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How Cuban food became Miami food

At the epicenter of traditional Cuban culture in Miami is Little Havana, and with it comes decades of rich history. Perhaps no other culture has shaped so much of South Florida. Cuisine is a perfect example.

What we think of as Miami cuisine is really our spin on traditional Cuban food. So how did Cuban cuisine come to have such a profound impact on Miami? We’re exploring that in a special two-part series.

First wave

A steady number of Cubans had been immigrating to the United States, specifically Key West, long before Castro took power. The first documented Cuban family to move to Miami was that of Eduardo Luis Gonzalez, in 1896. Numbers from that era are scarce, but some sources note that prior to 1959, there were as many as 10,000 to 20,000 Cubans in the Little Havana area. However, those migratory patterns didn’t garner much attention until the first wave.

There were four significant waves that changed the course of the city’s history, and the first began the moment Castro took power. The country’s elite were the first to leave. This group of elites included executives and business owners, merchants, and leaders of agricultural properties like sugar mills that were important to the country’s economy. Most of these individuals were in direct opposition to the new regime and needed to leave not only for fear of political persecution, but because many of their assets were being seized or threatened with seizure. Much of this movement occurred when travel between both countries was still legal.

A main product of this first wave was Operación Pedro Pan (Operation Peter Pan), where a total of 14,000 unaccompanied minors were brought to the United States to live with relatives or family friends for fear of their indoctrination. The Peter Pan children are now adults and their sagas have been documented in detail by the government and Miami institutions like HistoryMiami.

With so many Cubans arriving to the United States, a processing center was created inside of the Freedom Tower. Previously home to Miami’s first newspaper, The Miami News, the Spanish-style building operated as its own version of New York’s Ellis Island. Today, the building is owned by Miami-Dade College and houses an art museum. The building continues to serve as a symbol of freedom to many of Miami’s residents.

To further aid a smooth transition, the government established the Cuban Refugee Program in 1961, which distributed non-perishable foods to the refugees like powdered eggs, canned meats, and peanut butter.

At the time, nobody knew how long this new regime would last. Many came to Miami with hopes of one day returning home.

Freedom Flights

President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Freedom Flights, which took off twice daily, five times a week from Varadero Beach, with the inaugural flight on December 1, 1965. During this time, Castro also opened the Port of Camarioca to whoever wanted to leave. Miamians with access to boats went to pick up loved ones, who were not able to obtain a spot on the flights.

Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

By 1974, an estimated 250,000 Cubans had immigrated to the United States, but the number would continue to grow as things got worse.

Mariel Boatlift

In April 1980, a group of Cubans drove a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, requesting asylum. Firing ensued and a Cuban soldier was injured. The Peruvian ambassador refused to hand over the “dissidents” to the Cuban authorities. Cubans stormed the gates of the embassy, seeking asylum. In an act of retaliation, Castro opened up another port, Mariel, to whoever wanted to leave, but not before emptying out the country’s prisons and mental institutions, purposely sending those “undesirables” into the mix. Again, Miamians took to their boats to rescue loved ones. An estimated one 120,000 people arrived to Miami over the span of four months, to a city already packed with refugees. Individuals that came over during this period are known as Marielitos. It is important to note that not all who came during this period were criminals, but a stigma has prevailed.

Miami couldn’t handle such a dramatic influx, and eventually relocated several thousand immigrants to other parts of the country, mainly Tampa and New Jersey. For months, new arrivals lived in makeshift tents near downtown Miami. Tensions ran high during this time.

At the same time, there was further conflict with a growing immigrant community from Haiti that was not getting the same treatment as the Cubans. At the time, Haiti was in the midst of its own economic crisis at the hands of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was later arrested and charged with corruption and human rights abuses. Miami’s Haitian population has grown, with its own deep influences on Miami culture, but the differences in immigration law have remained. Meanwhile, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 provided fast track permanent residency for Cuban exiles. But why not Haitians and other immigrant groups? This would become the question of the decade, and there’s no easy answer.

Cuban Rafters Crisis

As communism reigned in Cuba, the country became heavily dependent on the USSR. In 1991, its collapse further hurt Cuba’s economy. This sent citizens into a frenzy. Many felt the need to get out even if it meant risking their own lives. This period saw a wave of individuals leaving Cuba illegally on makeshift rafts, or balsas. Individuals who came over during this period are known as balseros. The 1994 Balseros Crisis was ended by the Wet-Feet, Dry-Feet Policy, created in agreement between Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro. In an effort to control, the policy was an amendment to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. It states that any Cuban who makes it to shore in the United States can qualify for legal permanent resident status, while any Cuban immigrants caught at sea would be deported.

Today, South Florida continues to receive a large number of Cuban immigrants in part due to the policy. Additionally, the United States offers asylum to approximately 20,000 Cubans on a lottery system every year.

Little Havana blossoms

While the first official Cuban neighborhood in Miami was established in downtown Miami, near Gesu Roman Catholic Church and mere steps from the Freedom Tower, Little Havana is what remains synonymous with the Cuban experience in popular culture. Fully recovered from the effects of the 1926 Miami Hurricane, Prohibition, and the Great Depression, and coupled with population increases, Miami was a booming city when the first wave of Cubans arrived. They settled in present day Little Havana, due to its close proximity to downtown Miami. Little Havana was created from the merging of two distinct neighborhoods, Shenandoah (South Little Havana) and Riverside (East Little Havana). For decades, the neighborhood was a large and thriving Jewish community, but hit a bit of a slump in the’50s. Before that, Bahamians settled the area.

Little Havana began as a Cuban enclave, but over the years, those demographics have expanded to include large populations of Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Mexicans, among other Latin American countries. Walking down Calle Ocho, the community’s main artery, with its bakeries, salsa music spilling into the streets, Walk of Fame, cigar shops, and guayabera-clad Spanish speakers, visitors can feel transported to another country.

Courtesy of Mandy Baca

The phenomenon of the Cuban diaspora is one of immense importance and interest. While initially hopeful, the first immigrants eventually realized they might never go back to Cuba, and this proved the guiding strength for their businesses. They were scrappy folk and good businessmen, and quickly took over whatever businesses were left behind by the original inhabitants of their neighborhoods. They knew what they would have to do to recreate another Cuba here.

This group was not like diasporas in many other cities. Instead of assimilating to Miami, Miami was transformed into a much more Latin-centric city. Miami’s Cubans set up their own outpost of Cuba in Miami, changing the very nature of South Florida.

Here’s a vignette from the early days of Cuban Little Havana by Corinna J. Moebius in A History of Little Havana:

“Grocery stores and restaurants came first. Drugstores, furniture stores, cigar factories, bars and nightclubs followed. By the early ’70s, thousands of Cuban-owned businesses lined Calle Ocho, and thousands more small businesses thrived throughout the Miami area. Some of the cornerstone businesses still operating today were established during the time. The restaurants of Little Havana formed the core of the enclave economy. Cuban owners would hire Cuban workers to serve a mostly Cuban clientele. Pedestrian traffic was dense, and there was a variety of destinations: elegant restaurants for late dinners (Vizcaya and Centro Vasco), more casual hangouts (La Lechonera, Casablanca Cafeteria), intimate lounges (Les Amants) and nightclubs (El Baturro) — all staying open until the wee hours, fueling the street life of Little Havana.”

Like any other great cuisine, Cuban cuisine was heavily influenced by other countries and became its own through years of refinement. First, we need to understand some of those origins.

There is Spanish influence from when they colonized the island. In turn, they brought over African and Chinese slaves, who also infused their own traditions. This was all mixed together with the original products and traditions of the natives that were already on the island. Furthermore, each of the island’s provinces had their own custom prior to the Revolution.

Old and new traditions

Cuban food itself is a blend of cultures, blending Spanish and Portuguese flavors with Caribbean influences.

As noted by Linette Creen in A Taste of Cuba:

“Early on in their settlement the Spaniards brought livestock to Cuba: horses, cattle, chickens, and pigs. Vegetables and seasonings that were native to the island were added to Spanish meat dishes. For example, ropa vieja, Cuba’s famous shredded beef, was originally Spanish, but in Cuba peppers and achiote oil were added. Achiote oil is made with annatto seeds, which have an orange-red color and were used by the Indians to decorate their bodies. Achiote oil is also used to flavor picadillo, a chopped beef hash that is descended from an old Moorish dish; the Cuban version added tomatoes and peppers. Many don’t know, but there was also a small influence of Portuguese on Cuban cuisine. They brought with them a love of seafood dishes and salt cod, which the Portuguese imported from Newfoundland. The rich garlic and tomato flavored soups that Cubans prepared are typically Portuguese, as is the heavy use of parsley, cilantro, long grain rice, and sweet peppers. The most interesting one is the cake called Bacon from Heaven; it actually originated in Portugal.”

Similar to flan, except it doesn’t contain milk, the “heavenly” dessert does not actually include bacon in its ingredients.

A thesis paper on the study of Cuban culinary traditions during The Special Period by Lydia Mackie at the University of Miami notes that one of the first cookbooks to highlight Cuban cuisine dates all the way back to 1857 with Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español.

A common misconception for newcomers to Cuban cuisine is that it is similar to Mexican food and therefore spicy. Although Mexican flavors are quite different, Cuban cuisine sets also itself apart for being distinctly well seasoned.

Pork, another staple, is the most commonly eaten meat because it was cheaper to produce and more widely available. Other staples include sofrito, mojo, bay leaf, dry red cooking wine, and bouillon cubes. Native fruits include avocados, papayas, coconuts, pineapples, guavas, and mamey sapote, which is the national fruit of the country. As an island nation, seafood was an important part of the diet prior to the Revolution. Natural items like grouper, red snapper, shrimp, and tuna, are now scarce. Similar to other Latin American countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. They top it all off with decadent desserts that are extra sweet. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Cuban without a sweet tooth, stemming from their early roots in sugarcane production. Really, it borders on the point of patriotism.

In the beginning, food didn’t seem to get much better in the United States. Meals consisted of white bread and Velveeta cheese, iceberg lettuce, garbanzo beans, and bland vinegars and oils. Oh, and SPAM–lots of SPAM. Garbanzos with SPAM chorizo, Velveeta grilled cheeses, and frozen dinners were the recipes of assimilation. But alongside these stories, there are others: of the grandmothers and mothers that would not let their children eat the bologna, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Oreos that American children enjoyed in their brown bag lunches. Many early exiles did not taste those items until well into their adult years. The one thing in their favor was the abundance of familiar food products available in the supermarkets in the United States.

As things improved, more accessible markets opened, especially as many Cuban food companies had to move their companies to the United States. Open-air cafeterias with their ventanitas sprang up everywhere, and with them came the greatest gift to the city of Miami — Cuban coffee.

Miami Cuban

The move to Miami is when the food line got a little mixed up, and the authenticity of Cuban food reached a point of contention. What is real Cuban food? What got lost or changed in the transition? And of course, in many ways, Miami Cuban food is frozen in time, not taking into account the evolution of Cuban cuisine in Cuba.

Carlos Olaechea, a food writer and gastronomy master’s degree candidate at Boston University, noted that his coworkers who grew up under the Castro regime did not have access to something as ubiquitous to Miami culture as pastelitos. However, croquetas were quite common, even though those ingredients tend to be more expensive and the simple Miami street food was considered “luxurious” in Cuba. Most recently, he saw an advertisement at local favorite El Palacio de los Jugos for a canned meat product imported from Russia. Olaechea explains, “It is fascinating to note that now there is a budding nostalgia not for the pre-revolutionary food ways of Cuba, but for some food ways of contemporary and communist Cuba.”

Next week, we’ll take a look at present day Little Havana, exploring the spots that keep it connected to the past, and the new ones slowly changing the cuisine, and the neighborhood, for the next generation.

By Mandy Baca
Mandy Baca is a Miami native and freelance writer, who is obsessed with her city. She is also the author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, Discovering Vintage Miami, and the upcoming Cuban Cuisine from South Florida.