There she discussed her decision process about which recipes would go in her book, The Cuban Table, her fascinating encounters with people across Cuba as she researched the origins of Cuban recipes, and the importance of being able to cook and pass down the legacy of traditional dishes through the generations.
As a second generation Dominican, I value the importance of understanding my family’s culture and see the danger of it being lost to generations who might have no interest in comprehending how to make traditional Dominican dishes.
I unfortunately had to leave Pelaez’s panel before she could delve deeper into her book and why Cuban recipes are pertinent to her heritage. Therefore, when I found out Pelaez would be presenting her book again at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Dec. 11, in collaboration with the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, I made sure to go.
At Books and Books, the room was crowded to the point that there were no chairs left and people were standing, with more arriving.
Pelaez was co-presenting with the photographer of her book, Ellen Silverman, who has made a career photographing for cookbooks. Silverman’s talent can be seen throughout The Cuban Table, from capturing the kitchens of Cuban homes and the cooks who peel the onions for family dinners, to showing the chefs who’ve converted their homes into small restaurants or residential kitchens, serving customers. Her photographs are enticing, as if each dish photographed was served fresh and steam might begin to rise from the pages.
Silverman described photographing during her fourth trip to Cuba: “People were so willing to engage. Being able to travel and collaborate together was really wonderful. It made the experience richer for me.”
Pelaez noted during her very first trip to Cuba people discussing the ingredients which are no longer available and can’t be found on the island. Even worse, her recent trip to Cuba was marked by the extinction of some dishes. “[On] this last trip, it was shocking to see how many things have fallen out of memory.”
Basic herbs can no longer be obtained on the island. When asked if she could find cilantro, Pelaez explained the herb, which is a staple ingredient in many Latin recipes, hasn’t been available for some time. Many cooks in Cuba now use Culantro as a replacement.
Towards the end of her discussion, Pelaez opened the floor up to questions. Even though her panel focused on the unfortunate dwindling resources and dying traditional dishes of Cuba, the questions posed to Pelaez ranged from what was her favorite recipe, to whether there was any political iconography in the kitchens that were photographed for the book.
Yet, I believe Pelaez’s most profound response was her explanation about how much her grandparents influenced her cooking.
“From my father’s side, my grandparents really loved to cook. I say this in the book, when I asked my grandfather how he learned to cook he said exile. Because when they came to this country in the early 60s, they didn’t know where to start. So they learned together and they came to it late in life, and it was something I think they fell in love with.”