Fiction

Kitchen Mystic by Paulette Licitra

The Deconstruction by Karen Cantrell

Patisserie de Pakistan by Gregors Johnson

Meals of a Lifetime by Rebecca Keller

Ode to Risotto by Donald Newlove

Fully Committed by Doug Sovern

Biscuits and Gravy by William Blomstedt

Keeping It Tidy by Alan Linton

If I Knew You Were Coming by Alisha Lumea

On Your Only Day Off by Nicole Edwards

Bagpipes and Pan Fried Smelts by Ted Radakovic

Joseph Conrad’s Dark Linguini by Giovanni Berchtold

Missing Something by Jean-Luc Bouchard

We Love You, Mayonnaise! by Alona Martinez

Japanese Food by Esther Cohen

Raw Köfte by Hardy Griffin

Proust's Soup by Giovanni Berchtold

A Sacred Virgin by Paulette Licitra

on a friday evening by Keith Leidner

Ropa Vieja by Raul Palma

Deidre's Last Meal by Esther Cohen

Wired by Alan Linton

Chestnut by Katherine Gleason

The Moon is an Outdoor Sandwich by Patty Houston

Garlicky Greens by Lois Marie Harrod

First the Shell, Musical; Then the Custard, Irrevocable by Sarah Begley

Meals of Choice by Dorian Fox

A Low Table by Christian Aguiar

The Sylvian Fissure by Rosalie Loewen

Two Versions of Eating Potatoes by David Spiering

Conch Salad by Michele Ruby

Hopper by Michael Onofrey

Caution: Coffee is Hot by Gary Scott

The Fairy Part by Alberto Giuseppe

Foie Gras by Judith Edelman

Rosemary and Olive Oil by Gail Gauthier

Mario's Shoes by Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Cake by Marianne Villanueva

Retreat: October on Copper Mountain by M.E. Parker

The Sandwich Diaries by Angus Woodward

But There Was No Star Anise by Andrew Martell

Fruit Route by Susan King

Ropa Vieja

by Raul Palma

May 2014    

Two years ago, a local news station proclaimed Fidel Castro dead; I wasn't prepared for the events that followed. By 10am, Hialeah's 49th street traffic was a revolving parade nictitating with torn and discolored Cuban flags. Cubans and non-Cubans alike leaned out car windows, banging pots against pans. Offices emptied early. Students skipped school, went to the beach, made love along the shore. In bakeries all over town, people huddled together, laughing and toasting with 1.5 oz. Cuban coffee tasas―a sort of Colombian rocket fuel espresso―to independence.

Calle Ocho shut down where it intersects Versailles Cafeteria; local sweat-covered commissioners stood on the hoods of cars outside of the café walk-up window, ties flapping in the wind, proclaiming, in Spanglish, promises of a new future for trade between Miami y Cuba. For many Cubans, the chance to see long lost relatives seemed a possibility. There would be no more braving the Florida Straits in makeshift vessels. Elian Gonzalez would return to his rightful family. Nurses and paralegals in America would transform into surgeons or attorneys overnight. There would be the reclaiming of land divided among a people. Recent refugees scraping through Miami's underbelly for horse meat or scrap parts, trying to make a living, could leave America's cruelty for the trumpets and drums of Havana's constant Caribbean celebration.

That night Cubans of all ages rocked themselves to sleep under the warm guise of home: Habana; Pinal Del Rio; Varadero. They would walk on their native soil once again, they thought. They would see their families, return to their childhoods, and never leave the island of lizards and black beans again.

But Castro hadn't died. A few days later Castro delivered a heavily televised speech in La Plaza De La Revolucíon just to prove it; he was wearing his signature military uniform, faded from deep evergreen to an olive; he looked sick, his skin blotched and his voice wavering. For a while, Castro used tobacco leaves as a metaphor for his life. But somewhere between hanging the leaves to dry and the lighting of the cigars, Castro lost track of his thoughts.

Chencho was in my office, as he usually is, helping me decide on the catering menu for my next Doral Chamber of Commerce fundraiser when we first saw the broadcast. He pulled his white handkerchief from his suit pocket and threw it at the floor. "That piece of shit will live forever," he said.

Born and raised in Chicago, I'd never given Castro much thought. But I knew about Cuba: how health care was free, how people lived long lives. Cuba could not be all that bad, I considered. Che Guevara and Castro were friends, after all. And though I never admitted it, I always wondered why Cubans hated Castro. He looked like the kind of kid who always wanted to grow up and parade around town in make-believe military uniforms, and he'd done it. He'd come out from the mountains and made his dreams the best reality he could muster; it doesn't get more American than that. "Look at him," I said. "How could you wish him dead? He could be your grandfather."

Chencho finished his coffee and returned to his work. But then he digressed once more: "My grandfather rotted in jail for ten years because of that son-of-a-bitch."

"People go to jail for a reason," I said.

Chencho picked up his handkerchief and folded it back into his pocket. "When that piece of shit dies, I will host a feast in my home, my friend. Best Cuban food you will ever taste. You're a Yankee y tu no sabe; you would hardly understand, but I will ask you to join me. And you will see, I swear on my Tia Rosa, just what a piece of shit that desgraciado is."

"If you're cooking, I will be there."

"One day, my friend. One day soon. Maybe you'll finally get lucky with a nice Cuban girl. Even ugly gringos like you could get lucky when that bastard dies," he said, finally returning to his work, ultimately agreeing on roast pork and yuca frita for the fundraiser.

"I'm still a gringo<?" I asked.

"O.K. I guess you're aplatanado by now, with all the time we spend together."

I came to know Chencho well during my time working with him; born in a small town in Guanajay, just southwest of Havana, he was bald as a baseball with thick eyebrows that intersected above his nose. Up until the age of sixteen, he lived on a tobacco farm his uncle Guicho operated near a mountainside resort where Spaniards came to soak in salts and die under the palm trees. For Chencho, his time in Guanajay was idyllic, spent catching lizards, playing chapitas with the neighborhood kids, and occasionally sneaking into his uncle's tobacco drying house with a local girl.

The drying house, an old stone structure with a dark wooden roof, stood in a sea of tobacco crops that spread up the slope of a tree-filled hill. Its doors were never locked. Hanging from the ceiling, most of the year, were the long, sweet leaves, bunched and browned by the process. And there were seldom flies in the house, just rats and stray cats, here and there; it seemed the only place in his province that didn't have flies.

Chencho thought that sometimes the drying leaves looked like old browned laundry, twisted and hanging from the ceiling, only fragrant. But there were times in the year when the leaves were old and brittle, and it was during this time that Chencho would gaze out at the expanse of the still growing crop, knowing that it too would be hung from the ceiling soon; it too would lose its color. In time, the hung leaves would be rolled and shaped into cigars, distributed across the world and incinerated and smoked or stored and revered. In that house, surrounded by dried leaves, the scent of sweet tobacco was strong enough to clear Chencho's sinuses.

This was the life Chencho might have lived had he stayed in Guanajay―a place on his uncle's field, rolling or gathering tobacco. Though he was around good Cuban food through his youth, it wasn't until he was exiled from his childhood home and sent to Miami that he appreciated it; he got a job at a Latin America Cafeteria preparing puerco for the holidays and gained an interest in cooking: mincing, slicing, reducing, seasoning. Years of jumping from one cafeteria to the next, made Chencho quite a prolific cook in Miami, so much that he was recommended to me by the board, and so I commissioned him to work for the chamber.

The next day, at the fundraiser I co-hosted, Chencho prepared a pig in the parking lot in a traditional Caja China. The meat of pigs roasted in Caja Chinas slides off the bone―the flavor of the juice is proportionate to the crispiness of the skin―and at this fundraiser when he saw those strips of meat pulling apart, he remarked that it reminded him of his uncle and his home in Cuba―all those brittle tobacco leaves loaded on pick-up trucks in the mist of early morning to be sent into Havana for profit. He could still picture himself, wandering through the tobacco fields, leading stray girls onto the ground of the drying house.

"Chencho," I said. "What would your wife think? You talking about other girls?"

And Chencho laughed, serving me a plate of roast pork and yuca, adorned with the crispiest part of the ears. "I saved these for you, Albert. Don't tell my wife, por favor," he said. "Guanajay was a whole other world ago. That was a whole different me."

After the fundraiser, we met at the 87th Ave Cigar Shop to celebrate a good turnout. Once again, the topic of Fidel Castro's imminent death was raised, this time to be discussed within a cloud of smoke.

This is the feast that Chencho had in mind: there would be a few domino tables in his backyard, near the pool; spirits and live music―a local band named the Spam All-stars, who synthesize latin, funk, and hip-hop music; butler served appetizers―ham croquettas, fried plantains stuffed with shrimp; and finally, the main course: ropa vieja, black beans, and white rice, which we would prepare. There would be about fifty guests, he imagined. And the only real issue with the party would be the parking. "But I could hire valet, and they could shuttle people to the party," he said. "You could help me arrange that, couldn't you?"

"Sure. But why ropa vieja?" I asked, ashing out my cigar.

"Well, it means old clothing; its shredded meat cooked in a stew. The meat falls apart into a million pieces; it's the most obvious choice for a new beginning, don't you think?"

Most people know that ropa vieja was born of the Caribbean migrations to and from the Canary Islands in Spain. And there are many variations throughout the Caribbean and South America, though Cubans regard it as one of their signature dishes. But, Chencho tells me, there's another story: the legend of Jose Luis of Oriente―a man so poor that he only owned a single outfit. Each day Jose Luis would go out into the neighbor's garlic fields, trying to scrape by enough work so he could afford a meal. For many years, he was comfortable roaming Oriente's countryside in his tattered clothing. But then he fell in love with the neighbor's twelve year-old daughter, Dunia―a tall, slender girl with long black hair braided in pink ribbons. He often took his work breaks sitting under an old mango tree, watching Dunia play with her father's green parrot. And that parrot really loved her; it would follow her all around the yard, calling out to her: "Dunia, ven aqui. Dunia, baña te."

Using mostly lollipops and variations of flavored taffies, Jose Luis won Dunia's heart. And it wasn't long before Jose Luis decided to invite her family over so he could announce that they would be married. The trouble was the man was poor; he'd been working in the fields all day and had collected garlic and onions. But he could not afford the meat. So he took off his clothing and dumped it in a pot of boiling water; he'd been wearing that clothing for years. Dirt and sweat had baked into its fibers under the sun. It was the clothing he'd washed in the nearby river, down river from the cattle farms―the one that sometimes ran with floating turds. Perhaps if this was any other man, the dish might have been ruined, but this man's love for Dunia was so strong that it turned the boiled clothing into a wonderful shredded beef stew. That's what some people believe, at least. Others think there was something about the clothing, being worn for so many years, how it had become a sort of skin for Jose Luis and was therefore edible. But there are some people who believe that Dunia's father shot Jose Luis―rightfully so―threw his body in the river, and later went home where his own wife seasoned and boiled Jose Luis' clothing, which were later eaten in order to hide the evidence.

"If I was Dunia's father," Chencho said, re-lighting his cigar. "I would have shot Jose Luis too. I would have shot him in the cojones."

"But we can't be sure that's what happened."

"Por Favor, Albert. She was a little girl― twelve years old. Jose Luis was shot. Who wouldn't shoot him and then eat his clothing?"

II.

Today, I've been in Chencho's kitchen most of the day, helping him prepare ropa vieja y frijoles negros, and smoking cigars. It's not that I'm particular good in the kitchen, but when I also heard the news of Castro's stroke, I wasn't in the mood to work on budget plans either―it being the end of the work week and all. Together, we used half of a vacation day and drove to Publix Supermarket and purchased twenty pounds of flank steak, aceite olive, and thirty tomatoes: "we will make the tomato paste from scratch," he said.

Chencho wasn't sure he had enough cumino or cilantro in the house, so he stocked up on those too. On the way out of the market, while balancing this all in our arms, Chencho said, "And we should get rum and coke, too, for us. Tonight we drink to the promise of independence, and we prepare for tomorrow's feast."

"But what if this is another false alarm?" I asked.

"Mi amigo," he said with a smile. "Hugo Chavez volo a ver lo. Look around you. We are not alone in preparing for a party. This is no false alarm."

There's a new black iPod dock on his kitchen counter, playing Celia Cruz, and beside the dock, the mass of flank steaks, marbled and peeking through the ivory butcher's paper. Glass bowls cover half of the kitchen island. Each needs to be filled: diced garlic, chopped cilantro, ground cumino, stripped green bell peppers. Chencho hands me a navy apron emblazoned with palm trees, just like the one he's wearing, and a knife.

"Should we begin with the shirts or the pants," he says, and he pokes my stomach with his elbow. "I'm just kidding my friend. Hopefully, we won't have to use any real clothes." Chencho reaches below the counter and pulls out a giant pressure cooker and sets it on the counter; it looks like a submarine with all those valves and airlocks. "Forty-two quart capacity," he says. "And don't worry. This lid will not blow off the pot, as long as we seal it correctly."

Fifty people RSVP'd on Facebook. I booked the same valet company the chamber uses. But the Spam All-stars would be a no-show; we'd have to settle for a DJ.

In addition to these logistics, there were obvious challenges in the kitchen. Making ropa vieja for this many people would not be easy. And Chencho could manage those challenges; years of experience catering large parties had made him economical and efficient in the kitchen, not to mention he had all the necessary equipment. But there were some less obvious issues that were specific to my role in the kitchen. For one thing, I was lousy with a knife, slicing my fingers now and then and bloodying up garlic cloves. Then there were the Cuba Libres, which Chencho kept serving me. Truth was, I was too out of shape and clumsy to be prepping such a giant meal, but in the end, Chencho and his wife, Idania, helped me finish, so that each glass bowl was filled by nightfall. All that was left was the cooking. And that's the beauty of pressure cookers. After we'd loaded the pot with the meat, spices, oils, and then filled it halfway with beef broth, we simply set it to cook and went out into the yard to sit by the pool and smoke more cigars.

Idania, a short stocky woman, with bangs falling over her large dark eyes, followed us. She was sitting on the ledge of the pool, splashing her feet in the water by the flood light when she said, "So he dies, he dies. Sometimes I think we're not even Cuban anymore, living the way we live."

Chencho undid his apron and folded it beside him. "How could you say that, Idania?"

She pulled her feet out from the pool, wrapped her arms around her knees, and turned to us. "We have iPhones, Honey. We speak English more than Spanish. En el nombre de dios, we're cooking enough food to feed a city. This is not Cuban."

"If we're not Cuban, then who are we?" Chencho asked. "No somos Americano."

"Of course we are," she said. "We're American citizens."

"No. I know we are. You know what I mean."

His wife stood, wished me a goodnight and walked back towards the house. Standing by the French doors, she turned back and said, "So he dies, he dies. The damage is done."

She shut the door and turned off the kitchen lights, so that only the pool illuminated the yard. Chencho and I smoked more. But we didn't talk. All I kept thinking about as I held that cigar in my fingers was the pressure cooker. We'd sealed it, turned on the valves and levers. Chencho had even tested it. So I wasn't sure why I still feared that the lid would blow off in the middle of the night, covering his entire kitchen in pieces of shredded beef.

III.

The following day, Chencho and I met by the pool to setup for the party. It was October, and although the sun was near setting, the temperature was in the lower nineties. I'd rolled up my cuffs and shoved a bottle of cold water in my jean pockets. Chencho was wearing white linen pants and a yellow-linen guayabera with a few cigars in his front pocket; he was walking along the pool's edge, lighting mosquito repellent tiki torches with a long match.

"Did you see the news?" he asked.

"He's in a 'neurovegatative state,'" I said. "Not dead."

"Yes. Not dead, but he's all platanos in the brain. Enough reason to celebrate, no?"

"I don't need a reason for good food."

On his lawn, between a few mango trees and stray cats, some men from the Fiesta Party Company were adding the finishing touches on a white tent they'd raised, stringing red, white, and blue lights along the inner aluminum frame. By the tent, a young, platinum blond, large breasted woman wiped down Chencho's outdoor bar, perfecting a display of scotch and rum bottles. Tables were being adorned with name tags and party favors―dulce de leche puffs inside small "que rico!" tasas―by Idania and a few kids: cousins and neighborhood friends.

The DJ set-up shop by the pool: "the music can bounce off the water, compadre. This is how Cubans work acoustics, my friend," Chencho said, patting my back, proudly, and motioning to the lights reflecting off his swimming pool.

"This is really lovely," I said. "Is there anything I can help you with?"

"Albert. Mingle. Go get me a scotch. Oh, and mingle. Please."

"But there's nobody here yet."

"Practice then," he said. "Because there will be people here. My people."

I'm sitting at the bar, drinking a scotch and watching that cute blond fill her coolers with Presidente bottles and ice. Chencho's talking on his phone, pacing up and down alongside the pool. Sometimes the only way I can relate to Chencho's desire for Cuban Independence is when I think of the Chicago Cubs―how I've been a fan since the first grade. They haven't won a World Series in over a hundred years.

"You watch baseball?" I ask. The bartender ignores me. "What's your name?"

She's transferring Presidente beer from cases to the cooler: "Que?"

"Never mind," I say.

Despite this losing streak, fans still march to Wrigley Field for each and every game, hoping for something different. Some critics believe it's the design of Wrigley Field that has doomed the Cubs. Low walls on the east side of the stadium allow Lake Michigan's gusts to sweep in, intensifying the challenges that come with pitching and batting. A few changes, these critics argue, could create a normal playing environment, which could lead to a victory. But Wrigley Field has been around for over a hundred years; it's an American landmark; it practically defines baseball. And nothing is going to change it, not critics, not science, only the will of God.

The blond pours a bucket of ice into the cooler and wipes her hands on her jean shorts. She takes a napkin, wipes her forehead, and says, "What brings you to a death to Fidel party?"

She's not as cute up close. Her hair’s dyed. The roots, brown, are coming up just a bit where her hair is parted, and her face is pocked and smothered in concealer. Still, watching her sweating, serving me, her shirt tied up below her breasts exposing her stomach, makes me want to take her out back and get to know her better, privately, in ways that would seem completely inappropriate at the moment.

"I'm here for the food," I say. "And for my friend, Chencho."

"You asked me something earlier?"

"Yeah. If you watch baseball. And for your name."

"Of course. Como no," she says, kicking the cooler top shut. "I watch the Marlins. Diana."

"And the Cubs?" I ask. "I'm Albert, by the way."

"No. They suck. The Cubs, I mean. Not you."

"I watch them."

"The Cubs? Well, then you should stop," she says and laughs.

"If you were from Chicago, the north side, you'd watch them."

"Maybe," she says, returning to the beer cases. "Or maybe not."

I could imagine myself in Cuba, taking Diana into Chencho's Uncle's drying house, and loving her under the drying tobacco leaves―two prisoners exiled to paradise, perfectly content simmering around so much hunger and splendor. But there I go again, over romanticizing what it's like to be Cuban. Maybe if I'd been born in Cuba, in Guanajay, maybe I would have braved the sharks and currents of the Florida Straits too. Or maybe not. I don't know; I could be communist with a woman like Diana in my arms.

Guests arrived in the evening, driving up into Chencho's driveway and handing their keys over to the valet staff I'd hired―four recent immigrants. Even under the heat, guests were dressed for the occasion: men in wool suits, or button up-shirts and ties; women in knee-length cocktail dresses. They'd strut along a dimly lit path around the side of Chencho's house, towards the sounds of trumpets and drums, illuminating his backyard.

As a point, Chencho took me around the party―helping himself to butler-served ham croquettas or tostones along the way―while introducing me to his friends as his aplatanado boss at the Doral Chamber of Commerce. And he'd always say this: "Now why don't you tell my American friend why we should all be celebrating Castro's death." Answers varied: the appropriation of land, the imprisonment of loved-ones, betrayal, poverty, hunger, the abandonment of the Cuban people―how he'd taken the jewel of the Caribbean and had allowed it to crumble. But these reasons seemed rehearsed. Perhaps there was a time, long ago, when these Miami Cubans had felt pain and loss at their separation from their homeland, but on this night, while drinking premium rum in Chencho's yard, the celebration seemed more like an act of vengeance. For the most part, the first generation of Cubans had prospered outside of their home country; they'd built Miami, turning it into the metropolis it is today. They'd built families, had children, and had become grandparents. And how appropriate now, I thought, that they could look back on all their success, forsaking the man who had forever transformed their lives by leading them into exile.

Chencho arranged it so that I'd sit with his cousins, all of who had also grown up on his uncle's tobacco farm. Dinner was plated; a slop of ropa vieja lay on a small rectangular mold of white rice. Beside the rice were four fried plantains and a miniature white bowl of black beans. Written in sweet chili sauce along the ridge of the plate was a message: "Cuba Libre!!!"

At the center of the tent there was a white cake with the island of Cuba detailed in green icing and beside this cake was a table with a pyramid of plastic champagne flutes. Chencho said a few words: "May that rotten son-of-a-bitch forever rot in hell. And may we one day return to our homeland, freely." And then with the help of Idania, they poured the champagne into the highest plastic flute. Champagne bubbled up at the top and flowed from one tier of flutes to the next. Everybody stood, applauded. I set my napkin on my chair and went out to the front to smoke a cigarette, where four valet drivers were sitting on the sidewalk, listening to the radio and playing a game of dominos. I sat beside them to watch.

The valet drivers seemed cautious of my presence, but after a few domino hands, they loosened up. One of them offered me some chiviricos―fried and sugared dough. "Que haces aqui? What you doing here, boss?" Another one of them asked, pointing back towards the party.

"Just needed some fresh air," I said.

"You should go to Cuba," the driver said. "So much fresh air. Not like this country. Work. Work. Work. For what? Walmart?"

At the end of the night, I finally ate my food, and then I sat with Chencho in his living room watching television, while the party service company cleaned up the back. He'd had a great time; he'd always wanted to celebrate the death of Castro. "Only one problem," he said, flipping the channel to the Spanish news. A reporter was walking with Castro alongside a tobacco field, asking him about his health. Castro looked sick, but he was wearing a black track suit, new; Castro smiled and said that he was better than ever. He held up the previous day's newspaper, just to prove it.

"A foolish man holding onto a childish revolution. That man will never die," Chencho said, kicking off his shoes and socks.

"Why think about him then?" I asked. "If he bothers you so much, why think of him?"

"You still don't see what I'm telling you, my friend?"

"No."

"Because he did this to me," Chencho said, sitting up in his chair, lighting a cigar. "He did this to me. And if you don't see it, then you're just as blind as he is."

Chencho smoked and rocked in his chair. He closed his eyes. I sensed that his mind was going back to his home in Guanajay. I could imagine Chencho as a little boy, covered in dirt, sneaking into the drying house to chew leaves. It must have been an idyllic childhood, but now that was gone: his home, his chores, his rags. Replaced by a lovely home and wife in Miami. Replaced by a job in the culinary arts. Replaced by wool suits and Italian leather shoes. Replaced with English and capitalism and independence and traffic and all the things that make us American. All that remains of his childhood now is the smoke―tobacco leaves packed and rolled so many years ago―so I bum a cigar and smoke too. And we smoke until we can no longer see each other, even though we're sitting in the same room.



  Raul Palma is a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he works as an editorial assistant for Prairie Schooner. Winner of the 2014 Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Story Contest, his work has appeared in decomP magazinE, Midwestern Gothic, NANO Fiction, Saw Palm, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Photo used under Creative Commons.