About

Nitza Villapol: The Woman Who Taught Cubans To Cook With Just About Anything
By EDITOR • JUN 16, 2016

They call her Cuba's Julia Child.

You may not have heard of Nitza Villapol, but for millions of Cubans
both on the island and abroad, her recipes offer an abiding taste of
home. In many Cuban-American homes, dog-eared, decades-old copies of her
cookbooks are considered family treasures.

Villapol rose to prominence as a national cooking authority in the
summer of 1948 (though some sources put it at 1951), when she began
hosting one of the first cooking shows of the modern television era,
Cocina al Minuto, teaching viewers how to cook mostly classic Cuban
recipes — like picadillo, vaca frita and arroz con pollo.

Even after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Villapol remained on air.
She would continue to be a steadfast TV presence into the 1990s — her
recipes and cookbooks changing to reflect the realities, and scarcities,
of life under the revolution.

"The first thing I think about is, 'What does the Cuban homemaker have
and what can be done with it?' " Villapol told an interviewer in 1991.
"We're not starving here."

Her first book, Cocina Criollo, was published soon after her show went
on the air. She followed up in 1950 with Cocina al Minuto, named after
her popular TV show, which became an instant best-seller. Both books
came out at a time when America was a primary trading partner. And so,
early recipes called for a variety of both Cuban and American
ingredients — the latter were often easily available, sent via daily
cargo ships from the U.S. in exchange for keeping much of Cuba's
farmland dedicated to sugar cane.

And while many in Cuba had very little — including those whom Castro
courted as he rallied support in the late 1950s — most Cubans of the era
could afford to provide what Villapol cited in Cocina al Minuto as the
basic format of a meal: "appetizer, plate of protein, plate of starches,
veggies, raw or cooked, bread and butter, dessert, coffee."

For many Cubans, Villapol's cookbooks became the sacred texts of
traditional Cuban cuisine — though they also offered guidance on making
fashionable foreign dishes of the era, like spaghetti and "Lobster
Newburg," an American seafood dish made with butter, egg yolks, cream
and sherry.

Within a few years of their publication, however, there came vast
political and economic change, as Castro rose to power. Many of those
who opposed his government — and had the means to — left the country.
Next to the family photos in their sparse luggage, they tucked in copies
of Villapol's cookbooks.

For those who left Cuba — many bound for the United States — beef and
seafood-heavy dishes like vaca frita and camarones enchilados were the
tastes of home. These recipes, as well as others that featured
ingredients not native to the island, like mushrooms and flour, were
abundant in the first edition of Cocina al Minuto and easy to re-create
in their new homes. However, those who remained in Cuba were faced with
a more dire reality.

"Certain ingredients began to disappear," Villapol recalled in Con Pura
Magia Satisfechos, a short documentary filmed in the early 1980s. "Some
disappeared all of a sudden, others disappeared little by little. The
first notable thing to go was butter, fats." Staples like pork, bread
and milk were often scarce or expensive, making it difficult to prepare
some traditional dishes.

So, Villapol got creative. On her show, she began to cook with what was
available that morning in the market, with the help of her longtime
assistant Margot Bacallao, teaching Cubans how to make do without
certain ingredients while instructing them on how to use once-eschewed
produce and cuts of meat in new ways.

And to reflect the reality of life amid chronic shortages, she
continuously revised Cocina al Minuto. She simplified recipes that
called for foods that were expensive or hard to find and deleted large
sections of chapters, such as many of the flour-based cakes and pastries
in the 70-plus-page dessert section. She erased the "Sandwiches and
Snacks" chapter altogether, cutting the line: "Sometimes we have a piece
of meat or fish or other food and one or two days pass in the
refrigerator without eating it; after it is dry and old, and we just
throw it out." There was little wasted food in post-revolutionary Cuba.

These were replaced by recipes that taught Cubans how to use root
vegetables in desserts (sugar was one ingredient still readily
available) and encouraged them to cook a wider variety of native produce
that was becoming more available, as farmers began growing
long-neglected foods, like cassava, in greater quantities. Other classic
recipes were simplified to include cheaper cuts of meat and less oil and
butter, both of which were rationed.

Gone, too, were references to brand names and even some English food
words. A note in one revised edition says, "The vocabulary word 'pie'
(pronounced pai) is an English word and it translates like pastel. It is
used in Cuba to describe a class of pastry that was popular during the
years of 'pseudorepublic' influenced by North America. It is not
accepted in our language and if it is used, it is only so our readers
can identify the type of pastry to which we are referring."

Newer editions of the cookbook also included veiled signs of solidarity
with the communist state — for instance, by arguing that congri, or rice
and beans, which had previously been considered peasant food, was a
cornerstone of Cuban culture. And updated nutrition information urged
Cubans to consume less meat and fat and more carbohydrates and vegetables.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, food security in Cuba became
even more dire, and Villapol took her lessons of improvisation to new
levels. In one oft-cited episode of Cocina al Minuto, she even taught
viewers how to use plantain peels in place of meat. She is fondly
remembered as inspiring Cubans to culinary inventiveness in the face of
scarcity. As Sisi Colomina, one of the stewards of Villapol's estate,
told me, "she was very conscious of teaching through her work, and
always prioritized it."

Villapol went off the air in 1993 — after 4 1/2 decades of cooking in
front of the camera. She died in 1998. Even today, her cookbooks are
considered to be the standard-bearers of Cuban cuisine.

Cuban-American chef Ricardo Barreras, owner of the Brooklyn-based
restaurant Pilar, told me Cocina al Minuto was the first cookbook he
ever cooked from — his grandparents carried it with them to the United
States at the dawn of the Cuban Revolution. He remarked, "Any Cuban chef
who doesn't have her book is not thinking seriously about being a Cuban

But Villapol's legacy is so much more than a collection of recipes, says
Hanna Garth, an anthropologist at the University of California, San
Diego who has studied Cuban food culture: "Cuban household cooks tell me
Nitza Villapol inspired them to be bold in their cooking, to invent
variations on traditional dishes, given the changes in food availability."

Villapol not only taught her fellow Cubans to cook — she also taught
them to reinvent themselves in the most dire of circumstances.

Source: Nitza Villapol: The Woman Who Taught Cubans To Cook With Just
About Anything | WLRN -

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