The Cuban Kitchen
11:44 am
Wed August 21, 2013

The Cuban Kitchen: How Nitza Villapol Brought Mother, Daughter Closer Together

Bren and Betty Herrera cook at Betty's house in Virginia. The Herrera children often have dinner at their parents' house.
Credit Bren Herrera

Bren Herrera, 34, grew up hearing her mother, Betty, 62, tell stories about life as a young wife and mother in 1960's and 1970's Cuba, when food shortages and rationing were part of life.

They would both laugh over a story about a drunken chicken Betty smuggled into Havana from the countryside. (Below is the full, translated story, as told by Betty Herrera. The story was edited for radio.)

Bren and Betty (Click here to listen to the radio version of this story.)

  The Tale of the Drunken Chicken

We went to visit friends in Pinar del Rio, in the countryside. 

They gave us a chicken as a gift.

In those days, you couldn't bring any produce or food product from outside of Havana back into the city.

My husband didn't want to bring the chicken on the bus. In those days, if they caught you bringing food from the outside, they would fine you.

Our friend said 'Wait, I know what to do!'

So, we put rum in a pan along with corn and we let the corn absorb a lot of the rum. Then we let the chicken eat A LOT of corn.

And that chicken fell on the floor--drunk, drunk, drunk.

Then, we put the chicken in a box and we went to Havana.

At that time, I was pregnant with Bren. I started to feel nauseous. I told my husband, "I can't take it anymore."

The bus driver had to stop.

My husband told me, 'Please hurry because the chicken is going to wake up.'

said, "What chicken? I'm not thinking about a chicken. I'm thinking about me because I feel really ill!'

But I was worried that if they found the chicken, they would kick us off the bus and take the chicken away.

Right when we got off the bus in Havana, the chicken began to peep. I said, 'Thank God, we arrived just in time!'

Stories like this made Bren and Betty chuckle, but watching a documentary together about famous Cuban cookbook author and TV personality, Nitza Villapol, made the struggles and emotions of that time vivid and real (see the video below.)

Bren says, "It's one thing for someone to tell you a story and laugh about it." She was surprised to see her mother's laughter subside as she "sank into her chair and started just kind of quietly crying."

VIDEO ABOVE: The documentary about Nitza Villapol includes footage from her cooking show. Bren Herrera: "If Nitza inspired cooks all over the island to remain hopeful and find joy in cooking, it’s no wonder she’s revered as a national treasure. " [Read the original post from Bren's blog, Flanboyant Eats, that inspired this post and its radio version.]

Betty Herrera's copy of the Nitza Villapol cookbook, Cocina al Minuto. Bren says her mother is very strict about the priceless book: it is not to leave the kitchen. When they were little, the Herrera children were not allowed to touch it.
Credit Bren Herrera/Flanboyant Eats

In the video, Villapol recounts different shortages in Cuba: no manteca, or cooking lard, no eggs, no meat. On her cooking show, Cocina al Minuto, Villapol counseled viewers on how to cook with new ingredients or how to alter recipes; she demonstrated how to fry eggs without oil or how to cook flan with only one egg.

As a young mother and wife, Betty took notes as she watched Cocina al Minuto: "It's funny to watch [the video], but it really was like that. These were the things that made Nitza's TV shows so beloved by Cubans. She was always inventing and trying to make things better, trying to make things a little easier for people in such a hard time."

After watching that video, Bren understood, in a much more visceral way, her mother's struggles as a young mom in her teens and twenties: "And [Mami was] like 'Ay mi hijita, I'm so glad those days are over, but so you know this is where your mami comes from and this is what your mami had to do at 18, 19, 20.'" 

To read more of Bren's stories and recipes about the Cuban kitchen, visit her blog, Flanboyant Eats.

RECIPE: Bren Herrera's take on arroz con leche.

This post is part of our Cuban Kitchen project. What are your favorite memories of being in, around, or inspired by a Cuban kitchen? Tell us what made them special. Or share your stories with us on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #CubanKitchen.