Cubans can be family-centric and food-oriented.
"Food brings us together," said Eva Gabilondo Riviere.
Celebrations are attended by large, extended families that love to laugh, and the main focus is the traditional dishes prepared especially for these get-togethers. Recipes have been passed down from generation to generation.
When Riviere started making her dishes for people outside her family, the idea had been on her mind for a long time.
"It's a tribute to my parents, really."
Her family left Cuba in 1972. She was 5. Fidel Castro had established Communist rule there in 1965.
"My mother's family was from Spain, and began to leave right away," Riviere said, "because they could. But my dad was an optimist. He thought things would get better."
Her father was born in Cuba into a family who owned farming acreage. They lived in Varadero, now a resort area. Castro took the sugar cane and coffee plantations of all landowners and established Communist-style collective farms. Members of his regime also entered homes and seized valuables.
"My grandmother would put jewels in a handkerchief and put it out the window when they would search," Riviere said.
Riviere's father, an accountant when Castro came into power, was working as a farm laborer when he left Cuba. The hard, manual labor was linked to qualifying for a lottery that would allow them the chance to leave. Riviere's mother was a teacher and loved it, until Castro began to use the schools to indoctrinate students with his ideologies. One of the chants the Gabilondos found particularly offensive was, "Death to priests."
"We were some of the last people allowed to leave," Riviere said. "We never saw my dad's parents again. We left with nothing. By that time, it didn't matter. Leaving was the gift."
Riviere has a cousin who was a Peter Pan kid. Operation Pedro Pan was a mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962.
"His parents put him on a plane with a note pinned to his shirt because he couldn't speak English," she said. "When he had to make a plane change, he didn't know what to do, and a flight attendant helped. He's a character. When we all get together, he likes to kick back with his cigar in one hand and his Johnny Black in the other and retell the story."
Riviere mimics his mannerisms and accent when she shares that his story always ends, "I don't know who this flight attendant was, but if I did I would pay for her grandchildren's education."
He started in the U.S. as a janitor and worked up to a top executive role with AT&T.
After the Gabilondo family left Cuba they went to Spain for a couple of years, where Riviere's mother's family took them in. They left Spain for Santa Monica, Calif.
Riviere's parents worked hard. They learned English. After two years in California, Riviere's father got a call from her mother's brother. Her uncle was a chemist at Iberia Sugar Camp and helped his brother-in-law get a job in an accounting firm. Riviere's mom worked as a bookkeeper with the same firm. That's how they wound up in Southwest Louisiana.
"That's how they put us through school," Riviere said. "That was their ultimate goal, their dream."
When her father was dying in 2014, Riveire told him she was going to sell her Cuban food and name the business, Gabilondo.
"I remember it like yesterday," she said. "We were at Memorial Hospital, and he had this big smile on his face."
After her father died, her mother — whom Riviere describes as "love personified," was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She lived with the Riviere family for four years. It delayed Riviere's action plan, and solidified her resolve. She lost the person she spoke Spanish with, but she had her mother's recipes. Her aunts provided others. The food was a way to keep the memory going.
Cuban food is flavorful, but not as hot and spicy as Mexican food, according to Riviere. Influences are Spanish, African and Chinese. In the 1800s, Africans brought plantain. The Chinese introduced rice.
Riviere can be found dishing up enchilado de camarones, (a Cuban-style shrimp creole not to be confused with the Mexican enchilada), pasteles de guayaba (guava pastries), empanadas, tostones (fried bananas), Cuban sandwiches and other favorites at the Cash & Cary Farmer's Market Tuesdays, 4-6 p.m., (when there's not a stay-at-home order and social distancing is no longer recommended.)
Garlic Roasted Pork Shoulder
(Yields 8 to 10 servings)
1 pork shoulder, 7-8 pounds, washed and blotted dry
1 head garlic, broken into cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoon oregano
Fresh black pepper
2 cups sour (Seville) orange juice (or ½ cup fresh lime juice and ½ cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups Mojo Criollo (see recipe)
1. Stab roast with chef's knife making ½ deep holes, 2 inches apart all over roast.
2. Place roast in baking dish.
3. Place garlic and 1 tablespoon of salt in a mortar and pestle, and pound to a paste.
4. Pound in remaining ingredients, except Mojo Criolla. (Or, mix ingredients in a blender.)
5. Pour over pork, forcing marinade into holes.
6. Cover with plastic wrap.
7. Marinate roast in refrigerator 12 to 24 hours, turning several times.
8. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
9. Heavily season roast on all sides with salt and pepper and place, fat side up in roasting pan. Bake until nicely browned and cooked through, 3 to 4 hours. If meat starts to brown too much, reduce heat to 325 degrees and cover with foil.
10. Transfer roast to cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice and serve with mojo on top.
(Makes one cup)
6-8 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium-sized onion, very thinly sliced
½ cup sour (Seville) orange juice or ¼ cup sweet orange juice and 1⁄8 cup lime and lemon juice
½ cup pure Spanish olive oil
1. Using mortar & pestle or food processor, crush the garlic with the salt to form a thick paste.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine the garlic paste, onion and juice. Let the mixture sit at room temperature 30 minutes or longer.
3. Minutes before serving the mojo, heat the oil over medium-high heat in a medium-sized pan until it's very hot. Add the garlic mixture – quickly. It will splatter. Stir and serve immediately. To reheat, simmer over low heat until heated through, 6-8 minutes. The sauce keeps several weeks refrigerated. Makes one cup.
*1 loaf Cuban bread
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 small dill pickles, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 slices Swiss cheese
4 oz. sliced roast pork
4 oz. sliced boiled and baked ham
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Trim the ends of the loaf. Slice bread in half lengthwise.
3. Spread both cut surfaces with mayonnaise. Layer on half with pickle slices, cheese, pork, ham. Cover with second slice. Cut down the middle for two sandwiches.
4. Place the sandwiches on a lightly oiled baking sheet and brush the tops with butter.
5. Place a heavy cast-iron skillet over both sandwiches to weight them down, and bake until crisp and hot, about 20 minutes.
*Cuban bread is similar to French and Italian, but it's made with lard or vegetable shortening and is less rounded.