Ever since I can remember, the times I have felt most connected to my Cuban culture are either when I’m in the kitchen or on the dance floor. My dad, Jose, was born in Havana, Cuba and came to the United States when he was five years old. We didn’t speak a lot of Spanish in the house when I was growing up, but to me, the food and music were a different language – a love language from my Latin heritage.
Cuban food was mostly saved for special occasions and holidays in our home. My dad always made it a big production that I looked forward to being a part of, which if you know Jose makes perfect sense because his personality is larger than life! Every single time my dad cooked his Cuban food it felt as if he was going into challenge Bobby Flay on an old Food Network episode of Throwdown. When I started working at Food Network, my dad asked if I could set up a Cuban Black Beans battle between the two of them. (Bobby if you ever happen to read this… Jose is ready for a challenge in New York City!)
Whenever family or friends came over to the Rodiles household for a dinner party or maybe even just a casual Sunday hang out, they knew there was a pretty good chance the night would end with salsa music blasting from the speakers in our living room and my dad showing off on his bongo drums. I grew up learning how to salsa by standing on top of my dad’s feet while he whisked me around. The Buena Vista Social Club and Gloria Estefan were go-to CDs before we could shuffle a curated Latin hits Spotify playlist. When I hear the salsa beat now, my feet start moving and my hips start turning like we’re back in the home I grew up in in Phoenix.
Sharing the love of everything Cuban has always been natural to my dad. When he married my mom, a North Dakota girl who moved to Phoenix, he infused his salsa music-loving, dance party-starting, life-of-the-party personality in her family. When my family experienced several tragedies over the course of the last 12 years, it felt as if Cuban food was a small part of healing and new beginnings.
I got to witness dad’s effervescence and Cuban heritage be injected into a new family when he remarried after my mom passed away. I am so grateful that my step-mom, Susan, her kids, Brittany and Cameron, and their whole extended family and friends have embraced everything Cuban in the last 10 years. While they were being exposed to something new, I felt even closer to our culture.
My dad wanted to share his food and music with them, so I too got to reap the benefits. Slowly over the years he let me in more and more to the kitchen while he was preparing his Cuban feasts. My dad is a very by-the-book chef guided by the cookbook, Cocina Criolla, that my abuela also used. When he’s cooking, the kitchen is a sacred space that he likes to run. It took some convincing to let me help him prepare the food and some very apprehensive “yes’s” to let me film along the way.
In the last few years, Noche Buena has become a highlight for our new blended family. We’ve adopted the tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve with a big Cuban food feast, reminiscent of those all-out gatherings I grew up with. Typically now my dad makes a big mojo-marinated pork, Lechon Asado, with black beans, rice, plantains, avocado and a generous side of salsa music. Year after year I got to unofficially become his sous chef and help with everything from the grocery shopping to the final plating. After lots of observing and being a sponge about his cooking methods over the years, I finally got to show him what I could do last year when work commitments meant he wasn’t going to be able to prepare everything on his own. I got our mojo marinade ready for the pork, which is a big deal because this sour orange, onion and garlic sauce is the key to iconic pork. I even surprised him with an extra pot of Ropa Vieja, which we hadn’t made in years. He was so proud, and I was so honored to surprise him with the results of his teaching over the years.
That Noche Buena dinner ushered in a new desire for me to get my dad and my uncle’s Cuban recipes on paper outside of the cookbooks my dad used or free styling my uncle would do in the kitchen. The timing was really meant to be because over the last month, I have had the opportunity to develop Cuban recipes for the Food Network Kitchen app. The process of putting our family’s takes of these recipes into line-for-line ingredients and procedures that others could use to replicate dishes at home was such an incredible experience. I was challenged to recall the sights, sounds and tastes of childhood, decide which parts of the line-for-line measurements my dad used that I wanted to keep, and put quantities on Tommy’s free styling in the kitchen. I tested the methods I knew my abuela would have used to create Ropa Vieja, and decide which parts to evolve in my version of the recipe and which were essential to keep. Developing these recipes required hours of research and watching YouTube videos to understand what other Cubans were doing around the world, and it made me feel that much closer to the culture. Cooking the Potaje de Garbanzos, a Cuban garbanzo bean stew, and Ropa Vieja, classic Cuban shredded flank steak, live for fans watch was so utterly special.
I may not speak perfect Spanish and I might look a little too ethnically ambiguous to be definitely Cuban, but cooking Cuban food most certainly makes me feel connected to my heritage. Developing these recent recipes has made me want to dig even deeper into the Cuban food my dad and uncle grew up. I hope with all my heart that these recipes that are now out in the world will bring a sense of that effervescence of Cuban spirit to people’s homes and kitchens, too. As you’re cooking, turn on a little salsa music. When you take a bite, I hope you, too, feel a little closer to Cuba.