My friend Maria de Lourdes shared this essay with me years ago, and it stuck in my imagination. Here she shares her tale of Cuban black beans in a mostly White world.
My Mother’s Black Bean Recipe: el secreto
By María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda
To make authentic Cuban frijoles negros, the kind that are bien chulos, it is best not to follow the recipe found on the bag of beans. It was probably written by a gringo.
My mother taught me how to make black beans, the staple food of any cuban meal. And no one cooks like my mother.
Before ever turning on the stove, you begin by rinsing and sorting the hard beans. You wash the beans in a bowl with lots of care, shaking them, feeling your way through them, dipping your hands in and sifting them through your fingers as the water flows. This way you take out the dirt, the wrong color beans, as well as any other sort of impurity that might have covertly made its way into the bag during the packaging process.
For as long as I’ve owned memory, I walk a tight rope between two worlds.
Like the summit of Longs Peak in the snow-capped Rockies –– or more appropriately, like la Virgencita del Cobre –– to be a cubana seems something unattainable, remote. Being born in the island of rich coffee, sugar cane and intense cigars is no assurance. I admire it. I want to reach it. I aspire to touch. But I never accomplish it.
As an exiled Cuban in Puerto Rico, I am unceasingly reminded that I do not belong. I do not sound Puertorican. My words, my tone of voice, even the way I move my hands, are questioned, dissected, labeled. But with other cubanos –– my parents’ friends, even my own relatives –– I am the wrong color bean in the consecrated bag of black beans. I am the dirt threatening to spoil the virtue of the bag. I am a one-and-a-halfer, never acting Cuban enough or sounding Cuban enough. And my attempts to reach the summit are cute, commendable, yet dismissed with that shrug of the shoulders that adults of all cultures use, “¡que linda! mira como pretende ser cubana...”
Except I am not pretending. I do feel Cuban. I do want to touch la virgencita and be cleansed of my impurity. If I can only get it right.
When you are convinced that you have a quality grouping of beans, you settle them in a pot with water, but only with enough water to cover the beans and about two more inches on top. Boil the water and bean mixture uncovered for a full hour, making sure there is always enough water. Then you let it sit, covered, for several hours. Use your judgment. You will know when the beans are getting softer. There is no secret. They are either still hard and you did not boil or let it sit long enough or they are soft and ready.
Basically, if the beans sit overnight as they bag says, it is too long. They will smell bad, my mother says, like wet clothes that someone forgot on the floor of their room––allowed to dry on their own without proper washing.
Cubans don’t wear jeans. Cubans don’t spend the night at friends’ houses, that’s an American thing. Cubans don’t say gringo, that’s something “they” say. Cubans have black beans and rice with their Thanksgiving meal. We don’t want to forget la conexión cubana. Cubans always kiss on both cheeks when they say buenos días, except the people who––as you know––would not be comfortable with that tradition. Cubans would not do it that way. You just don’t. Isn’t it obvious?
Is that, too, Cuban? or is that simply meritorious of being a member of my family? I will never know. Like learning English, where you are taught to carefully memorize each rule along with its fifteen hundred exceptions, I can never get it right. Do it this way! But no, niña, not just then. Couldn’t you tell that it wasn’t the right time for that? Get it right. That situation was different from the others, obviously.
Crud. I wear jeans. I spend the night at people’s houses, just for fun. I do say gringo. And I don’t like black beans and rice with my turkey, stuffing and cranberries. I like hugs instead of kisses. Carajo.
I cannot tell when the beans are soft enough. I must have missed the first secret. Please, tell me. Boil me longer. I like to be Cuban. I am American. I am a hyphenated American. I am neither. I am both. I am nothing.
When you are absolutely sure that the beans are soft, then you begin to season them. I was once told by una americana that all beans are the same, the difference is just how you season them. When I shared this observation with my mother, she laughed a carcajadas––could not stop laughing and shaking her head. Obviously, la americana did not know what she was talking about. She did not understand.
Since you want the beans and the sauce they are in, the gravy, to be thick, never thin, you smash some of the beans. Obviously, not all of them. Then you begin to season them with a pinch of oregano, a bit of salt, some pepper. Use a little more comino and nothing but fresh garlic. Always add pure Virgin olive oil and some cider vinegar. It is essential that you season them now so that the spices permeate the mixture, like meat that is well seasoned and marinated before it is cooked, but that’s a different story. About half an onion and one green pepper, cut into small quarters, is usually enough.
Do not forget to use the appropriate amount, to taste. It is also a good idea if you put in a ham bone at this point to add to the flavoring. Cuban black beans without meat are just not Cuban black beans.
A pinch, a bit, a little bit of that. How can I ever get it right?
Being Cuban is a recipe with no measurements. It’s something you just have to know.
Did something happen to me? Between the time I was born in Pinar del Río to the time I left the island at 17 months of age, did a part get lost, a spice left out? Or did I have it then and lose it later, in my years pretending to be Puertorican––or even later, when I was learning to be una americana?
Parents embarrass teenagers for numerous and unforeseen reasons. But when you’re a ‘good kid,’ you pretend you’re not embarrassed when you secretly want to barf if your parents humiliate you just by being themselves.
Am I revising history now, looking back, allowing myself to feel now what I never would allow myself to feel then? Or was I honestly embarrassed by the fact that they could not––or would not––speak English? Yet when they did, their speech clang with strings of wrong pronunciations, intonations, inflections and malformations of the language. God, help me.
I either wished or think now that I wished that my parents could be normal. I either wished or now hope that they had known what a football game or a tail gate party was. I want them to teach me how to pronounce ‘cool’ and be able to help me dress to go to a high school dance. I just want to belong. I don’t want to be different.
Boil me more, season me, stir me. I’m sorry, really. Don’t give up on me. Maybe I can still be spiced just right.
After the beans have sat for a while, allowing the spices to become one with the grain, you begin to add the extras. These are the things that make your Cuban black beans truly unique, special. And this is where things get tricky.
Different Cuban cooks put different extras “into” their black beans. Some will add pieces of ham, usually when there is no ham bone. My neighbor used to put in some baking soda to help thicken the sauce, in case you did not smash enough beans early on. Others will cut up potatoes into cubes or quarters. I have even heard of people who add carrots or some other vegetable.
My mother always added potatoes and fresh tomatoes to her frijoles negros. That was part of her mystery, but not all of it. Because the potatoes can take so long to cook, she would cut them small enough to soften quickly but not so small that they would break up and become part of the sauce. The tomatoes were meant to blend in and basically disintegrate into the mixture. No secret there. And, of course, a good dry white Sherry wine is essential.
When I was thirteen, that wonderfully awkward and awful age of hormones, I moved to the United States from Puerto Rico. Specifically, my family of four moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the heart of the American south. This was my first experience with what it meant to live in los Estados Unidos.
When I was thirteen, I lost my name.
No one can pronounce Lourdes. And, although I fought with my Puertorican classmates back on their island about being more than another María, that’s exactly what I become. I am no longer María de Lourdes, or simply Lourdes––my honest preference––but just plain María. I hate my name, at least that’s what I remember now. But there is nothing I can do about it, or at least, that’s how I feel. Los americanos can not say the word L-o-u-r-d-e-s, like the town in France. But that just gets them more and more confused.
Like an amnesia patient trying to remember the familiar that never existed in her memory, I learn to answer to the name María.
When I was thirteen, I also lost my full identity.
It becomes tiresome and finally bothersome to try to explain to my southern teachers that I have two last names. No, it’s not a middle name. No, it’s not a second marriage. In Spanish, I explain ever so patiently, everyone has two last names, your father’s and then your mother’s (maiden) appellido.
What’s wrong with you? I want to say. What happened to your other last name? But instead I nod with them as they explain to me that that’s not how things are done here, in America. There is no space in the forms for all those names, you know. Here, everyone has a first and a last name and a middle name saved only for your mother and for official forms. That’s it. No extra ingredients. You can learn, María, you’ll see.
When I was thirteen I became an unfamiliar and unknown person.
I have a new name. I have only one last name. I have new furniture and a new bed. I speak two languages: English at school, as best as I can, and Spanish at home––so I will not forget it, my parents say. How can I forget the only language I know, I wonder?
When I was thirteen, someone changed all my ingredients. What do I taste like now?
Over the years I have had black bean soup, black beans with sour cream on top, black beans with curly, cut up green onions on top. I have had black beans so thick that they were only grains left. I have had black beans so thin that even I know that someone forgot to smash some grains. I have had black beans with habanero peppers (an ironic name for a Mexican pepper) that were so spicy that only Americans wanting to burn their mouth and throat would eat them. I have had black beans so plain and ungarnished that they had no taste. That is when my American friend would add, it’s all in the spices, you know.
As my mother says, the secret of real frijoles negros is in the knowing. A real Cuban cook obviously knows, and she laughs a carcajadas at those who think that innovations such as habanero peppers or sour cream can add some special taste to the beans. Cuban black beans are not pizzas, I can imagine my grandmother adding, they are not to throw all your left overs on top. But, as always, Americans must know best –– even when it comes to my culture.
When you straddle two worlds it is not easy to claim the “my.”
I read and write in English. I prefer it, really. I like to cook picadillo and spaghetti and enchiladas and potato soup and Caesar salad. I listen to Etta James and the Carpenters and Gloria Estefán and Gato Barbieri and Albita and John Denver. Recently, I fell in love with the golden sound of ‘boleros’ and ‘sones’ cubanos of the Buena Vista Social Club, especially the tunes poured out by their 77-year-old pianist, Rubén González.
I live in Oklahoma, a galaxy away from the Caribbean island of my birth. Yet I celebrate el día de reyes, Epiphany, and go to church on the 8th of September, whether they realize here or not that it’s the feast of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, patron of Cuba.
When you straddle two worlds it is easy to fall down. When I visit my relatives in Puerto Rico I am aware they are purer cubanos than I am. They speak with that cuban sing-song that I love, like a well-played bolero on the piano. They cuss and laugh out loud, not mindful of who’s looking, unlike my American friends. They wear thick jewelry and dressier clothes than I do. They cook real cuban food. They know the latest hit by any cuban singer and the names of every cuban baseball player in every major league team in the US. They just know things. No sour cream here.
And like a contestant on the Million Dollar Game, I want to call for help or take an audience poll when I’m asked the inevitable question that is thrown when it’s obvious you don’t belong––and where are you from? So, I don’t answer. I live in Oklahoma, I say, and I force them to remain puzzled. Or I shock the others who assume I’m somehow, inexplicably, one of them. Actually, my first language is Spanish. Oh, no, I’ve only lived here six years, I was born in the Caribbean. My cubanismo is a tool, a weapon really, to pry open the box that they try to put me in.
I am a one-and-a-halfer, I read somewhere. And I nod. I straddle and I fall. I sing in Spanish and write in English. I still add numbers in my head in Spanish, like Sor Yolanda taught me. I forgot my Spanish childhood prayers and had to (re)learn them in English with my children. I dream in silence, like the reality created by Charlie Chaplin. I cook frijoles negros, but never as good as my mother’s.
–– el fin ––