Growing up in a Cuban family in Miami, small family gatherings were weekend events centered around the food as it was prepared, cooked, and served in waves. In preparation for company, my father would pick up guava, cheese, beef, and coconut pastelitos (pastries) for a sweet brunch to start the day.
On these Saturday mornings, my father would also bring a loaf of Cuban bread fresh from Vicky Bakery. The crust was crispy, but fragile, and the mushy inside soaked up the melted butter. As a child, I would eat my Cuban toast with hot chocolate. There was a layer of chocolate that rose to the top when the milk was heated. I never stirred it because I enjoyed the first few bites of bread dipped in the concentrated chocolate. The bites after were just as decadent with the salty butter contrasting the sweetness of the hot, chocolate milk that oozed out of the sponge-like bread.
When I was older, I graduated to cafe con leche, which is coffee with milk. Cuban coffee, or “cafe,” can be described as a strong, nutty espresso. The amount of milk varies by person, but even as a kid, I usually liked my milk to be very dark. With my cafe con leche, I would often substitute the cuban toast with Gilda’s, cuban style crackers. My mother taught me to place a stack of crackers inside a napkin, and crush them with a closed fist. I tossed the crumbled salt-crackers into the coffee-milk and spooned them into my mouth like cereal.
The extended family would come over starting at noon. The grownups engaged in passionate discourses over drinks and loud Salsa music. In between Mario-Kart sessions on the Nintendo 64, me and my cousins would bounce around between the patio where the men grilled thick pork sausages and the kitchen where the women served fried plantains in the form of yellow, medallion-shaped tostones topped with minced garlic.
The Saturday drink inventories typically consisted of pina coladas, amber whiskey on the rocks, perhaps with a splash of coke, and an eventual transition to German-imported Becks lager, which Cubans refer to as “llave” (meaning “key”), in reference to the old-fashioned key featured as the beer’s logo.
For dinner, my mother would lead the “kitchen staff” in making arroz con pollo. This yellow rice is cooked in a pot of chicken and its broth. My aunt would help by making the classic Cuban “sofrito,” made up of minced and sautéed Spanish onion, green bell pepper, and garlic. For large gatherings, a baked version of the dish, called “arroz con pollo imperial” (imperial rice with chicken), would be prepared with added ingredients. The original arroz con pollo would be slathered in mayo and poured into a baking dish to be topped with mozzarella, strips of red bell pepper, and bacon. Once the bell peppers were roasted and the mozzarella sizzling, each portion would be served with fried, sweet plantains.
A shot of nutty cafe with lots of sugar was enjoyed at the end of meals to energize the visitors who had to drive home after a tiring day of food, family, and drinks. During this time, the cigar smokers would step out for one last patio talk about family, life, and circumstances.