On August 1, 1961, late in the evening, the track of Maria Mendez’s life changed forever. Up until that point, she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing as a self-described “spoiled rotten” little girl at the largest sugar mill on the island of Cuba. Even at a young age, she could tell tensions were high across the country; her parents had begun listening to the shortwave radio in the evenings and speaking in whispers so the children wouldn’t hear. When things got really tense, they switched to English to make sure their conversations were confidential. Maria might have felt something was coming but never imagined what.
From the darkness, there was a frantic knock at the door. Dr. Venegas, the family physician and a close friend, was there, out of breath and agitated. He asked to speak to Maria’s father and told him that the family must leave Cuba immediately. Earlier that day, he explained, he had tended to a revolutionary agent who was in a fatal car accident on the main highway, and inside the man’s jacket was an arrest warrant for Maria’s father.
“That evening will always be engraved in my mind,” Maria says (in her 2008 memoir entitled “Cuba, It Matters”), remembering the moment that turned her family into fugitives. Although all their relatives had fled post-revolutionary Cuba for America earlier that year, Maria’s parents were determined to stay until it was no longer possible. That moment had arrived.
“My parents loaded the car in silence, their eyes revealing tremendous sadness. Dad told us that if by any chance we were pulled over, we were to keep still and very quiet. He tenderly laid us on the floor of the car and covered us with a blanket. My father was 36 years old, and my mom was 32. Later in life, I could visualize how hard it must have been to leave behind the world they knew, all their possessions, the home they loved, and depart for a foreign country with mom pregnant and four young children. I, the oldest, was only 9. I have asked myself numerous times if I would have had the courage to turn my back on everything and walk away.”
In those last days, as her family made preparations to leave Cuba, she remembers sitting in the darkened window of one of her relative’s abandoned houses in Havana, trying to absorb everything around her — cementing her memories. “A powerful force overcame me as I sat by the window trying to capture every image. Mi Cuba.” My Cuba.
Just one week after that fateful knock on the door of their home, her father left Havana on a jet plane bound for Florida without his wife and children. “My dad departed for Miami with the Panamanian ambassador, who was a dear friend of the family, posing as her lover.”
The following day, Maria, her pregnant mother and three siblings made their way to Havana’s José Martí International Airport. Officials were waiting to take them to a small interrogation room, and the children had been instructed to say their parents were getting a divorce. “I hardly knew what that meant,” she remembers. “They checked our luggage, and it seemed an eternity until the authorities let us go, and we heard the intercom announcement of a Pan Am flight bound for Miami. That day I left my beloved Cuba.” Her father was waiting for them at the arrivals in Miami, where the family was reunited in freedom. Forty-two years would go by before she would return to her home country.
Today, Maria pours a cup of Cuban coffee in the kitchen of a comfortable suburban home in Spanish Fort. Over empanadas and two fingers of Havana Club rum, she shares her story of exile, forgiveness and success.
Assimilating into American culture, she remembers, was no easy feat. As a child, she struggled with the language, the schools and the friends. But getting accustomed to life raising a large family with little money and no help in cramped quarters was downright shocking to her parents — her mother especially. Luckily, with her father’s background as an agronomist and chemist with an expertise in sugar, he found employment quickly, and the family began to prosper before long.
While they moved around the Americas throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Maria was always searching for a way to connect with her homeland. She would knock on the door of every Cuban Embassy she came across, from Panama to Mexico to the Bahamas, hoping for a chance to talk with anyone who shared her history. That willingness to form connections blossomed into a career as the Latin America Manager for the Port of Jacksonville, Florida, where Maria organized the first shipment of goods to travel between the U.S. and Cuba since the revolution. “Chickens,” she says bluntly, of the groundbreaking cargo she brokered, bringing much-needed food to the starving people of her homeland.
Then, at the age of 51, Maria decided it was time to go back. At the invitation of the Cuban government, she became the first member of her family in more than 40 years to travel the short distance to Cuba, and she remains the only one of her family who has done so to this day. “Not all Cuban-Americans will understand my willingness to visit,” she admits, “but I just want to share this culture with everyone, to celebrate it. And to help the people there. The embargo hurts everyone.”
On her first trip, she was invited to dinner with Fidel Castro himself, but when the appointed hour came, she was overcome with panic, felt sick to her stomach and cancelled the event. “The next day, I was told he was waiting for me, so I had no choice but to go. And the first thing he said to me was ‘I am not as bad as they say I am. Let’s talk.’ And that’s what we did.” As Castro tried to convince the trade manager that Cuba had two main things that Americans wanted — rum and cigars — she cut him short. “You are wrong, Comandante,” she remembers telling him. “Cuba has so much more to offer the world than that.” Castro remarked that it was the first time he had been corrected like that, and by a beautiful Cuban lady, and the two developed a good working rapport from then on. She was a welcomed guest in Havana many times after that but always with the goal of furthering talks, developing trade and helping the Cuban people.
Standing in front of her bar, she shows off a bottle of Cuban rum aged 18 years. She doesn’t drink that one. In fact, she says she doesn’t drink much at all, despite her extensive collection of Caribbean rums and quirky glassware. “I come from a long line of people in the sugar — and therefore alcohol — business,” she shrugs.
She recently retired from an accomplished career at the Port of Mobile as Director of Latin American Trade Development, and she and husband Jesus have bought a new home. A landscape crew is hard at work installing a pergola and patio overlooking the neighborhood lake. Her kitchen might be gleaming white new construction, but her walls are covered with bold Caribbean paintings, textiles and masks.
If you have the impression that Maria is rocking her years away, however, and gathering dust, you’re sorely mistaken. In this home, where her new life melds with her old, she has found a way to combine her love for her Cuban roots with her savvy mind for business. She has launched a new venture: cooking up empanadas, Cuban pastries and sofrito to sell at local farmers markets. She confesses she even has a patent in the works.
After a lifetime of extending a hand and making connections, Maria continues the trend into retirement. Although she left Cuba long ago, it is clear it never left her heart. Her goal now is to keep sharing the culture of the tiny island nation with everyone she meets, even if it’s only one delicious bite at a time.
Sofrito is the base of any hearty meal in Cuba. Garlic, onion, bell peppers and tomatoes are pureed in the blender or food processor and then stir-fried (“sofrir” means to fry in Spanish) in olive oil. Sofrito is to Cuban dishes, such as arroz con pollo, picadillo and ropa vieja, what mirepoix is to French cooking or the Holy Trinity is to Cajun cuisine. Maria bottles her mix and keeps it in the fridge for up to a week, making meal prep a cinch.
Local grocery stores sell frozen empanada dough, already rolled out and ready to go. Look for it in the frozen ethnic foods section.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, diced
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water or milk, as needed
1. Mix flour and salt in a food processor. Add butter and pulse. Add egg and water or milk (in small increments) and continue pulsing until a clumpy dough forms.
2. Split the dough into 2 large balls and flatten slightly into the shape of disks. The dough can be used immediately or refrigerated until ready to use (1 – 2 days, max).
3. Roll out the dough into a thin sheet and cut out 5-inch round disc. (Use a small plate and sharp paring knife if you do not have a cutter that size.)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, sliced
2 bell peppers (red and green), sliced
2 – 3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon paprika
3 small cans tuna fish in water
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 cup sliced olives
1 – 2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt and pepper, to taste
1 egg, lightly whisked for egg wash
sugar, for dusting
lime wedges, for garnish
1. Heat oil in a large frying pan. Add onion, peppers, garlic and paprika. Cook until onion and peppers are soft and start to brown, about 15 – 20 minutes.
2. Add tuna fish and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir as needed.
3. Add oregano, sliced olives, capers and lemon juice. Mix well and add salt and pepper to taste. Cook for a few minutes more, then remove from heat and let the tuna fish mix cool down before filling the empanadas.
4. Preheat over to 350 degrees. Line a baking tray with parchment paper and set aside. Fill a small bowl with water and set aside. Lay one empanada shell on a plate. Scoop about 1/3 cup filling mixture into center of dough. Wet a finger in the bowl of water and use to dampen 1/2 inch of dough around the edges. Fold the dough in half to close. Lightly crimp all the way around with your fingers to seal, and then fold the edges up towards the center from end to another, overlapping as you go. Set the empanada on baking tray and repeat until all of the filling has been used.
5. Brush the tops of the empanada with egg wash and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake for 10 minutes, or until a light, golden brown. Serve with a lime wedge. Makes 24
Arroz con Pollo a la Chorrera
8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 4 large pieces
1/2 cup mojo marinade, like La Lechonera or Goya
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
4 cups beer or chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
1 4-ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons anatto powder
3 bay leaves
3 tablespoons granulated bouillon
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups uncooked Valencia rice
1 cup frozen peas
vegetables for garnish, optional
1. In a large bowl, marinate the chicken with the mojo marinade for 30 minutes or up to overnight in the fridge.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown on both sides, then transfer partially cooked chicken to a plate.
3. Add another 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté onion, garlic and green peppers, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent and the garlic is fragrant. Add beer or chicken stock, wine, tomato sauce and seasonings. Bring to a boil. Add the chicken back into the pot. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes.
4. Meanwhile preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir in the rice and frozen peas. Cook in oven, covered, for another 20 – 25 minutes or until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Serves 8
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup rum
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 can condensed milk
1 can evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 dash of salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt sugar with rum and lime juice until liquefied and golden in color. Carefully pour this hot syrup into a 9-inch round glass baking dish, turning the dish to evenly coat the bottom and sides. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, beat eggs. Beat in remaining ingredients until smooth. Pour egg mixture into the baking dish over the caramel. Cover with aluminum foil and place inside a larger baking dish. Add hot water to the larger baking dish until it comes 2/3 of the way up the sides, creating a hot water bath for the custard. Bake for 60 minutes.
3. Remove from oven and let cool completely. To serve, carefully invert on serving plate that has edges (to catch sauce). Serves 8
Maria’s Cuban Art Collection
Maria Mendez’s Spanish Fort kitchen is full of bold flavors and bright colors