I was at the Cuban Interest Office in Washington, just a few miles from where I live, speaking through a locked iron fence, asking the familiar guard the status of my Cuban passport. I applied for it 3 months prior and should have received it 6 weeks earlier. It was 11:45 a.m., though the office is open until noon. I waited 10 minutes before the friendly associate director, whom I’ve come to know, came out with my pasaporte. I was so excited. Across the street, the Cuban flag was being raised at the Swiss Embassy, the decades-long, temporary house for Cuban(-American) affairs. There were hundreds of people, mostly Cubans, cheering, crying, and protesting. We were all witnessing history and a new story unfold, literally, right in front of us.
I had to go. I had a lunch meeting at an Indian restaurant. Telemundo, Univision and one other local Spanish station ran after me, begging for an interview. ‘How do you feel? What’s your message to the Cuban people on the island? Are you going to visit?’ I was so annoyed, but proud. I answered a few questions before my 6’4″ friend blocked with his arm another round of reporters making their way to me.
I had every intention of going back to Cuba last fall, to see mi Tia and reconnect with mi isla. It’s been 15 years. But a cookbook deal on pressure cooking came knocking with a tight deadline. I shut down to handle that. But then I had an idea: “I’ll go for research! I’ll deeply explore my recipes’ roots, cook with abuelitas; visit paladares, interview people — los campesinos –and ask them about food traditions from our ancestors –traditions and platos I’m not so familiar with.”
I had it all planned out. But timing… you know how that goes. I’ve not been able to go yet.
And then this. My friend Asori Soto, a Cuban filmmaker living in NY, tagged me 3 weeks ago in a picture on his Instagram feed. It’s a moody but vibrantly spirited image of an old woman picking food in Cuba. And then I saw another. And another. Asori was in Cuba, exploring our food! He was on our “Now Open for Business” island, trekking the streets of Havana and meandering the rachuelitos of Holguin, in search of the food culture the island lost right at the turn of the ’59 revolution.
I met Asori in LA back in 2010 when he was working with a TV production company I was being managed by. Our exchanges were surface, mostly about café con leche and flan — two beholden Cuban treats. What I didn’t know until recently is that Asori has an equally impassioned, deep love for our food, our essence, our culture; deep enough to tell its untold story. I didn’t know his background in Cuba was filmmaking.
As we both witnessed the peeling back of an an embargo that’s impacted our entire lives in very different ways — he while in Cuba, me growing up in Miami and DC — our wheels started spinning in sync unbeknownst to each other.
“We have to tell this story. We have to expose and share with the world the Cuba most people don’t know exists. It’s not just mojitos and guava pastries.”
The best path into a peoples’ soul is their cuisine. And there’s no better time than now to share our narrative. To tell their story–those still on the island.
While I am using my book as a breve introduction to the food that so roundly defines me, he’s taking the lens and bringing to life the hidden treasures in all of Cuba. In Cuban Food Stories, my friend and his crew, supported by an arm of executive producers behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, spent over 3oo hours documenting the people who hold history in their hearts. On a boat trip along the Toa River in Baracoa, a sunbaked fisherman hooks blue shell crab. That catch later turned into an idyllic beach dinner, replete with mariscos and beautifully designed serving platters stacked with stuffed cangrejo. Surely, from my childhood stories, crab or lobster or anything from la costa, was food only accessible to visiting dignitaries. Or to the upper echelon of the administration. An employee of La Terraza, a famed seafood restaurant in Cojimar, known for hosting Ernest Hemingway for many years, could not even dream of eating like that. I ate there once with an American boyfriend… but we could afford a $30 crab dinner; you already know I didn’t eat it. But it was available to us…visitors.
I’ve seen raw footage of the indie film and I’ve learned some things myself. There’s no doubt I’m intimiately connected with the Cuban spirit. The ingenious one that takes Campbell soup cans to serve as conductors for a handmade watermill in a creek that produces electricity. He highlights that resilience in the film. But in a way that ilicits sympathy rather than applause. He was introduced to and spent time with a nuclear physicist-turned fisherman in the village of Jagua. This genius cooks and serves centuries-old recipes for his family.
I am blown away.
The film is an homage to a people and culture who’ve been so far removed from everything you and I expect to enjoy whenever we want. But it’s an equal plea to restore the lost essence of the Cuban soul. Asori inspires a more present and visible revival of dormant cooking techniques and gathering methods from all over the island: the cities, the beaches, el campo, the antiquated villages. It’s not just a glorified wide shot of the colorful pop ups and paladares ubiquitous in La Habana. Or a pan of the ebb and flow of the malécon during carnaval. Not even close to the exciting approach Anthony Bourdain, took the 2 or 3 times he’s been there, to also explore food. It goes to the source of the romanticism.
It’s our story through the lens of a Cuban filmmaker who respects the ancient life and wants to show you the bounty underneath congrí.
It gets to the root of my passion. The very thing I live for. The very soul of who I am.
The film is slated to release later this summer with the help of Kickstarter. The online campaign shows you a moving trailer that’ll intrigue you. You’ll want more. Trust me. But it needs support! And then he’ll later help me tell you the story I’ve been penning.
Check out the Kickstarter campaign video! It’s invigorating and inviting. You’re going to want to be a part of this.
All images c/o Asori Soto.