Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home by Eduardo Machado

Book: Hardcover | 9.25 x 6.25in | 368 pages | ISBN 9781592403219 | 18 Oct 2007 | Gotham Books | Adult

Eduardo Machado was only 8 years old when his upper - middle class Cuban life came to an abrupt halt. Castro and the revolution of 1959 overthrew the then Prime Minister Batista and proceeded to nationalize educational institutions, hospitals, privately-owned businesses and even private land. As a result many Cubans, especially the ones that possessed money were forced to run away to the US. Eduardo and his 5-year old brother were airlifted to the US as part of Operation Peter Pan and they were followed by their parents about a year later. (at that time the US was sympathetic to the plight of the Cubans and many were able to start new lives in Miami and Los Angeles without too much of a problem).

So in that sense, Machado's memoir "Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home" again is a fairly architypical immigrant story but with one difference....Machado traces his family's journey from Cuba to the States and their induction into life in the US through food. In the book's early chapters you get descriptions of the traditional Cuban meals cooked in this grandparents' homes...there are recipes for the Cuban staple, black beans, Moros y Cristianos,(pg 42) Yuca with lime mojo and the famous Cuban Pork Roast.

In their first months in the US as exiles, his mother is unable to find Cuban foods like chorizo, yuca, plantains, fresh pineapple, black beans etc, so she learns to improvise with American processed foods, creating dishes like "Garbanzos with SPAM "Chorizo"(army ration SPAM) and Velveeta grilled sandwiches.

Soon however, they were curious enough to try Mexican food which was available in plenty throughout Los Angeles and soon the mom was making Cuban Enchiladas with Mexican corn tortillas. But ofcourse, like almost all immigrant families, American food culture soon permeated the Machado household and his mom was baking Southern Pecan pies and flans which I suppose signaled that the Machados were now firmly Cuban-Americans and no longer just Cubans.

Although this is not a recipe book, it is the wonderful recipes and descriptions of Cuban food that carry the book along. The memoir itself although interesting and moving sometimes tends to run into long,rambling passages, something I am not fan of. For me, the author's childhood reminisces, the food and his first return visit to Cuba made for enjoyable reading, the rest I will confess I found quite boring.

One notable fact I took away from this book is how unforgiving Cuban exiles can be when fellow exiles that sing the praises of the homeland.

Some recipes from "Tastes Like Cuba" that I hunted down on the internet.

Gladys' Garlic Chicken

( Gladys was someone Machado met on one of his visits to Cuba. She was running a paladar in a formerly exclusive section of Havana. Machado was enthralled by her cooking and intrigued by her situation...she was managing a business in a house where she used to work for members of the pre-Castro social elite)

Bistec Empanizado (Breaded Steak)

VACA FRITA (Pan-Fried Flank Steak With Onions and Mojo Sauce)

While we're on the subject of recipes there is another recipe book that came to my notice and all because of its rather quirky title, "The Axis of Evil Cookbook" by Gill Partington with recipes collected from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria and Cuba.

Saddam Hussein she notes loved eating gazelles that were reared for him on a diet of cardamom and Kim Jong-il insists on importing delicacies from all around the world while his people are eating rice with bootlaces (no, there is no recipe for that)


Koresht fesenjan (chicken casserole)

Koresht is a delicately spiced Iranian casserole or stew, usually served with rice.

450g chicken pieces

225g ground walnuts

3 onions, chopped

4 mugfuls pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons sugar

A pinch of cardamom

1 teaspoon salt

Saute the chicken and onion in oil for about 15 minutes, stirring so it doesn't stick to the pan. Now chuck in the other ingredients, reduce the heat and cover the pan. Simmer gently for two hours, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be thick and aromatic, but you may need to add some more water while it's cooking.

I haven't tried this recipe or indeed any of the other 100 recipes in the book, but I am highlighting it here because I love the idea of putting together in a recipe book foods that the enemies of George Bush enjoy eating! There are also numerous cultural anecdotes and political insights.


Nymeth said...

This is why I love your blog, Lotus. This is a book I wouldn't normally glance at twice, but reading your review made me realize I'd actually most likely like it a lot.

Asha said...

Ooh! I have got to get that first book, I love Cuban food. Thanks Lotus. Second book is almost funny, but recipe sounds great.

Breeni Books said...

That cookbook is ingenius. I'll have to add it to my wishlist.

tanabata said...

LOL! The Axis of Evil Cookbook is hilarious! Do let us know if you try any of the recipes.

Susan in Italy said...

Good Lord, where have I been? What a great post. I have to order 50 copies of the Axis of Evil Cookbook for Christmas presents. That sense of humor is right up my alley. About Tastes Like Cuba: I wonder about all the food references in novels today.I haven't read the book but it seems like yet another story of Latin-American immigration (okay, exile) told through food. What's wrong with that? On the level of any individual novel, but seen in a group, it's becoming a cliche. Sometimes I think writers who are considered "ethnic" in the US have a hard time getting published at all if they don't provide a romantic and earthy (culinary) feel of what it is to be of that ethnicity. Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) is so rare because he's a Dominican who writes Science Fiction. I think he's lucky to be a published author who's done something out of the standard vein.

Milan - zzz said...

OK Iran cuisine is again mouthwatering (I LOVE Persian dishes!)

Axis of Evil Cookbook sounds great!
Is there part of what Bush eats? I guess not but I remember his statement just before French president (and president of the country with one of the greatest culinary tradition in the world) Sarkozy's visit America about menu. Bush said something like:
"We're going to give him a hamburger or a hot dog, his choice"
well I guess that's suppose to be funny (gosh!)

Radha said...

I have tried Cuban cuisine in Dubai a couple of times & its delicious. Its so true that when immigrants move to a new country the "food shock" hits the quickest :)

I personally dont fancy Persian food so much; I prefer Arabic /Lebanese food more. But your recepie here sounds yummy!

Radha said...

Hows the new job going btw?

Sanjay said...

Hey there buddy! I loved reading this post, the Cuban food made me hungry and “the axis of evil cookbook” idea made me smile and shake my head.

Re: US policy to Cuba , while not being as sympathetic as it used to be, I would say that it still is whole lot better than how it is towards Haitians. If Cuban migrants make it to US soil they can stay whereas the Haitians get sent back.

I loved how the journey of Machado’s family from Cuba to the US progressed via the changing cuisine. I think it is a testament to the nature of America as well as to those of immigrants who come here. The cuisine of both are influenced by each other a phenomenon I think is not likely found anywhere else compared to the extent it is in the US. I think it also says that one can be American and yet retain their identity that their native lands have had a big role in forging no?

, the author's childhood reminisces, the food and his first return visit to Cuba made for enjoyable reading . That is so true of any immigrant story, food especially the kind that we eat as children has such a profound effect on us. Those memories stay with us for life. For me some of my most vivid memories from childhood revolve around food. My folks used to spend anywhere from 3-5 days making foods for Diwali and the fragrant spices, the sweet smells and everything made in ghee are so vibrant and alive that I almost feel I can reach out and touch them. I can surely identify with the author on this one.

One notable fact I took away from this book is how unforgiving Cuban exiles can be when fellow exiles that sing the praises of the homeland.

That is great takeaway from the book and the only thing I want to add is that this antagonism between the two groups of Cubans is slowly going away with the new generation. NPR had a piece on the generation of Cuban-Americans born here a while back and one of the points noted was as proud as this generation is of their heritage they did not have the same strong feelings towards Castro’s Cuba as their parents (sorry could not find the link).

Thank you for taking the effort to find us some recipes too!

And Susan makes a great point as well with regards to why so many immigrant stories have food in it and as she rightly notes Juno Diaz is indeed the exception.

The idea of a cookbook from the countries that make up the axis of evil is funny. Would you know what the intent of the authors is behind this was? From the book cover it does look like the intent is to poke fun (so I may have answered my own question). :-) Also in a way it’s a message I suppose that there is more to those countries than their evil leaders and there is cuisine and culture there that goes back many years? But that idea of a book is great! There is also a comic routine that has comedians from some of the countries on the axis of evil. Here is a link to the NPR show.

From the link.. Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader make up the Axis of Evil Comedy group. (They're of Iranian, Egyptian and Palestinian descent, respectively). Their special premiered on Comedy Central last month. It's out on DVD this week.