I've always had a love for Latin food, and it goes far beyond how it tastes.
Part of it is heritage and pride. Which is odd when you think of it, since I'm an Irish kid whose parents are from Kentucky and Massachusetts. It really has to do with Florida. My mother got divorced, and we moved in with her parents in the West Palm Beach area when I was one. To grow up in Florida in the early 1960s was to have little cultural identity, except maybe old-people jokes and being the home of the non-regional TV weatherman accent.
That changed when I was four. West Palm Beach had a fronton, and my mother started dating a jai alai player. For the next two years, I learned all about the "fastest game on earth" and how to say a million things in Spanish. I got a child-sized cesta-the jai alai basket the players strap to their hands-and I spent many hours slinging tennis balls against the side of the carport, although given my age and the curved nature of the cesta, the balls invariably all went in the wrong direction. I didn't care; I didn't know much about baseball and football yet. All I knew was that my mom's boyfriend was a huge sports hero. During practice at the fronton, I used to be allowed to sit on the bench at the end of the court, where the players were waiting to go on.
Many evenings after jai alai, we'd go eat at a local restaurant called the Cesta Inn. It's no longer there; I've looked. I'd like to say we had lots of traditional Latin food there, but it was a different kind of Latin food. Pizza. But Spanish and other food came during Sunday dinners we shared with many of the jai alai players. Many of them were only in Florida for the season. They would save up their money and then go back to the Basque region of Spain for the rest of the year. My mother often invited a few of them over on Sundays, and I spent many dinners at a table full of jai alai players, picking up more Spanish words.
There was no CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach back then. Many of my favorite shows were on Miami's WTVJ. This was on the heels of the Cuban influx after the fall of Fulgencio Batista, and there were early morning Spanish-language news program, just before the Skipper Chuck Show. I vividly remember watching Spanish ads for Miller beer, trying to pick out some of the words I'd learned at the dinner table.
Now, of course, it's hard to function at all in many parts of Miami-Dade County without basic Spanish, but back then it was still novel.
Eventually, the jai alai player met a hometown girl back in Spain in the off-season and didn't return; I discovered baseball; the fronton later burned down; and I pretty much forgot most of the Spanish I picked up at that age when it's so easy to.
But my fondness for Latin culture continued to grow. It was an imprecise affection, grounded in the Spanish influence of the jai alai players and nurtured by the Cuban influence on South Florida. Latin culture was becoming permanently entwined as one of the truly indigenous facets of state identity.
It also seemed like an exotic affection because of my Irish blood. But I didn't really know much about that culture, except from my maternal grandmother, who was French and had some choice depictions for my tender ears, which I believe had more to do with her feelings toward her ex-son-in-law than anything else. But that's a different and much more complicated story.
In my mid-20s, I got an job offer for a position as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. At that time, I only knew two things about Tampa: bad football and great Cuban food. I called a moving company.
Food-wise, it was paradise. Authentic Cuban restaurants everywhere, Havana Village, The Fourth of July Café. I began getting fresh Cuban bread from Mauricio Faedo's, a real Cuban bakery on Florida Avenue that stuck a piece of palm frond in the bag with each loaf under an old custom for religious good luck
I loved it all-the pork sandwiches, the plantains, the flan. I learned such gringo tips as this: Anglos identify themselves by ordering the yellow rice with beans. The beans go with the white rice. Unless this is all a story they told the gullible Anglo.
Then the bombshell. I found out through my father's side of my family-with whom I'd had limited contact-that my great-grandmother was from New Orleans, and her name was Augustina Garcia. No more details.
Tampa's cuisine and that family tree revelation kick-started my history hobby. I began taking photos, doing research, asking questions, basically being a pest. I hunted down Cuban lunch counters elsewhere. The M&M Laundry, which still exists in Key West, and La Cubanita, which does not. I cruised Calle Ocho in Miami.
And I did some rehearsing. I went to one restaurant in Miami and semi-competently ordered in Spanish, out of courtesy and respect, and more than a little bit to feel cool. It worked-she got my order and smiled. Boy, did I feel sophisticated. Then she started talking to me a hundred miles an hour in Spanish. I turned red. "Uh, si."
Also in Key West, I discovered the Five Brothers Grocery, a tiny family store on the corner of Southard and Angela streets. Over the door is an endearingly corny plywood sign with a painting of five men, presumably brothers. Inside, the place is crammed like a chuckwagon with staples that look like they haven't moved in years. It's hard to get around inside the store because there's consistently a line, and the reason is the breakfast counter, an austere yet efficient Old-World operation. I was still in my 20s at the time, making literary pilgrimages to Key West, staying in dumps, dreaming of writing books, strolling down to the Five Brothers in the morning for a newspaper, café con leche and pressed cheese toast. Once, I recognized the old bearded man working the espresso machine. He was one of the five men on the sign. I got his attention and pointed at a Five Brothers baseball cap on the counter and asked him how much. He just grabbed it and gave it to me. Sometimes I'd go and read the paper on the bench outside and wait for my coffee to cool. Other times I'd walk to the city cemetery at the end of the block and sit in the shade under a coconut palm, lean back against a cold, above-ground crypt and write in my notebook while I ate breakfast. Propeller planes banked above the palms in the morning sun on their approach to the airport, lending that Casablanca feel. Ah, to be young and silly.
I also continued feeding my curiosity. I learned that Florida has the country's two biggest pockets of Cuban culture, quite separated in time and circumstance. The Miami Cubans were in large part the result of the Castro wave of the early '60s and the Mariel wave of the early '80. The Tampa community was the result of the cigar industry,
which migrated from Key West and began building factories in the 1880s.
More reading. I learned about Cuban independence from Spain and that many natives of the Basque region ended up in Miami and Tampa via Havana. So there was at least a tenuous connection to tie a mental bow on it all.
This was also the period of the grand failed experiment, and I'm not talking Prohibition. Now knowing that I was a full one-eighth Latin, I somehow got the idea I was a Latin cook. I got the rice and spices and pork and plantains and a little stovetop espresso machine. That lasted about a week, until I decided this was work best left in the hands of professionals.
This meant repeated trips to La Teresita on Columbus Drive, arguably Tampa's best Cuban restaurant, still going strong today. For five bucks, I got more excellent traditional home cooking than I could ever finish. The plates heaped with arroz con pollo (rice and chicken), puerco asado (roast pork), bistec (steak), or, my favorite, the famous shredded beef and tomato dish, ropa vieja, literally old rags. I loved to go at lunchtime when the counter was jammed with Cuban businessmen in starched white dress shirts. I listened to the patter of Spanish conversation and marveled at how they never got as much as a speck on their long sleeves, which stayed cuffed.
This rootless Florida boy was more than happy.
Then, bombshell Number Two.
Last Christmas, my dad gave me an enlarged reproduction of a turn-of-the-century family photo: Augustina's father, my great-great-grandfather, Juan Garcia, standing in front of his cigar store in Chicago. I called and thanked my dad. Oh, by the way, he said, he found out something in connection with the photo that I might like to know. Juan had gotten his start by rolling cigars in Tampa.
A Taste of Cuba
A sampling of my Florida favorites.
Columbia, 411 St. Armands Circle. The owners did
a great job exporting the incredible cooking of the original Columbia established in Tampa in 1905. Try the paella; if enough people
go in on a group order, it comes in a bowl the size of a satellite dish.
El Havanero,1766 Main St.. Affordable and tasty Cuban fare and, as they say, conveniently located downtown. Excellent sandwiches. Gotta love all those artsy photos and the rooster painting.
La Teresita, 3204 Columbus Drive. The granddaddy. No way to go wrong, but maybe start with the ropa vieja. And for the ambience, try the lunch counter instead of the dining room.
Havana Village, 120 N. Dale Mabry Highway. Old bustling, traditional Cuban restaurant at the corner of Kennedy and Dale Mabry. Specializes in sandwiches. Cool old sign.
Mauricio Faedo's, 5150 N. Florida Avenue. A genuine traditional Cuban bakery from the old school.
Five Brothers Grocery, 930 Southard St. Perfect way to start a Key West morning when you're up with the wild roosters crowing in the streets. Café con leche and cheese toast.
M&M Laundry, White Street. Order a Cuban sandwich through the window counter while your clothes spin. Definitely a way to feel less like a tourist.
David's Café, Collins Avenue and 11th Street. This 24-hour counter is the perfect late-night stop in the middle of the Art Deco district. Always hopping with an international crowd.
Mini Market Coffee Shop. 6930 Collins Ave. Espresso, espresso, espresso. Sit at the counter and enjoy the scene: a continuous flow of older Cuban gentlemen in guayaberas who order a thimble of the black coffee, down it like a shot while still standing up and leave.