To remember her cooking and the family history
The exploration of some people’s fraught relationship with their mothers must be a leading topic of psychotherapy even if sifting through life’s what-ifs and could-have-beens while lying on a couch often doesn’t alleviate present-day anguishes.
Grandmothers are a different story. Our memories of them are rose-tinted by the passage of time, gauzy nostalgia and often tales about their memorable cooking. Their recollections can be amusing and fascinating and also help us fill in gaps in our own life’s story.
Perhaps as a result of the isolation and ennui caused by the pandemic, there’s a bundle of warm-hearted “grandma content” on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. One, called Grandmas Project, is a series of short amateur documentaries from around the world, featuring grandmothers whipping up ancestral dishes while sharing stories, some personal, even a little saucy, all charming, in impossibly cluttered kitchens.
Both of my grandmothers are long gone, so there’s no chance of my capturing their memories on film, and I was too young to inquire about our family when they were alive. That’s a shame because they lived during interesting times, right through Cuba’s War of Independence—known in the U.S. as the Spanish-American War—and all the gory political and economic conniptions the country went through after the Spaniards left the island in 1898, followed by the Americans, in 1902. Plus I know very little of the personal histories on either side of my family.
I remember, vaguely, as in a fuzzy snapshot, my dad’s mom Digna, who sadly, died from breast cancer when I was a toddler. I’ve heard I was her favorite grandchild. In fact, until recently I knew very little about the entire Lanier clan, other than they came from France (via New Orleans?) and that the family tree sprouted a seldom-mentioned Afro-Cuban branch thanks to my grandfather Emilio’s romantic involvement with a Black woman who lived down the street.
Memories of my maternal grandmother, Herminia, and her daughter Estela, the stern spinster who by default inherited the burden of taking care of grandma, are more vivid though hardly detailed. I was too young to ask many questions.
My maternal grandfather died before I was born and was hardly ever mentioned, other that the family eked out a living at a very small and humble farm outside the southern port city of Cienfuegos. When he died, the family apparently sold the farm and moved to town.
Sketchy as they might be, my memories of visiting Herminia and Estela are among the warmest and most joyful moments in my life, particularly the Christmas Eve feasts, Nochebuena, that were a family ritual.
Theirs was a narrow house, with tall ceilings and rooms lined up in a row—a sitting room, living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, dining room and finally a kitchen—all interconnected and except to the first two, each with a door opening to a long patio that ran the whole length of the house.
The patio was jungle-like, crammed with plants in pots and tin cans of all sizes, and sustained more by Cuba’s tropical climate rather than anyone’s attentive gardening. A cage with two or three songbirds provided musical accompaniment.
At floor level, the household was patrolled by a sauntering, long-haired cat named Cachucha, which in her later years pretty much gave up preening and after using the litter box would walk around with turds dangling from her tail as if they were Christmas tree ornaments. I loved Cachucha.
My mother and dad drove from Santa Clara, the provincial capital about 90 minutes away, early the morning of Nochebuena, when cooking preparations began with the arrival of a hapless live chicken that Estela dispatched with a swift wringing of its neck. From there, it was plucked by my mother and Estela in a bathtub of boiling water.
I avoided the gory prelude to the Christmas dinner by spending most of my time by myself on a rocking chair in the living room, which seemed miles away, listening to an old ivory-colored Philco radio that required constant fiddling to keep it tuned.
Aside from music there was much talking and story-telling on the radio, very much like today’s podcasts. The one radio host I clearly remember during my visits to grandma went by the name of Clavelito, a nickname for Miguel Alfonso Pozo, who was a true wonder of the airwaves.
He was a storyteller, poet, singer, naturopath, seer and advisor to listeners who’d tune in to his “positive energy” broadcasts to help solve their financial, romantic or any other travails, or just to be entertained by Clavelito’s singing and non-stop banter. Later, he came to be known as con artist who preyed on innocent listeners.
This was before widespread telephone service, never mind the internet, so Clavelito’s connection with his audience was via mail and supposedly a glass of water listeners were asked to place on top of the radio.
Faithful followers swore that the slight warming of the water in the glass was a sign Clavelito’s “positive thoughts” were coming through. Some cynics, like my dad, pointed out that what warmed the water was the heat from the large vacuum tubes inside the radio, rather than any psychic baloney. But at nine or ten years old, I remained entranced by Clavelito’s exotic schtick.
My interest in the show, though, which ran for hours, gradually would wane as the aroma of my grandmother’s cooking drifted through the house. Her cooking skills were as magical, and far more real, than Clavelito and his water glass tricks.
The kitchen was the smallest room in the house, after the bathroom, and as basic as a kitchen can get: All I remember is a tiny General Electric refrigerator, a couple of cabinets for kitchenware, and a charcoal-fired stove at one end next to a cold water sink.
How my grandmother was able to prepare her amazing arroz con pollo and paellas, pork roasts and other dishes with such primitive equipment remains a mystery, in the realm of alchemy or astrology rather than cookery. I know she and Estela would constantly fiddle with and coddle the coals or add more, to adjust the heat.
But somehow they managed, and early on the afternoon of Nochebuena, the “good” china and silverware, along with a main dish, the arroz con pollo, probably pork of some sort, and all the side dishes, appeared on the table, to the usual oohs and ahs of my mom, dad and I. The feast went on for a hour or two, followed by some sort of high-sugar dessert and a once-a-year treat: a tiny glass of Viña 25, a sweet Spanish dessert wine still sold. My father would sneak me a little sip.
My grandmother’s health deteriorated rapidly in her late 80s, and my final memories of her, when I was eleven or twelve years old, sadly, are of a tiny old lady on a rocking chair in the living room by the old Philco radio, who vaguely recognized me. Estela died after I left Cuba in 1962.
When Stew and I visited Cuba in 2013, we stopped by my grandmother’s house, I introduced myself to a gruff man who answered the door, and asked if I could, for old times’ sake, take a quick look around the place. “No,” he said, and shut the door.
2 thoughts on “In the kitchen with Grandma”
I can fondly recall how excited we became over my grandmother’s idea of home cooking: twin cans of Chung King. All of that rose to the same culinary expectations of the school cafeteria. We didn’t know any better.
My grandmother had nice kitchens, both at her primary residence and at their weekend place. Both were places to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, and play canasta. Both had telephones which were put to their highest use in those kitchens: making reservations.
My grandmother rarely cooked, and when she did, it amounted to deploying something from Duncan Hines or Chung King. She had better things to do, because, after all, shopping, dressing, the beauty shop, putting on makeup, and watching telenovelas all take up a grandmother’s time and energy.
Well, now I can understand your passion for cooking: A late-stage revolt against your grandma’s aversion to the culinary arts. Curiously, my mother went the opposite way. Despite my grandma’s virtuosity in the kitchen, my mother specialized in survival cooking, preparing only enough for our family of three to stay alive. She didn’t have a clue and that never changed. Chung King would have been an improvement.