I wish I could say that I learned to cook Cuba's classic dishes – among them, rice and black beans (called, cheekily, moros y cristianos – the Moors and the Christians), ropa vieja and rice pudding – at the elbow of my mother-in-law, but that would be a lie. Although practically every good story I have to tell about Cuba begins and ends with food, my mother-in-law still doesn't let me in her kitchen, even after a decade's worth of visits.
I'm grateful, then, for recently released cookbook The Cuban Table, by Cuban-American food blogger Ana Sofía Peláez and American photographer Ellen Silverman, which was published before the change in U.S.-Cuba policy announced by President Obama last week. The book is full of Cuba's signature plates, from traditional Cuban sandwiches and the island's particular take on the hamburger (known as the frita cubana) to potaje, a thick, starchy stew. While my husband is usually the one manning our stove, knowing that I can cook some of the familiar comfort foods of his Havana home by following these recipes brings me pleasure.
But The Cuban Table isn't just a cookbook. It's an affirmation of how central food has remained to Cuban culture, even – especially – in the face of limitations, both of ingredients and money. Cooking in Cuba, Peláez and Silverman remind us, requires the kind of ingenuity often associated with Cubans: the spirit of resolviendo, of making anything work no matter what the circumstances. In Peláez's stories of her and Silverman's trip across Cuba, she speaks to another attribute of Cuban culture: profound generosity. Time and again, she explains, she and Silverman showed up at someone's humble home, ultra-conscious about being a burden, only to be welcomed in heartily and given a place at the table. It's a dynamic I've witnessed over and over during my visits to Cuba. Unlike my home, where we always worried whether we'd have enough food if someone showed up for dinner (an unlikely scenario, in any event), my mother-in-law has complete faith that whatever she's cooking "se alcanza"– will be enough, no matter who might show up. More often than not, someone does, and she's right: There's always just one more spoonful of whatever's being served.
Peláez's cookbook isn't the only recent volume devoted to Cuban classics, but it is among the best. With full-color photos, easy-to-follow directions and engaging anecdotes, The Cuban Table is a very welcome addition for English-speaking readers and a reminder that the cornerstone of hospitality isn't how well one cooks, but how welcome we make each other feel.