Havana Salsa

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Her face was smiling, beaming at me from the pages of The New York Times food section. She was teaching cooking at a school in her home on the Upper West Side. I had only been up there to go to Zabar’s or the Museum of Natural History. This would be a new experience for me.

She had recently graduated from the Cordon Bleu in Paris, after traveling around the world as a stewardess for Eastern Airlines, and she was from Havana.

Our two worlds could not have been more different. I was raised near Pittsburgh and only came to New York City to go to school, but I loved food and was learning how to eat well, so off to Viviana’s cooking school I went. I learned everything; how to make a souffle by whipping egg whites by hand in a copper bowl, how to make authentic mousse au chocolat, how to poach a salmon, braise a duck, and prepare a live lobster for it’s final plunge. She was my own Julia Child, an expert in teaching French cooking and techniques with her own unique and outrageous Cuban flare.

We became friends and I absorbed not just cooking skills but a cultural awareness. We loved old movies shown on the big screen, hopefully double features with Fred Astaire. We went to museum openings, loved the costume exhibits at the Met. We traveled together in search of wonderment and delicious food adventures. In Istanbul, she wouldn’t let me rest after a 10 1/2 hour flight. She swept me off to the Grand Bazaar, where she had already charmed Ali, the owner of a carpet store. He greeted us with mint tea and freshly roasted lamb brought in by his father. Soon we were members of his family, eating, drinking and nodding with them in enjoyment and delight. One whole day after arriving and purchasing seven carpets, I finally got to sleep.

In Bilbao, we met many of the chefs on the cutting edge of building and deconstructing a new world cuisine. We visited the museum, the old town square, a flea market, we drank Txakoli and visited a winemaker on the Basque coast. Then to Madrid, for a gathering of chefs at their annual meeting, where they all became ”her boys”; and back to Bilbao and more travels.

Through it all, never knowing what to wear and always debating how to accessorize, we always tried to create the perfect menu for the occasion. We lost husbands, got divorces, tipped the scale up and down, changed our hair color. We have shared a lifetime of experiences and remain friends, and that is the best adventure.

Pilgrimage to Regla

"The black Virgen of Regla in Chipiona, a small coastal village near Cádiz, Spain, has mysterious origins. The legend claims that the Virgen has African origins- that St. Augustine himself, as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries, had commissioned her image to be carved out of a solid piece of wood. Later he sent the statue to Spain for protection from the vandals, but no one knew the fate of the statue.  In the thirteen century, by a “miracle,” the statue was found in Chipiona well hidden from view by a fig tree. Since then the Virgen de Regla has made her home in Chipiona in a beautiful sanctuary by the sea.  Eventually her devotion reached Havana through the Augustine brothers and her depository was a hamlet at the entrance of the Bay of Havana. As the hamlet grew, it adopted the name of the Virgin, Regla.  Here she had a view of the ocean too.

Upon arrival in Cuba, the Virgen de Regla’s legend grew even more extraordinary.  She became part of the Santería pantheon and merged with the powerful African deity Yemayá, the mother of all life. Yemayá counted Dulce among her more devoted daughters and as such Dulce kept a small shrine for her in our kitchen.  Everything Dulce cooked was blessed by Yemayá.  For a long time Dulce had wanted to introduce me to Yemayá, La Virgen de Regla, in person.  I didn’t quite understand what she meant, but I was eager to go on any adventure with her. Dulce was incredibly persuasive and after months of trying, finally got permission from my mother to take me to Yemayá’s sanctuary, la Virgen de Regla Chapel.

In order to reach the town of Regla we had to travel across the Bay of Havana in the lanchita, a sputtering ferry (a very fitting vehicle for the goddess of the sea).  On that day, a Friday (Yemayá’s favorite day), we boarded the brightly painted ferry and sat to the side so we would get wet with the sea spray.   The church, as well as most of Regla, was built on the side of a hill close to the water with an ample view of the bay.  It was not an imposing church in size or treasure. It was modest, humble even, magnificent only in the devotion of its people to the black Madonna.

The image of the Virgin herself, placed in the center of the main altar, was not very large. She wore a white gown draped with a midnight blue cape that twinkled with tiny stars and a tall crown encrusted with semiprecious stones. La Virgen stood on a crescent moon with a halo of golden rays all around her and held a standing white baby Jesus on her lap.  Her countenance was peaceful and sweet. It was easy for me to see why this particular saint in the guise of Yemayá was acclaimed as the mother of all, of having power over the moon and all female mysteries, maternity, conception, and childbirth. She was the ruler of the oceans.

I was overwhelmed with love when I saw her. She was so beautiful, so delicate, so gentle and kind. She looked right into my eyes, and I wanted her to hold me in her arms, to comfort me. I understood why Dulce loved this Virgin so much, why she softened when she spoke of Yemayá. Dulce saw I now understood everything, even how La Virgen de Regla and Yemayá could be one and the same. She put her arm around my shoulders to draw me closer.

As an offering, we had brought Yemayá’s favorite foods, plantain chips and pork cracklings, black-eyed pea fritters and half a watermelon cut in slices, which Dulce had carefully and gently prepared that morning.  When it was time, we sang a little song to her in Lucumí."

Excerpt from “Havana Salsa” published with permission of Viviana Carballo.