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Tastes Like Cuba

(article, Eduardo Machado)

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h3. From Chapter 5: "The New Frontier"

p(blue). Editor's note: In this excerpt, Machado recalls his family's first foray into shopping at a southern California supermarket.

We walked in and the delicious air-conditioning hit our faces. The first thing we noticed was that the vegetables and fruits looked like nothing we had in Cuba. There were green, red, and yellow apples of all sizes. Piles of pears, grapes, and oranges were stacked under brightly colored price signs shaped like sunbursts. There were no guayabas, mangoes, or papayas in sight, not even a lime as far as we could see. And there were certainly no sour oranges, just sweet ones.


h1. About the book and author

In 1961, when he was 8, Eduardo Machado and his younger brother were evacuated from Cuba. Eventually reunited with his parents, Machado grew up in southern California before making a career as a New York-based playwright. Tastes Like Cuba is a memoir (accompanied by recipes developed with co-author and fellow playwright Michael Domitrovich) about Machado's brief youth in pre-Castro Cuba and his struggles to come to terms with a life made in exile.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Gotham Books, a member of the Penguin Group (2007).


My mother looked at my father with obvious contempt. "I told you, no naranjas ágrias," she said.

"I can see that." My father could no longer fight her.

"Only one kind of bananas, with labels on them," she said, as if they were plastered with horse shit.

"At least they are bananas," I finally said.

"They're called Chiquita," she scoffed, "even though they're huge. Everyone knows huge bananas have very little flavor. And where are the plantains? They don't have plantains." She was losing her grasp on reality. "No yuca. No malanga. What's wrong with these people?"

My father pointed out the potatoes and yams, but even they were not up to mother's standards. "They're not white. They're orange. Do they think they're pumpkins?"

She approached the Hass avocadoes and seemed to stare them down. It was as if their size and their black nubbly skin was a direct affront to her integrity. "These!" she scoffed, "these are pathetic. Dirty. They're smaller than my hand." She was obviously hoping for the Caribbean variety, bright green and watery, perfect for avocado salad. How could she have known that their dense flesh was creamier, richer than the kind we had in Cuba? I dared not express my curiosity on that day because when my mother proclaimed, "This is not an avocado!" the conversation was over before it had begun.

From the dejected look on my father's face, I could tell this trip to the Food King, this trip that was supposed to change everything, was quickly turning into a disaster.

[%image promo-image float=right width=350 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/chrisbence" caption="The taste of home: Black beans, rice, plantains, and pan-fried steak."]

As we went down the other aisles, it didn't get any better. When we got to the grains and beans we found no black beans, anywhere on the shelves. There were only split peas, lima beans, and a dusty package of dried chickpeas. There was no Serrano ham in the deli section, and the steaks at the butcher were all cut too thick.

"London broil?" Mother asked aloud, "how do I cook this? It's cut like a tire!"

"We'll find a way," my father said halfheartedly. If steak couldn't make her happy, nothing could.

"I wanted Bistec Empanizado!" I whined, seeing the chance of having a thin breaded steak go right out the window.

"Impossible," said Mother.

"We'll get a pot roast," said Dad. "It will taste just like boliche if you make the sauce the same."

Mother gave him a dirty look and I thought she'd get into it with him again, but even she was getting tired of it all.

We managed to find onions and garlic, dried oregano and ground cumin. We even got some cheap-looking olive oil, barely green, nothing like what Fernando used to bring back from the docks. Of course there was no espresso, no whole beans, just cans of the same stuff we had been drinking, and other brands that seemed even less hopeful. We did not even try to find French baguettes. Without pineapples, pears and apples would have to do. At least there was fresh corn. It wasn't bad — maybe my mother would make tamales with it — but the store was so bland that very little could offer reassurance.


h1.Featured recipe


That night my mother baked a pot roast with garlic, oranges, lemons, onions, and oregano. She made boiled potatoes with olives from a can scattered over the top. It was worlds better than unseasoned garbanzo beans or Velveeta grilled cheese, but it was certainly not boliche, not black beans with yuca on the side, not sweet fried plantains. That would have been something. That would have been home. This was just okay.

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