Tag Archives: lechon asado

A Nochebuena Tradition, Revisited

Tonight is nochebuena.  I would like to share with the readers of cubanewyorker an essay I wrote about my own nochebuena tradition. The Miami Herald published it exactly twenty years ago today. In the years I served as Contributing Editor of the Herald I authored dozens of op-ed essays, most of them analytical and commentary pieces, but few garnered as much attention as this very personal one. For several reasons, also personal, I thought that the essay’s twentieth anniversary was a good time to send it into the blogosphere and share it with many who did not read it two decades ago, and even with some who did. I have added a postscript with updates.

The Tradition of Nochebuena
The Miami Herald, December 24, 1992, p. 11-A

When family and friends ask me what I want for Christmas, I never know what to say. The truth is, every year I give myself what I truly want for Christmas: the privilege of cooking, with all the trimmings, a classic nochebuena (Christmas eve) feast.

I don’t know if there are a lot of Cuban men, especially of my generation (those who arrived here as children) who can do that. But I can, by memory, without any written recipes. It is a skill that I treasure, one that I acquired after a long and cherished apprenticeship.

Cooking the nochebuena dinner allows me to continue a tradition. Every year on the eve of Christmas my children are exposed to the same tastes, sights, and aromas that I experienced as a child.

I appreciated this more after reading a few years ago the reminiscences of José Yglesias, the noted writer, about nochebuena in the Ybor City of his childhood. He moved away from the Tampa neighborhood as a young man but returned one Christmas many years later with his grown children. The smell of the roast pork and the simmering black beans brought back a flood of childhood memories, and he regretted that it was an experience that he had not shared with his children as they were growing up.

But keeping a tradition alive for my children is only one of the reasons why it is important for me to cook the nochebuena feast every year. Another one, perhaps more important, has to do with how I learned to do so.

There are people who believe that their mothers are (or were) the greatest cooks in the world. Those people are wrong. My mother was the world’s greatest cook. That was true during her entire adult life. As one of my aunts once put it, “Nancy was a great cook. Not just now, but always.” What she meant was that my mother was a great cook even in Cuba, where she had someone to cook for her and she didn’t have to go into the kitchen every day. I remember that she would teach the cook how to cook.

And she was a perfectionist. When she had to cook every day here in the United States, she couldn’t bring herself to put just anything on the table, even on the days when she worked a full day outside the house.

Nochebuena was special to her. All the family and relatives would gather at our house in Hialeah, and she cooked for all of them. Because she was such a perfectionist, she usually preferred to handle everything herself.

But eventually that became progressively more difficult. Multiple sclerosis kept her from moving around her kitchen or standing for long periods of time. She started needing help with nochebuena. Since I had always shown an interest in her cooking skills, I was the logical helper. If I had a sister, I might have missed the opportunity.

At that time I did not live in South Florida, but I had to manage to be home for the holidays before December 22, when the nochebuena preparations got started. It’s the day when the beans are soaked, because the recipe calls for them to be cooked on the following day, the day before being served.

She insisted on that particular recipe, Black Beans Valdés-Fauli, a family tradition. Every year she would remind me that, although the recipe bears the name of our distant relatives, it was really developed by her grandfather, an excellent cook and a colonel in the Cuban independence army. Her message, just in case I had reservations about donning an apron, was that manhood and cooking are not contradictory, and that her family has a tradition of great male cooks.

With each passing year, her condition deteriorated and my apprenticeship intensified. At first, I was just handing her things and observing. But on her last nochebuena, it was clear that I had learned well. I did everything, while she had to content herself with merely supervising from her wheelchair, making sure that not a step was missed, no corners cut, nothing forgotten, constantly testing me, reminding me.

“Remember, when marinating the pork, there is no such thing as too much garlic . . . Did you put the tablespoon of sugar in the beans? It’s a critical ingredient . . . If we have 17 people, how many cups of rice? And cups of water? It’s time to open the pressure cooker and surprise the yuca with cold water . . . Remember not to heat the mojo with the juice in it . . . Just before serving pour the hot olive oil and garlic into the cold juice . . . Don’t forget to stand back when you do that.”

This is the tenth nochebuena without my mother. I continue to cook the dinner strictly by memory, following each step exactly as I learned it. It is a ritual. I believe that even if someday I have the misfortune of finding myself alone on Christmas Eve, I would probably still go through the whole thing.

No, I don’t want anything for Christmas. All I want is to cook the nochebuena dinner. I get to keep alive a tradition for my children, and I get to remember my mother.

Who could ask for more?

2012 updates:

I no longer do the yuca. I was never a fan, and it’s the most laborious dish on the menu and the hardest to get just right.

So far, I have not had to spend nochebuena alone, in fact, I’ve been very lucky (and grateful) in terms of companionship.

Moving to New York nearly three years ago but returning to Miami to spend the holidays has disrupted the nochebuena tradition a bit, but I still insist on cooking the meal during the season, even if not always on nochebuena itself.

I have succeeded in passing on to my sons the nochebuena tradition, but only in eating it, not in preparing it. But I harbor the hope and expectation that when my two granddaughters are old enough they will both join me in the kitchen for Christmas and I can pass on my mother’s nochebuena secrets. This posting is dedicated to Gabriela and Paula. 

Feliz Navidad a todos.

With Liza and Paula (left) and Gabriela in Fort Tryon Park, Upper Manhattan, Spring 2012

With Liza, Paula (left) and Gabriela in Fort Tryon Park, Upper Manhattan, Spring 2012

Havana in Williamsburg

Manhattanites have traditionally regarded the “outer boroughs” in the same condescending way habaneros talk about “en provincia, “ or what used to be called in Cuba “el interior,” that is, the rest of the world out there beyond the center of the universe.  It is clear, however, that in recent years Brooklyn (or at least parts of it), has become “cool” enough to escape provincial status and be touted as part of the known New York world.  That much is evident on any given weekend evening as the Brooklyn-bound L train disgorges scores of “hip” young people at the Bedford Avenue stop for an evening in Williamsburg.

Williamsburg has acquired a particular appeal because it is probably the one “cool” place in Brooklyn where you are not in danger of being run over by a stroller. Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and the like have acquired a reputation for “hip young families.” But in Williamsburg the vibe is more like an edgy version of the Meatpacking District scene in Manhattan: young single people out for a good time.

Liza and I went to Williamsburg recently in search of a Cuban restaurant we had seen on a Sunday last summer on our way to the Williamsburg Flea Market. We had forgotten the name of it, but nevertheless managed to locate it on North 6th Street, between Whythe and Kent Avenues, a couple of blocks from the Bedford Avenue station. It has a puzzling name: Cubana Socíal. Hmmm . . . what’s up with that accent on the i? And in what way do cubana and social combine to form a meaningful term? A sociable Cuban female person?  The friendly skies of the Cuban national airline? There must be a story behind the name that I am missing. Or maybe not. Maybe it is simply meant to be evocative in a meaningless way.

The restaurant bills itself as “1940s Havana Meets Brooklyn,” and that is indeed what makes this place intriguing. It’s more about the ambience than the food, although the food is good enough.  The ambience actually does not start at the door of the restaurant, but in the neighborhood itself. The success of the restaurant’s interior design is that it is a continuation of the atmosphere of the neighborhood. There is something peculiarly Havanesque about Williamsburg.

The elements are all there. Williamsburg is an area transitioning from warehouses, factories, and industrial shops to a cool chic based precisely upon the omnipresence, and transformation, of the ruins of the past. There are shuttered and dilapidated spaces everywhere, with some of those spaces converted to restaurants, bars, and stores that are interspersed among, and even integrated with, the ruins. Last month, The New York Times reported that an arts group called The Original Music Workshop is holding avant-garde artistic performances in the open air inside the weathered shell of a former factory. The picture in the Times could have been taken right out of a report from Havana on the city’s culture and arts spaces. Art among the ruins.

A performance designed by the artist Erika Harrsch, with butterfly-shaped kites, was among the acts at Original Music Workshop in Williamsburg. Photo by Marcus Yam for The New York Times.

As with Havana, the Williamsburg that straddles Bedford Avenue retains (so far) the ambience and decayed structures of its past.  Retaining that past gives the place an unmistakable grittiness, a pervasive unkemptness that has been lost in the now impeccable neighborhoods that have completed the transition to gentrification. There are the broken and patchy (even dangerous) sidewalks, the boarded-up factories and shops, the peeling paint, and the vacant lots overgrown with weeds. And another thing: the quality of the light. In a factory and warehouse district where everyone went home at night, there was a minimal investment  in street lighting (as has happened in Havana, where the urban infrastructure has not been a priority). Liza noticed it first: Williamsburg at night has a dimness evocative of Havana.

The folks at Cubana Socíal have very successfully played off that neighborhood vibe. It’s not really 1940’s Havana meets Brooklyn, but more like the ruins of 1940’s (and 1910s, 1920’s and 1930’s) Havana meets Brooklyn. The space is cavernous, probably a former auto repair or body shop or perhaps a factory, with a very high ceiling, square brick columns throughout, and cement floor. Not much has been done to transform it into a restaurant, except for a magnificent bar and an art deco front with a weathered industrial look to give the appearance that it has always been there (or in Havana). Compared to the bar, contemporary in its style, the tables and chairs (some of them rickety or foldable) seem to be almost an afterthought, a mishmash of styles cobbled together from the nearby flea market. But it is actually part of an evidently conscious effort to emulate the grittiness of old Havana, a paladar set in a space that used to be something else, complete with peeling paint.

The art deco style is replicated on the walls by several prints by Conrado Massaguer (1889-1965), no doubt reproduced from illustrations of his fiercely art deco magazine Social (no accent). [Massaguer, who lived in New York for part of his life, deserves a separate future post in CNY].

There is another way Cubana Socíal tries to evoke Havana: the attempt at creating a surreal ambience [I wonder if it is really true, as legend holds, that Sartre, as he was leaving Cuba after his only visit there in 1960, with Simone de Beauvoir at his side and his coat draped over his shoulders, said: “One could not live here, it is too surreal.”]

Cubana Socíal has a whiff of Cuban surrealism. The space is so huge that there are large empty spaces without tables, a strange expansiveness rare among space-starved New York restaurants. On a huge wall the restaurant continually shows black and white American movies, with no sound and for no evident reason nor connection with the Cuban theme.

When we were there they were showing a noir movie, with vaguely familiar but unnamable actors, apparently about a returning soldier with an overacted case of post-traumatic stress disorder acquired after being imprisoned in a camp run by sadistic Asian soldiers in Mao suits. Who knows . . . maybe the Cold War connection. All of this while El Benny can be heard singing Maracaibo Oriental. What would Sartre say?

Oh yes . . . the food. Reflecting the investment in the bar and not the dining area, Cubana Socíal’s drink menu is about as large as the food menu. There are several varieties of rum concoctions, but also a lot of other choices (a good thing, since I must confess here and now that, as is true of most Cubans when given a choice, I’ll take whiskey over rum any day). The main food offerings are few and simple, one dish per protein source: lechón asado, ropa vieja, shrimp and rice, some sort of chicken, and a vegetarian option, most served with white rice and black beans. There are appetizers and sides and sandwiches. Liza ordered the ropa vieja and I went for the lechón, which was curiously served not in chunks, but shredded, like vaca frita. We ordered, of course, a side of maduros.

The servings are also kept simple. Unlike most Cuban restaurants, where the huge quantities of food come in separate plates, everything came in one overflowing plate in the style of Chinese combination dinners or the old “blue-plate specials.”  The servings are on the modest side, but so are the prices. The food was good and authentic and the deal breaker (for me) was there: well-done maduros, amelcochados. Liza and I shared a flan, which was rich and caramel-y.

So, yes, grab the L and go out there. Take in the food and, especially, the ambience, which kicks in as soon as you exit the station. It’s an ambience that is changing, no doubt faster than in Havana.

Cubana Socíal
70 North 6th Street
(between Whythe and Kent Avenues)
Brooklyn, NY 
(718) 782-3334