Category Archives: Main Dish

Eating Cuban Food for Tom’s 63rd Birthday

In the early 1970s, Tom—fresh from a divorce—planned to move to California. Start over. Get a change of scenery. A fresh start. But before he left New Jersey for the West Coast, he decided to fly to Florida for a visit to some friends who lived in Ft. Lauderdale.

Three days after he arrived, he happened to land a job as a DJ in the Library Discotheque at the Hilton hotel. Their DJ had just left, and Tom had owned a record store back in Jersey, so he knew a thing or two about music. The job was his.

Only thing was, he wouldn’t play disco. He just played music he liked. Which wasn’t disco. It shouldn’t have worked—this was the height of the disco era—but it did. The dance floor was packed every night. Tom and the disco’s manager used to bet money on whether Tom could get people dancing. And Tom would win. Every time. But he refused to play disco. 

Tom was like that.

Tom and his high school sweetheart and first wife, Lynn. 
Tom and his high school sweetheart and first wife, Lynn. 

Tom was a high school football quarterback, an avid surfer, a record store owner, a natural leader, a brilliant man who always found a way to make things work. Even thing that shouldn’t work. 

At the disco, he met a waitress called Chicken. After a season in Ft. Lauderdale, they moved together to Key West. Tom and Chicken didn’t last, but so began a love affair with the Keys that would continue the rest of his life.

There was something about Key West that captivated Tom.

And I can understand why.

Key West isn’t like anywhere else I’ve been. It has the funkiness of San Francisco, the irreverence, without the edge. The tropical air is sweet. Everything is colorful—the fuchsia bougainvillea, the turquoise water, the brilliant oranges of the sunset. Every day, people celebrate the sunset in Mallory Square, where you can watch cats jump through hoops of fire and men walk tightropes. And of course the Cuban food there is amazing—the fried plantains, the black beans, the Cuban sandwiches and Cuban mixes. The café con leche. The flan. 

Roosters walk the streets, strutting, causing cars to stop and wait.

Hemingway lived there, in the Conch Republic. Some say that Tennessee Williams wrote a draft of A Streetcar Named Desire in Key West. There’s magic there, in the island closer to Cuba than to Miami.

It was in Key West that Tom and Vicki met. He was working as a project engineer for the Lower Keys Bridges Project, and Vicki had moved to the island to be with her sister, Terri. Vicki landed a job in the office where Tom worked. One day, she walked past an office where Tom was talking to someone. She caught his eye, and a voice in his head said, That’s the girl you’re going to marry.

Later that day, he asked her if she’d give him a ride home; his truck was in the shop. She agreed. On the way back, Tom asked her when they were going to go out together. She said she was dating someone else.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I can wait.”

And so he did.

That was summer. By the following January, they were married.

They left Key West—Tom had gotten a job at Kennedy Space Center, working on the shuttle program—but for the rest of their married life, they took regular visits. They brought the kids there, too, introducing them to the color of the water, the Plumeria-scented air, the Cuban food. And when Jesse and I started dating in high school, they’d take me along too.

In 2004, Jesse and I honeymooned in Key West, in a little bed and breakfast called the Mermaid and the Alligator. After we booked our room, we learned that Tom had once lived there, back when the building had been subdivided into apartments. It was a perfect little oasis—love birds and orchids and palms. Fresh papaya for breakfast. Juicy and sweet. The July heat was intense, but it was a heat we were used to. The sun kissed my bare shoulders, and it felt good.

Eight years later, in 2012, we spent the last weekend of Tom’s life on the island. He lay in a hammock on the beach, smoking a cigar and drinking a piña colada.

That weekend, we drank café con leche from 5 Brothers Grocery, ate Cuban sandwiches and plantain chips from Cuban Coffee Queen down near Mallory Square. We lay on the beach near Tom’s hammock, letting the sun warm us, letting it soak into our bones. We watched the waves gently kissing the sand. We squinted into the sun. We knew it was the last time. We knew it was Tom’s last visit. We knew it was the last time we would all be on this island together. It hurt. It hurt, but it was beautiful.

The next June, we took some of Tom’s ashes back to Key West in a Café Bustelo coffee can, per his wishes. We spread some of him under a palm tree on Higgs Beach and sprinkled some in the water. The day was bright and hot. I was sunburned by the afternoon. But the heat felt good, it felt restorative, as if something deep in me was being warmed again. From the beach we could see the hammocks we had been in that last weekend with Tom.

It was fitting. 

This past Monday was Tom’s birthday. He would have been sixty-three. So this weekend, I made Cuban food in memory of him. Ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish, his favorite, along with black beans and rice, fried plantains, flan. The food was good—the ropa vieja tangy and comforting, the flan sweet. It tasted like Key West, a little warmth and heat in the dead of winter. After snow and an ice storm in the past month, it felt good to eat Cuban food, eat the food of the Keys, the food we ate on our honeymoon, the food Tom ate all those years ago when he was falling in love with the island. When he was falling in love with his future wife. 

And he’ll always be there, on that island, and it will always be in us. The tropical smells, the goofy tourist shops, the hole-in-the-wall places with the best Cuban mixes, the sweet sweet coffee, the smell of sunscreen, the chickens in the road, the drunks at Sloppy Joe’s, the mopeds and the bleached white Catholic churches and the conch houses and the wet, humid air. All of it.

Ropa Vieja – adapted from GOYA

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 ½ lbs flank steak, cut into 3” x 4” pieces
Adobo with pepper
2 yellow onions, chopped finely
1 ½ – 2 green peppers, chopped finely
6 oz. Sofrito (I used GOYA, but you could certainly use homemade)
6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 packet GOYA Sazón with coriander and annatto (don’t skip this)
1 tsp beef “Better Than Bouillon” or 1 beef bouillon cube
¼ tsp black pepper
1 cup olives stuffed with pimientos, sliced
2 oz. capers, drained
1 Tbsp or more fresh cilantro, chopped

Directions:

1.     Heat oil in a large pot. Season beef with adobo and add to pot in batches until well browned. Transfer to a plate. Lower heat to medium. Add onions and peppers and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add Sofrito and garlic; cook for about a minute.

2.     Add 3 cups water, tomato sauce, Sazón, bouillon, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Return beef to pot. Lower heat to medium low and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in olives and capers. Cover pot; simmer another hour to an hour and a half, until meat shreds easily. (Add water if needed.)

3.     Remove meat and shred. Bring the sauce to a boil and add back shredded beef. Add cilantro and serve with white rice. 

Whatever We May Lose

It has been seventeen years since my family emigrated from Romania, leaving behind all that was familiar and simple, for a country where, we believed, milk and honey flowed unabashedly. Where material prosperity would mean generosity of spirit.  Where celebration would be the course of every day reality.  In some ways we have found it to be so, although the initial disenchantment that follows all desired things inevitably came, and had to be embraced. And in the embracing of that, we found a new home. But this is a story for another time…. 

Of the many things my adolescent self didn’t anticipate, longing was the most surprising of all, longing for what had been the only home I knew. A place where poverty and plenty intersected in bizarre and beautiful ways. A place where the queues for milk or bread were hours long, where butter and bananas were luxury, but where the summer markets spilled over with sour cherries, radishes the brightest fuchsia, watermelon so sweet it made the brain hum with happiness. I loved the markets as a child, the toothless women selling bunches of spinach and spring onions, lily-of-the-valley bouquets. I loved the voices of people haggling for tomatoes the size of cantaloupes, arguing over whose blackberries were the ripest, and I would sneak away with the boon of a wild strawberry to satisfy my never-ending child hunger.

After the markets came the best part: my mother magically turning what I saw as disparate ingredients into beloved dishes. Stews with bright vegetables and sparing meat, to which my father would add red or green chilies for a bit of burn. Soups finished off with luscious dollops of sour cream, dill or parsley. 

On the weekends, my mom would ask what we were craving, and my predictable answer was potatoes or matzoh ball soup (yes, I was strange little kid). 

Though childhood has now slipped, and the mother country has faded a bit into the stuff of stories, the longing for its familiarity still catches me unawares. I turn a corner sometimes and smell bread baking, and I am in Iasi again, walking home after waiting in line, clutching a plastic bag which is slightly melting from the heat of fresh bread. 

Or I walk into my parents’ now house in a quiet suburb of Charlotte, and for a moment I am back home, where my mother’s golden head is bent over a pot of steaming soup, and her voice exclaims in delight that the spherical matzos are weightless as clouds. I sit at the table, and turn eleven again, asking for seconds and thirds, not worrying about calories or nutritional value, but intoxicated with this moment where my soul and body become satiated, before the hunger sets in again.

I make this soup for my husband, for my friends, some of which don’t know where Romania is on a map, but who eat this cross cultural dish, and for a few minutes share in a small thread of my childhood, and whatever I thought was lost, comes back to me fuller, sweeter, and more complicated than before. 

Smitten Kitchen has a gorgeous matzoh ball soup recipe here which, from all the ones I’ve researched, comes the closest to my mother’s.

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.
 –Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
 

Learn the Limp

We’ve now spent two Christmases without Tom. The first, 2012, was of course brutal. He had been gone less than a month then, so we were functioning but just barely. This year was better, but holidays are still painful. There are too many memories, too many reminders that he is missing. There is Christmas breakfast, which Tom always made, French toast and bacon; we eat the same thing, but it won’t ever taste the same. There is Christmas morning around the tree, opening presents, Vicki sitting where Tom used to be. It doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore, not yet anyway. They say it gets better, they say it will get better.

A day or two after this Christmas, Becki and Jesse and I went out for dinner, just the three of us. Vicki wasn’t hungry and stayed home. We ate at a little Thai place; we were all tired, and the food was hot and good. It made me think of an evening the year before.

Jesse and I were in Florida then for Thanksgiving, 2012, and we were all becoming aware that this was our last Thanksgiving with Tom. We had lived with the cancer diagnosis for one year then, and whatever hope we had held onto that year was quickly slipping away from us. Tom was gaunt, his energy gone, his eyes often vacant.

The night before we left Merritt Island, I remember following Tom into the house. His back was hunched, his legs extremely thin, and he shuffled like an old man. The cancer had wasted him, had turned him into someone else, some elderly man I couldn’t recognize. This was Jesse’s father, his best friend, this was the person my husband loved more than anyone else, and he was a hundred years older, he was a hundred years older, that fast. There in the yellow light of the porch lamp, I knew we wouldn’t have him much longer.

Christmas, I hoped, stay until Christmas. Please.

That night, Becki and Jesse and I went for dinner at a burger joint near the mall. We talked about how long we might have. A month? A couple months? No more. There was no denying it now: We were close. We were closer than we had ever been.

He died two days later.

So this year, when the three of us ate Thai food, I thought of that evening the year before. How we had no idea just how close we were. How we couldn’t anticipate how much pain we were about to be in.

This past year has been hard. And we’ve still got a long way to go, but there is a settling this year. The pain, still there, has dulled with time. Enough. Enough for us to smile and laugh again, to eat a big bowl of chicken khao soi and love it.

We drank tall glasses of Thai tea, and I thought of the first time I had tried it, the summer of 2011, just a couple months before the diagnosis.

That summer, I was coming off a brutal spring semester teaching, and the stress had put a strain on everything: my physical health, my emotional and spiritual well-being, my marriage, my sanity. I was starting a new novel, and I decided—almost on a whim—to pack myself up and leave North Carolina for a month in San Francisco, to research the setting of the book and to heal. I rented a bright little studio with a backyard garden and fishpond, a couple blocks from Golden Gate Park, and exactly three miles from the Pacific Ocean.

I spent the month mostly alone. Writing. Cooking. Soaking up San Francisco. That month was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Becki came to visit me the week after her marriage ended in divorce. I suppose she and I were both looking for some rest, some space to recover ourselves. We packed her visit with sightseeing—walking through the Japanese tea garden in the fog, eating sea salt caramel tarts from an Inner Sunset bakery, dressing up to see Billy Elliot  at the Orpheum Theatre. But what I remember most about her visit was the Thai iced tea we had at a little place near my apartment.

It was the first time I’d tried the drink. I had just collected Becki from the airport, and we ate an early dinner (or late lunch, whichever). Silky Pad Thai noodles, subtle sauce. Becki suggested I try the tea, which she liked, and I did. It was the prettiest shade of orange and had the loveliest taste. There was something about that tea, something pure, something unexpected. I immediately loved it.  

Later that visit, we talked about her dad. We knew there was something wrong, but he’d not been diagnosed then, and I was still hopeful for something minor. Something that could be easily fixed. Set right. We didn’t yet have words like cancer. Or advanced stage. We had an ambiguous set of troubling symptoms that could have been anything, then, that could still be something entirely harmless. Becki mentioned the possibility of her mother coming to live with her should something happen to Tom, and I brushed off the comment, saying we’re a long way from that, downplaying the little knot of worry in my stomach. Eventually, sure, twenty years from now maybe.

We didn’t know how close we were. We didn’t know what kind of memories we were making. We didn’t yet know our pain tolerance, didn’t know our limits, didn’t know our capacity for suffering, how much we could bear. Perhaps we still don’t. That moment, though, that month in July—it will always be perfect, that afternoon when we drank Thai iced tea in the most beautiful city in the world. That moment when we were very happy.

That summer, that moment, drinking that drink—it was the last time I felt truly happy. I don’t know when I will feel that way again, when something will be as pure and as lovely as it was before cancer. But we move forward. They say it gets better. And for the first time, I think I believe them.

Bon Appetit has an amazing chicken khao soi recipe here. Jesse and I love to top our soup with limes, cilantro, red onions, bean sprouts, and fried shallots.

After trying half a dozen Thai tea recipes, I’ve found the one I like the best at White on Rice Couple.

 

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” – Anne Lamott