When Revolution Came to the Kitchens of Cuba
How a beloved television cook’s spin on classic Cuban cuisine taught a
generation of viewers to thrive amid deprivation
SUZANNE COPE AUG 11, 2016 GLOBAL
By 1991 the Cuban economy was in tatters. Its primary trading partner,
the Soviet Union, had dissolved, cutting imports by 80 percent. Tractors
were abandoned in the fields, cars stalled along the roads. And most
markets were bare: The average number of calories available, per capita,
dropped by more than a third; the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds.
While there had been shortages in the decades prior, none had been so dire.
To help them cope during the years of deprivation that came to be known
as the Special Period, many of those Cubans who could turned to
television—specifically, to Cocina al Minuto, a wildly popular,
four-decade-old cooking program. In one fondly remembered episode, the
show’s host, Nitza Villapol, taught viewers how to prepare one of her
least appetizing recipes, ropa vieja, a traditional dish of shredded
beef and vegetables, but with a twist: Villapol instructed viewers to
substitute plantain peels for beef, which had become scarce and expensive.
The no-nonsense Villapol worked in a shabby kitchen, dutifully
explaining to viewers the nutritional value of the plantain peel while
demonstrating how to chop and spice it heavily—just like the classic
version of the dish. Notably, she limited her ingredient lists to what
Cubans could buy that day from the local market, in order to show a
hungry nation how to cook, deprivation be damned.
Today, long after the end of the Special Period—which arguably did not
end until 2004, when Cuba’s economic indicators returned to pre-1989
levels—and nearly two decades after Villapol’s death, her influence
continues to reverberate within Cuba and beyond. Many Cubans who fled
the country regard her writing as their Bible for traditional Cuban
cooking; many who stayed behind through the worst of the food insecurity
revere her. And lately, Villapol has been the subject of resurgent
interest among Cubans and Cubaphiles, thanks in part to the sudden spike
in American enthusiasm for visiting Cuba since the easing of travel
restrictions between the countries. Given that the Special Period, in
particular, affected all aspects of Cuba’s food chain—from what crops
farmers grew, to how fishers integrated modern conservation practices
into their trade—Villapol’s beloved show and cookbooks helped shape the
food, and, through it, the culture, of an entire country at a time of
Born in New York City in 1923 to Cuban parents, Nitza Villapol moved to
Havana as a nine-year-old. After studying nutrition and education in
Cuba, in 1949, she auditioned for the role of television host on a whim,
not long after national broadcast television first came to the island.
Weeks later, she became the host of a cooking show she would name Cocina
al Minuto—“Cooking in Minutes.” On the program, she taught viewers how
to prepare classic Cuban dishes like the Christmas-time special guanajo
relleno, (a turkey marinated in garlic, citrus, and spices) and shrimp
enchiladas (or shrimp in tomato sauce). Those years of plenty, before
the Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, produced
some of Villapol’s “happiest memories,” according to Angela Giron, a
professor at Arizona State University and author of the upcoming play
Nitza – A Cuban Flavor.
Traditionally, Cuban food is meat-heavy; most Cuban markets in those
days carried a relatively small variety of produce, much of which came
from the United States and elsewhere. Villapol showed viewers and
readers to use healthier ingredients like hake in fish dishes such as
escabeche, and encouraged the use of more and varied produce, as
evidenced in her vegetable-heavy recipes for soups and stews. But all
that changed with the beginning of the Castro regime and the start of
the U.S. embargo.
Villapol assumed the mantle of revolutionary chef, updating her
cookbooks to reflect her embrace of Castro’s politics.
Following the revolution, Villapol was one of the few television hosts
to retain her position in the new government-owned television station,
after many were replaced by Castro loyalists. The embargo created a void
of the American-produced ingredients that had once flooded the markets.
The economic turmoil that followed the regime change further limited
what the country could afford to import, creating shortages, even after
the Soviet Union became the country’s main trading partner.
Much of Castro’s government rhetoric focused on providing ample food for
all Cubans—“Everyone eats the same,” as one revolutionary adage put it.
Instead, what happened was that “ingredients began to disappear,” as
Villapol said in the 1983 documentary Con Pura Magia. So she evolved, as
Cuban author Antonio Jose Ponte recalled in a speech he delivered in
2015, making sofrito with water rather than fat and picadillo with
cornmeal instead of meat. Ponte also noted that she persuaded Cubans to
raise tilapia through aquaculture, for both its health and economic
benefits. “Three-quarters of Nitza Villapol’s professional career was
spent in a wasteland,” he said. “She was austere, but also imaginative.”
Villapol also assumed the mantle of revolutionary chef. Following the
revolution, she updated her cookbooks to reflect her embrace of Castro’s
politics. Despite her political disengagement prior to the
revolution—and her ability, as a natural-born U.S. citizen, to leave
Cuba—she grew to “disdain all the Cubans who left … following the
revolution,” Giron said.
She was not without her critics. As the anthropologist Hanna Garth
wrote, after Villapol began changing her recipes and approach to Cuban
cooking, some in post-revolutionary Cuba turned against her for
supposedly watering down traditional recipes. Others considered her a
lackey for the increasingly unpopular Communist government, viewing her
program as promoting acceptance of deprivation—and, by extension,
Castro’s policies—rather than using her considerable influence to
By 1989, Villapol, then in her late 60s, had been hosting Cocina al
Minuto for 40 years, and was perhaps Cuba’s second-most recognized woman
(after Castro’s wife). Giron said that Cubans perceived her “as a
constant in their lives.” During the Special Period, in particular, her
role was to teach Cubans to be innovative with their food in the face of
hunger, desperation, and disempowerment. While she taught viewers to
make traditional dishes with the available ingredients, her most
important contribution was her introduction of “arte de inventar,” or
art of invention, as Garth wrote. Villapol taught Cubans to improvise.
In 1993, the Castro government abruptly took Cocina al Minuto off the
air. No one I spoke to seemed to know why. Tom Miller, author of Trading
With The Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba, believes it was
because of the economic cutbacks of the time. “Everything, and I mean
everything, was drastically reduced or eliminated in 1993 and 1994.”
These were “the worst years of the Periodo Especial . . . [when]
[s]treet lights, food products, clothing, electricity, pumps, petrol,
transportation, newsprint, everything was down and out.” (José Luis
Santana, then president of the Cuban Culinary Federation, later
reportedly admitted the cancellation was a mistake.) By the mid-1990s,
Villapol was overwhelmed in any case, consumed by taking care of her
aging mother. She died in 1998.
But Villapol’s influence remains visible in the growing number of urban
gardens and farms in neighborhoods around Havana and beyond. Such
gardens were started to meet the need for fresh produce in cities during
the Special Period, when more urban areas were often the last to receive
the limited fruits and vegetables being grown in Cuba’s more
agricultural interior. Farms like Vivero Alamar, started in 1997 in
Havana province, are now part of the local food-cultivation system—a
system that by 2006 supplied up to 90 percent of the produce consumed in
the city. Much of the food grown on these farms hadn’t typically been
available prior to the Cuban Revolution. It was Villapol who helped
introduce it to Cuban kitchens.
Kate Daley, a longtime tour guide and cook based in Santiago, Cuba, has
observed an ever-growing variety of vegetables available in the
country’s markets. People continue to use Villapol’s lessons on making
more nutritious food using locally grown and seasonal produce, she said.
“This would be the legacy of Nitza Villapol: that, little by little,
people get the message that good-tasting food doesn’t mean a huge piece
of roasted pork. It can mean green-leaf vegetables, well-prepared root
veggies, and, above all, interesting flavors and colors that appeal to
the eyes and nose as well as the stomach.”
Today, Cubans still face shortages of many necessities. Culinary staples
like milk can be prohibitively expensive or hard to find. But on most
days, local produce markets are bountiful. And thanks in part to
Villapol, their spoils have become part of the modern Cuban cuisine.
Most Cubans have found a tentative food security, albeit one that looks
very different than the culinary landscape of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
With relations between Washington and Havana continuing to thaw, the
cost and availability of food and other goods will only continue to
evolve—hopefully, for the better.
In his speech, Ponte recounted a (perhaps apocryphal) episode in which
Fidel Castro supposedly gave a lobster recipe to a foreign interviewer.
Castro’s remark was “nothing culinary,” Ponte said. “Because it’s not
about lobster in its sauce, but rather about power in its sauce,
thickening. … The power to cook lobster while the masses are forced to
substitute and make do with garbage.” Nitza Villapol, for her part,
found a kind of power in making do—the power to help people feed
themselves and their families, to think for themselves, to innovate, in
the kitchen and beyond.
Source: The Revolutionary Chef of Havana – The Atlantic –