Nov 25, 2019

Recipe: Panetela Borracha
(Drunken Sponge Cake)

 Warning: this very rich sponge cake soaked in sugar syrup is addictive! You know from its weight on your plate that it is hundreds of calories per forkful, yet you always go back for seconds—and find the serving pan empty because everyone else has beat you to it. With ten eggs and five cups of sugar in the recipe, what’s not to like?

Panetela Borracha
Elia Rodríguez, Mariana M. Prats’ mother, made this crowd-pleaser for family get-togethers in Maryland and she called it “Panetela Dulce Maria.” Desert making is a Martínez tradition. dating back to Mariana’s great aunts, and Dulce Maria Martínez Álvarez—Mariana’s cousin,  friend and contemporary—lived nearby and had the run of the Martínez-Rodríguez house on República street in Camagüey, where the great aunts lorded over the kitchen. After Dulce Maria emigrated to California she wrote down this recipe and gave it to Elia.

We of the Maryland Prats Clan know it as Panetela Borracha, and versions with this name are island-wide Cuban pastry classics. After Elia’s death, her husband Ventura Martínez continued the tradition, bringing this and other of her deserts to Prats and López gatherings and parties. After his passing it was Mariana’s and her sisters’ turn.

For the sponge cake
10 whole eggs
pinch of salt
2 cups of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 cups of flour
3 teaspoons of Royal (baking powder)
¼ lbs (one stick) butter, melted

For the syrup
5 cups water
3 cups sugar
a long piece of lime peel
¼ teaspoon of lime juice
½ cinnamon stick (optional)
¼ cup of good rum (optional)

 Preheat oven to 325°. Butter a 10 x 14 x 2 aluminum baking pan. Stir or sift the Royal into the flour and set aside.

Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt until they whiten (about 15 minutes by hand, says  her recipe, but I would use an electric mixer), then mix in the sugar and vanilla extract.  Add the flour mixture little-by-little alternating with the melted butter. Pour into the greased pan and bake for 40 minutes, more or less. Let it bake until you see the deep golden color top you see in the photograph. 

While the cake is baking, make the syrup. Heat the water, sugar, lime peel, and cinnamon stick. Boil gently for a few minutes, stirring until the crystals dissolve and the syrup looks clear. Remove from heat, discard the peel and stick, and add the lime juice, and optionally the rum. Stir well and set aside.

Panetela Borracha
This cake was cut into 28 portions. Four instead of three
long cuts gets you 35 portions. 
Let cake cool until it can be cut easily. Do not unmold. Cut the cake into 2 x 2 inch serving portions in the pan and pour the syrup over it. Cool to room temperature then tightly seal with aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight for the syrup to complete wicking itself into the sponge.

Should serve 18 or more. If you cut the cake into 2 inch squares, you should have 35 portions. When serving, ask each person if they want one or two portions on their plate. Spoon up syrup from the bottom of the pan to add to each serving.

I will note that the liquor called for in the recipe always stayed optional at Prats family gatherings. The Martinez were for the most part teetotalers (by personal choice, not by zealotry) and our drunken spongecake was never found inebriated.

Jul 11, 2019

Recipe: Natilla de Mamá

Mariana M. Prats made a delicious cinnamon-infused vanilla pudding that was nothing like the vanilla puddings you are used to. It is both a thinner and at the same time a richer-tasting custard. Eat with a spoon like a pudding, use it as the base for a fruit tart, or use instead of jelly in a jelly roll. Delicious!

It was her maternal grandmother’s recipe, handed down to her (and to her sisters) by her mother, Elia Rodríguez Casas and titled “My Mother’s Custard.” She never wrote it down but her sister Natalia did and that is where I got it.

The dulcero — the desert-maker — tradition in the Maryland Prats Clan comes from Mariana’s paternal line. The Martinez great-aunts, Mimí, Panchita and Natalia, sold their desserts commercially in Camaguey in the 1910s to make ends meet after Mariana’s grandfather died while her father was still in law school. But this recipe comes from the Rodriguez side of the family, Mariana's maternal side. That’s what makes it unique.

It’s easy to make. All you have to do is mix, heat, and stir.

3 cups of whole milk
3 tablespoons of corn starch
¾ cup of sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 stick of cinnamon
powdered cinnamon or more sugar for garnish

In a mixing bowl, use some of the cold milk to fully dissolve the corn starch. Then add the rest of the milk, the sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla extract and mix with a spoon or whisk until fully combined. Transfer to a cold heavy-bottomed sauce pan, add the cinnamon stick, and set the burner to medium heat. Patiently and constantly stir the mixture with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon until the custard coats the spoon.

Mariana instructed and Natalia echoes: “stir the custard back and forth, not round-and-round” and “don’t hurry the custard or you’ll burn it.” I think the latter means to not start with a hot burner and to resist turning up the heat if it does not thicken fast enough for you. The stirring instruction, I've been told, is very very important.

When the custard thickens (coats the spoon), remove the cinnamon stick and fill seven to eight serving bowls, garnish with powdered cinnamon and set aside to cool. Mariana always refrigerated it and served it cold, but it is also delicious warm!

An alternative finish is to sprinkle each cup with sugar and then “iron” them just before serving. In the days of charcoal stoves in Camaguey a clothes iron was heated on the stove and the tip was held close to the  sugar to melt and caramelize it, like the top of a crème brûlée serving. Today your handy kitchen blow-torch will do the same job without fouling your electric clothes iron.

Aug 7, 2018

Dr. Prats Gets Written Up

Like many newspapers of the era in the U.S. and throughout the world, Camaguey’s daily El Camagueyano had a weekly Professionals Page noting the comings and goings of professionals like doctors, lawyers, architects, “serious” musicians and the like.  

Dr. Benito Prats Respall
Photo from the newspaper article
Earlier this year, Wilfredo Rodriguez, a Cuban architect and architecture historian, and friend of one of Mariana’s sisters, came across a newspaper clipping from El Camagueyano in Camaguey’s Provincial Library. It was undated but was probably published in the late 1940s with Benito H. Prats’ photo and it reads as follows.

Dr. Benito Prats Respall

WITH MERITED HIGH praise Dr. Benito Prats Respall arrives on this page, since by his own hard work he has reached a prominent and prestigious standing.

He graduated Baccalaureate from the Escuelas Pias here in Camaguey in 1938 ready for the next step in higher education.

Devoting himself to a calling of Doctor of Medicine, he enrolls at the National University in Havana and brilliantly performs his scientific aims, becoming one of the best students of his class.

Having graduated on December 21, 1944, and eager to master bigger and deeper studies in the medical specialty he has chosen for his career, he takes a course on Diseases of the Biliary Tract at the same university with the eminent professor Dr. Fernando Milanés.

He subsequently departs for New Orleans to continue the acquisition of knowledge with the noted professor Dr. McHardy, continuing to Philadelphia to study under the well known professor Dr. Henry L. Bockus at the Post Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Newspaper Clipping
Click on the image to enlarge
Returning to Cuba he opens an office for his practice in Camaguey, the city where he was born on April 25, 1918, successfully pursuing his specialty of Gastroenterology along with Internal Medicine. In a short time he has earned a select clientele, attributed to his unerring diagnoses in this delicate sector of the practice of medicine.

Dr. Prats is a member of the Cuban Gastroenterology Association and Specialty Consultant at the Brotherhood of Workers Maternity Clinic and with the League Against Cancer, responsibilities he zealously discharges.

He is also the founder in 1946 of the Gastroenterology Department at the Camaguey General Hospital, of which he continues as its director, having introduced all manner of progress.

He has presented a number of papers on significant studies of the digestive tract, which have advanced his professional and personal achievements that today supports his distinguished credentials.

Dr. McHardy has a clinic named after him at Louisiana State University medical school, and Dr. Bockus later founded the gastrointestinal department at the University of Pennsylvania. So he learned from the best.

Benito’s practice was on Avellaneda Street in Camaguey in the home of his grandmother, Rufina Pereira. She and her grown granddaughter lived there all alone in that big house and were thrilled to have him there every day. His large sunny consulting room off the main entrance included a fluoroscope, and in a tiny room out in the inner courtyard was an x-ray machine, the first in a private practice in Camaguey.  

A 1940's Fluoroscope in Use
The x-ray tube is behind the patient,
the glass screen with a fluorescent coating
shows a live image of internal organs or bone.
To operate the x-ray machine he would don a heavy lead vest.  One day his grandmother tried to lift it and found out how heavy it was. After that  whenever she saw him use the vest she would prepare him a glass of horchata (an almond milk-less milkshake) and take it into his consulting room. It was to renew his strength, she said.

Olive Oil and Lime
Early on in his practice he was known for his gall-bladder purges, a shot glass of olive oil and lime juice on an empty stomach, that he prescribed I don’t know for what malady. His nurse-receptionist would prepare it and he would say to his patient, “drink it down without stopping!” It was a regimen for a week or two and patients would stop in every other day for their chupito — their “shot.”

Dr. Chalon Rodriguez, his good friend and an urologist first in Camaguey and later in Falls Church, Virginia, would tell of his work at the Gastroenterology Department at Camaguey’s General Hospital. He was affectionately called “Benito Memorandum” by his colleagues because he would dash to the train station when he heard that a politician was traveling through town and would hand him a typewritten memo lobbying for funds for this or that piece of equipment for the hospital’s gastroenterology unit. His department was the best equipped of any hospital outside of the capital.

Horchata, Cuban Style
Blanch almonds in water until
their skins loosen. Discard skin.
Mash or grind to a fine paste.
Add equal amount of sugar by weight
and mix well. To serve, dilute with
equal part very cold water.
Americans today would probably prefer
a more diluted horchata, maybe
with twice as much water.
Dr. Prats had to shutter his practice when he emigrated to Maryland in 1965, leaving all his books, furniture and equipment with his grandmother. His niece, now a doctor in Madrid, and maybe ten years old when he left Camaguey, tells of the hours and hours she spent over the years at her great-grandmother’s house in his dusty consulting room poring over his books, kindling in her the desire to follow in her uncle’s medical footsteps. She would talk shop with him—long distance via mailed letters and the very occasional phone call—while she studied at the University of Havana and later as she practiced gynecology and general surgery in a number of Cuba’s hospitals.

On his arrival in Maryland, Benito interned at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda and obtained licenses as a general practitioner in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, practicing part-time while working for the D.C. government at Glen Dale Isolation Hospital in Maryland (Glen Dale was a D.C. hospital) and then for the federal government at the Veterans Administration. When he retired he continued to practice at the Free Clinic in Langley Park well into his eighties. And he never stopped studying the latest advances in medicine.

An excellent diagnostician, all his life he enjoyed figuring out what was wrong with people and how best to cure them. He loved to talk shop—but only if you brought it up first—even with non-doctors like you and me.

May 31, 2018

Recipe: Flan de Mariana

Mariana and her flan
Mariana Prats’ flan was celebrated in her social circles and at all family functions. She always brought one with her to any lunch or dinner she was invited to, and it was the centerpiece for dessert at Thanksgiving dinner and the Christmas buffet. 

New Years’ Eve party: Flan. Roast pork backyard barbecue: Flan. Baby shower: Flan. Birthday Party: Birthday cake and a flan. Her own birthday party: Flan. Neighborhood block party: Flan. Parish priest invited to dinner: Flan. Pot luck: Flan. Someone’s anniversary: Flan.   If she and Benito were invited to dinner, instead of a bottle of wine she brought flan.

Cuban flan is a firm sweet egg custard covered with a caramelized sugar sauce. Mariana’s was always smooth and creamy and outrageously delicious. You could not have enough of her flan. Lactose-intolerant people ignored their malady and enjoyed her flan.  Calorie counters stopped counting and went back for seconds. The problem was that you had to be quick or there would not be any left.

She always rationed her flan. If she didn’t folks would cut huge chunks and there would not be enough to go around. She would bring it to the party in its mold, along with large plate and unmold it after dinner. Immediately after unmolding it she would slice it into small wedges, no more than ¾ of an inch thick, and start loading up serving plates, finishing each with a teaspoon of the caramelized sauce that poured out of the mold when she unmolded it.

Flan in one of Mariana's flan molds
An extra-heavy 2-quart aluminum
pan 3 inches tall and 8½ inches
wide at the top
Her secret for a perfect flan: the pressure cooker.  When you do her recipe in the oven it does not come out as creamy and it's easy to overcook it. Her other unique twist that I think adds to the creaminess is to use a tall mold. These are hard to find.

This is from the recipe she typed up herself, on Benito’s computer using Microsoft Works in the late 1990s. That’s right, Works, not Word — Microsoft’s word processor for the home that has not been supported since the turn of the century. I had a devil of a time finding her recipe in my hard drive because Windows does not index Works documents anymore.  You’ll find an image of her original recipe below. She printed it and handed it out to anyone who asked.

1½ cups white sugar
6 whole eggs
Two 14-oz. cans Sweetened Condensed Milk
An equal measure of whole milk
1 tsp. of vanilla extract

The recipe she typed up.
Click on image to show full-size
Caramelize the mold. This means putting all the sugar in the mold and, with potholders, holding the mold over a flame or electric burner until the sugar melts and turns caramel-colored. You have to be very careful because if you get any melted sugar on you it will mean a trip to the emergency room. Away from the heat carefully rock and rotate the mold to bring the caramelized sugar up its sides.  Set the mold aside to cool.

Beat the eggs in a bowl with an electric mixer. In a larger bowl mix the sweetened condensed milk and an equal amount of whole milk. Use one of the cans to measure the whole milk. Add the well-beaten eggs. Add the vanilla. Mix. Pour the mixture into the caramelized mold.

Flan just out of the pressure cooker
Pressure cooker: Cover the mold with two layers of aluminum foil and tie with string under the lip of the mold to form a tight seal so water does not enter the mold. If your mold is a tight fit for the pot, use more string to make a pair of perpendicular lifting loops. Put 2 cups of water in the pressure cooker and carefully lower the mold into the water. If you use a tall mold, cook at medium pressure for 15 to 25 minutes. In her mold she cooked it for 22 minutes after pressure was achieved.  Release the pressure immediately by running cold water over the pressure cooker until the lid lock releases, and then carefully remove the hot mold from the pot. Resist unwrapping it right away. It will seem to be under-cooked if you do, but it will continue to cook and set all by itself in about an hour if you don't unwrap it. 

Oven: Preheat oven to 350° F. Do not cover the mold with foil. Prepare a bain-marie by filling a pan with hot water. Place pan of water on the center rack and lower the mold into it. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until a wood toothpick comes out clean. Carefully remove the mold. 

Let flan cool in the mold for a couple of hours, then refrigerate in the mold, covered, until it’s time to serve.

To unmold: Choose a lipped fountain plate large enough to contain the caramelized sauce that will come out of the mold. Uncover the mold and run a sharp knife around the edge. Place the plate on top of the mold and flip over quickly and smoothly, then lift off the mold slowly so you don't spill the sauce.

Serve at room temperature, although it is also delicious cold from the refrigerator. You can refrigerate the cooked flan overnight in its mold, covered with aluminum foil. Leftovers can be refrigerated for weeks, but there will probably not  be any left.

Serves 10 to 20.

Mar 18, 2018

Another Night Like This

A scrap of paper with Mariana Prats’ neat handwriting fell out of a photo album I was unpacking the other day. This is what it said:

Another night light this
Is what I’m wishing for
The moon above would gladly
give its light To another night like this

I’ve never known such bliss
How could I hope for more
My heart and I would glory in the sight
Of another night like this

There must be some reason why you
came along and turned a sigh into
a song But I won’t know until
I have known the thrill of your kiss

Nobody else but you could make
my wish come true
So promise me that you’ll make
every night just like another night like this

How romantic!

The square of paper had two rough edges and two smooth edges and that told me where it had originated. It was on one of those squares of paper that we used to find all over Benito and Mariana’s house in neat pads held by a tiny binder clip. They both would check the back of any 8½ x 11 piece of paper they were getting ready to throw out and if was blank, they would neatly rip it into fourths and add the four squares to the nearest binder clip of paper.  They were thrifty that way.

Those bound scraps were perfect note pads always within easy reach, found next to each telephone, on nightstands and coffee tables, on the kitchen counter, and on Benito’s desk.  Perfect for grocery lists, telephone messages, math calculations, bookmarks, scribbles.

I promptly found my tablet and googled the first line.

It was the lyrics to the 1946 song “Another Night Like This” written by Ernesto Lecuona, the Cuban pianist and composer, for the forgettable 1947 MGM film Carnival in Costa Rica starring Vera-Ellen, Rick Haymes and Cesar Romero. Lecuona had written the music and Spanish lyrics for it, and the prolific American songwriter Harry Ruby wrote the English lyrics Mariana had written down on the scrap I found.

I wondered why she wrote them down?  It must have been a spur-of-the-moment thing. Could she have been watching Carnival in Costa Rica on TV?  She and Benito both watched old movies on American Movie Classics, the cable channel that played old movies back then.  But she wrote the entire song on that scrap, so I have to think that she must have known it was going to be sung on the movie and was ready, pen and paper in hand, for when it came on.

Another Night Like This
This version is by Desi Arnaz &
His Orchestra. The vocalist
is not listed.
My guess is that she first saw the movie when it came out in 1947. It surely played in one of Camaguey’s movie theatres, in Spanish, of course. I don’t know if you know this, but typically only the speaking parts of movie musicals are dubbed into a foreign language, the songs stay in English. Or maybe she saw the English version of the movie while at school in Canada.

The song was written a year before the movie came out. Its original Spanish version, En Una Noche Así, must have played on Camaguey radio stations that previous summer. Native son Ernesto Lecuona was at his height of popularity so there is no doubt there was a lot of air play. I’m sure both she and Benito knew the song: they loved Lecuona’s music.  

The novelty of hearing it in English on the movie must have stayed with her for her to know it was going to be sung on the movie she was watching all those years later in the 1990s. Still, it is hard to write that fast and get it all right the first time and there is only three crossouts on the paper. She could have done it, but she could have also written it in shorthand first on one scrap of paper, and then immediately copied it out in longhand on the scrap I found.

Why though? Why take the time to write down the lyrics to this particular song. It’s not like she did this often. We never found a song lyrics stash. Maybe it was to read it out loud to Benito. Or to one of her friends on the telephone: “Do you remember the song …?” Or maybe she was saving it to ask Benito to play it on the piano while she sang along. He had a good memory for music.

En Una Noche Así
Victoria Cordova
con la Orquesta de Lazaro Quintero
And then she kept it, and later she tucked it into a photo album. Or maybe it was tucked in later by one of her children when they were packing up Mayfair Manor for the move to the nursing home.  

It’s amazing what you think of, guess and invent when you come across a scrap of paper in your mother’s handwriting.

Mar 5, 2018

Person to Person to Spain

1900 AT&T Logo
Alexander Graham Bell’s invention—what evolved into what we now call landlines—had a good ride for more than 100 years, but the telephone as originally conceived is as good as dead. The handwriting is on the wall. Landline subscriptions are declining dramatically year over year. Nobody under 40 has one. Even the phone part of the smartphone is on the decline today.

But back in the 1960’s when the Prats arrived in Maryland there were only three ways to communicate person-to-person over long distances. There was the expensive long distance telephone for voice, the super-expensive telegram for short urgent text messages, and the super-cheap but slow written letter.

Four youngest Prats and Peanuts at Arlington Road
This is the story of a December 1969 telephone call from Maryland to Spain. It was the holidays, and Mariana Prats parents, Ventura Martinez and Elia Rodriguez, her uncle Antonio Martinez who lived with her at Arlington Road, and her youngest brother and sister, Juan Antonio and Natalia Martinez, had gathered with the Maryland Prats: Mariana, Benito and their six children, in their house on Arlington Road one Saturday for food and talk. Talk soon turned to Mariana’s sister’s family and how they were doing.   

The seven Lopez children dressed for the Spanish winter
The Lopez clan had finally escaped Cuba earlier that year, and had just moved to a very nice apartment in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque Country of Spain after some nine months in a cold-water flat in the Spanish capital, Madrid. The Lopez clan were Elia Maria Martinez—Mariana Prats’ sister—her husband Manuel Lopez, and their seven children, ranging in age from 3 to 13. Manuel, a civil engineer, had just gotten a job at a nuclear power plant being built near Vitoria, but his goal was to find a job in the United States, preferably near Washington.

“Do you think we can give them a call?” someone asked. “It would be great to hear their voices!” 

A 3M Wollensak Tape Recorder
Benito Prats did some mental calculations regarding upcoming bills versus his next paycheck, and then went to get his reel-to-reel tape recorder and magnetic pickup microphone and plugged it in near the phone in the living room. He attached the microphone, a small cylindrical object maybe an inch around with a rubber suction cup, near the earpiece of the black rotary-dial telephone handset and plugged its cord into the tape recorder. He turned on the tape recorder, picked up the handset and dialed zero for the operator.   

Bell System Model 500
Benito liked to tape long distance calls to family. He would tape calls to his mother Eduviges Respall and his sister Olga Prats in Cuba, for example, so he could play them back to friends and family when they came to visit. There was something about hearing the voices of people you had not seen for a long time and could never visit because of the political situation. I don’t know how many wiretap laws he was breaking, but he had brought the special microphone at Radio Shack on Rockville Pike, so I have to assume the authorities were not too worried, and he certainly had an innocent reason.

A magnetic pickup
on a telephone
“Operator,” answered the telephone operator seconds after he dialed zero. The operator was always there. You never worried about waiting. Before 911 emergency calling was implemented in the 1980s, it was the operator you called for an ambulance, fire engine or police car.

“I’d like to place a call to Spain,” Benito told her.

“I’ll get you International,” she said, meaning an international operator. Benito was familiar with the international operators. They worked on his periodic calls to his mother in Camaguey Cuba. They would take down the particulars of his call and call him back when one of the 24 lines on the 20 year old undersea cable from Key West to Havana was available. The call back was sometimes days later, sometimes in the middle of the night. But on this day he was hoping for a same-day call to Spain. And you never knew, but it might be an immediate call, meaning that they would connect the call while you waited on the line.   

Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone—the AT&T-owned Bell System company that had the monopoly in Maryland, and Verizon’s ancestor—had recently introduced dialing for long distance calls to phones in the U.S. and Canada. Before that you would dial zero for the operator and the operator would dial the call for you. But even in 1969 international calls still had to be placed through the operator, and the operator had to set up the call the same way they had been set up since the invention of the telephone: manually.

Laying the telephone cable by ship in the 1960s
Still, it was a marvel of communications, the international call. By the 1940s most any telephone in the world could be used to call any other telephone anywhere, if you had enough money and knew the number you wanted to call. And even if you didn’t know the number, information operators could find that number for you if you had the name and address of who it belonged to, even if it was on the other side of the world. Telephone engineers had figured out how to transmit speech over long distances and how to lay cable thousands of miles long under the ocean and how to place and power vacuum-tube amplifiers spaced every few hundred miles in hostile conditions thousands of feet under the water. If one of the amplifiers should fail the cable had to be fished up for repairs or a replacement had to be laid,so they figured out how to make electronics that lasted a long time and could withstand the pressures of the deep.

1960s telephone operators at work
But to me, the other less acknowledged but no less significant marvel of international calling, was the human-powered system of behind-the-scenes work that was required to connect for a few minutes two random telephones that were thousands of miles away from each other. It was manual work by an army of telephone operators, all of them women, each sitting in front of cord switchboards in what we would now call “call centers” but they called “toll offices”—in literally every city and reasonably-sized town everywhere in the world. They were the “operators” of the telephone system. For suburban Maryland telephones their toll office was in Silver Spring, just across the line from Washington D.C.
For Bell’s telephone to work, a wire or wire-equivalent has to be physically connected between two telephones (and no others) for the duration of the call. This is no longer the case now that voice calls travel over the internet, but until a few years ago, that was the only way phones could work. It was called circuit-switching. If you were calling someone in your town this was easy: on your request your telephone’s wire was connected to the other phone’s wire and you were good to go. By the 1920’s this was automated and building-sized mechanical machines took instructions from the telephone dial and connected the two sets of wires together for the duration of your call. Not only that, but the equipment would also ring the bell at the distant telephone for you. No more cranking to ring the bell.

But consider a call between two distant towns. Your wire had to be connected to a wire going to the next town, there that wire was connected to another wire going to the town a bit further away, and finally the local wire to the telephone you were calling at the distant town was added to the circuit. Then you could talk. Even when this was finally mechanized it took a number seconds, and you could hear clicking as the machines set up each of the connections before you finally heard the ringing begin. But in 1969 there was no automation yet for international calls.

When Benito dialed zero for the operator that afternoon in 1969, automatic equipment routed his call to a dozen or more identical cord switchboards called “multiples” in the C&P toll office in a large seven-story building on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring where seated in front of each multiple was an operator wearing a headset.

The C&P Telephone Building in Silver Spring, MD.
Today it is the Verizon Building.
I visited that brick building just off Colesville Road on a C&P tour in the 1970s and saw the huge wire vault where all the wires came in from the street, the basement full of lead-acid batteries and massive brass bars the size of i-beams that carried the 48 volt current that powered every telephone in Silver Spring. Floors and floors of switching equipment made a continuous roar as they clicked and clacked connecting and disconnecting dialed calls. There was a huge room full of 411 operators flipping through telephone directories giving out numbers. And I also got to see the toll office.

A very busy switchboard
Notice the plugs of unused cords standing up
on the shelf at the bottom of the photograph.
In front of each operator in the toll office was a panel of quarter-inch jacks, rows after rows of them climbing to the ceiling labeled with their origin or destination. The same set of jacks were duplicated in front of each operator, so every operator could reach all the jacks they needed to perform their job.  A short desktop or shelf projected out waist-high on which pairs of plugs stood upright at attention, their cords retracted into the shelf when not in use. 

The operator’s job at its most basic was quite simple: to complete a circuit between two of the many jacks in front of her using one of the cords from her shelf. The complexity of the job was to figure out which circuits had to be connected when, and to figure out when they were no longer needed and could be unplugged. Lamps over the jacks and next to each cord, and questions and answers over her headset, guided her in her job.

A Western Electric Panel Office from the 1960s
This machine responds to telephone dials to connect
calls. Equipment like this in Bethesda and Silver
Spring routed Benito's call to the operator.
When Benito’s dialed zero, a lamp started blinking over the same jack on all positions in the room. An available operator saw the blinking, pulled up a plug from the shelf, and plugged into the jack under the blinking light. This turned off the lamp at all positions and lit one the cord's two lamps, and the call was hers.

From then on for this call, no more machines. As a matter of fact, the machine that connected Benito to the operator knew enough to not do anything else with his line now that it was connected to an operator. If Benito were to hang up and pick up the phone again, he could not get dial tone for another call. The machine was deliberately paralyzed now that the operator had the line. His telephone was under her control and would continue under her control until she unplugged from his line.

After plugging one end of a cord in to the blinking jack she pushed the cord’s talk switch away from her to connect her headset to the cord and announced, “Operator.”

140 West Street, New York
Then known as the New York Telephone
Building, today it is the Verizon Building
She heard Benito’s reply: “I’d like to place a call to Spain.” Either from experience or with the help of a little laminated list on her shelf she knew that calls to Spain were completed from New York. She picks up the other end of the cord and lightly touches each jack in the row of jacks labeled New York with the tip of the plug to test for a free line. New York is where the undersea trans-Atlantic cables’ voice circuits terminated at AT&T’s international cord switchboards in the 32-story Art Deco skyscraper on West Street across from the World Trade Center.  

She finds a jack that did not “click” in her headset when she touched it, meaning that the line was not in use, and she pushed the plug in all the way while saying to Benito “I’ll get you International.” She pulls the ringing switch to get the attention of the international operator at the other end of the line. Nothing rings at the other end, instead a lamp lights over a jack on each operator position in New York.

What if there had not been a free trunk line to New York? She would have told him “all circuits are busy now” and would have asked for his number to call him back when a line became free. This was lucrative revenue for the phone company. Now that they knew that someone wanted to spend a lot of money to call Spain, they would most certainly call back when a line became free. But so far, so good. There was an idle trunk line to New York. This might be an immediate call to Spain, not a call-back later in the day. Keep your fingers crossed!

A New York operator plugs into the line from Washington. Benito hears a new voice.“International Operator. What country?”  

“Spain,” he replies.

“Spain. What city?”


“Victoria. What number in Victoria?”

“No, it is Vitoria, there is no ‘C’ in Vitoria. V-I-T-O-R-I-A.” Benito corrected.

“I’m sorry. Vitoria. V-I-T-O-R-I-A. What number in Vitoria?”

Operator Writing a Ticket for the Call
Benito gave her the number. She repeated it back. She was writing everything down on a little paper ticket. Benito—and the tape recorder—also heard indistinguishable chatter in the background: the other operators working other calls. This New York operator was one of dozens of other women facing identical switchboards. Supervisors, also women, paced the floor behind them, watching and ready to help if there was a problem. The chief operator, sitting at a desk in the corner, worked on her paperwork.

Like her counterpart in Silver Spring, this operator had been first to plug into a jack labeled Washington whose lamp had been blinking. This particular international operator would be in charge of his call until the call was over. The operator in Silver Spring had one of her cords tied up for the duration, but now that New York had answered, the operator in Silver Spring was free to attend to other calls with her other cords while visually monitoring the lamps for Benito’s cord to see when to pull the plugs out, or to come back on the line if summoned. Remember: until Silver Spring pulls her cord from Benito’s jack, his telephone was hard wired to New York and could not be used for any other purpose. If the house caught fire he would have to tell the New York operator about it, or flash his switchhook furiously to get Silver Springs’ attention. Ever seen that in old movies, the furious switchhook flashing? 

What number did Benito give the operator? The Lopez had just moved in to their apartment in Vitoria and their telephone had not been installed yet. You would think this would have been a problem, but not really. It would be a real problem today because of automation, but it was no problem at all 49 years ago. Elia Maria had written Mariana to tell her of the move and to give her sister her new mailing address and fill her in on the latest happenings. She wrote that it could take a month or two before her telephone got installed (par for the course for state-owned telephone companies like Spain’s back then) so she gave her the phone number of the little convenience store at the end of the block. That’s the number Benito gave the operator. The answer to her next question would reveal how this call was going to proceed.

A male telephone operator
The 1972 Equal Rights Amendment, although never
ratified, nudged AT&T to hire male operators for the
first time starting in the late 1970s. 
“Station or Person?” the operator asked.

This was shorthand for the type of call, she wanted to know if this was a “station to station” or “person to person” call. Billing for a station-to-station call started when the distant telephone was answered. Person to person calls started billing when the person you asked for came to the phone. Person-to-person calls were more expensive. Station to station calls to Europe in 1969 in the evening and on weekends were $12 for the first 3 minutes and $10 for each additional 3 minutes. Person to person calls to Europe were $20 for the first three minutes and $10 for each additional 3 minutes. $20 in 1969 is $128 in 2018 dollars! Someone had to pay for all that manual work needed to set up a call. You did not call internationally very often unless you were very rich.       
Benito said “person” and she asked, “name?” He said “I want to speak to Manuel or Elia Lopez. They live down the street at number 20 Generalissimo Avenue.”  

“Your name?” 

“I’m Dr. Benito Prats.“ After that she had one final question:

“Your number?”

He replied, “Oliver 2-8324”.

She wrote that down and said “thank you.” signaling that she was finished with the questions.

Radiotelephony Switchboard in London
This was the state-of-the-art in intercontinental
telephony before 1956, when the first Trans-
Atlantic Telephone cable, TAT-1 was laid.
Notice the dual stop-watches to the right of the operators. 
One was stopped every time the signal got too
faded or noisy so it could be subtracted from the
Imagine that last question! That question was a most important question because someone had to pay the $250 or so (today’s dollars) this call was going to cost. But operators had no way to know where Benito was calling from because automation had robbed them of a direct wire to his telephone. Mechanical equipment had connected Benito to the operator, so no caller ID. He could have given the wrong number, or she could have written it down wrong. So built in to the price of long distance calls was enough money to cover the overhead of tracking you down to collect that large sum if they got it wrong the first time! 

We are now probably into the third minute after Benito dialed zero and the call was far from ready. All questions have been asked and answered. Now she reads everything back to Benito, and then she says, “hold the line please” and gets to work arranging for the connection of all the wires needed to make up a circuit to the telephone in Vitoria. She left the talk key on Benito’s cord on—they always did that for some reason—and you could hear exactly how she and her colleagues in Spain worked their magic.

Posts, telegraphs and telephones
Benito handed me the telephone so he could get back to the conversations at the party. My job was to call him back to phone when the call was ready. The reels of tape on the Wollensak recorder continued to turn.

In telephone operator etiquette, “hold the line, please” meant “don’t talk to the operator again until the operator addresses you directly.” If you bothered the operator while she was working on your call she would repeat “hold the line please” and this time she would use a different cord to set up the call and you’d be on silent hold until the call was ready. I kept mum and covered the receiver with my hand. I found operator chatter fascinating.  

Looking at her ticket one more time, she goes to work. She looks for an unused line on the row of jacks labeled “Paris” and plugs the other end of the cord in. I hear the click. She and I wait silently.

PTT Headquarters, Paris
Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones was the government
agency in charge of France's telephone service in 1969
After a few seconds I hear a French voice say “Pari Internacional.” Operators identify themselves to each other by their location and duty station.

By using a direct circuit to Paris, our call to Spain used TAT-4, AT&T’s newest Trans-Atlantic Telephone cable that went into service in 1965. This cable carried 138 voice circuits from the beach at Tuckerton New Jersey to Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, in west-central France. Another cable recently completed, this one to be called TAT-5 from Rhode Island to Cadiz in Spain, would not go into service for a few more months.

The Spanish Telephone Company
Telefonica Logo in 1969
“New York ahpel Madrid” is all that New York says after Paris identifies herself. Paris replies “Medrid,” and says nothing more. Medrid must be French for Madrid, I surmise. I did not know what ahpel meant then. She was saying appel, the French word for “calling.” She was saying “New York calling Madrid.”

Another brief wait and then a Castillian-accented voice loudly says “Madrid internacional!”

Telefonica Building, Madrid
This 1929 building was one of the
first skyscrapers in Europe and is
still the tallest building on the
Gran Via in Madrid. The inter-
national switchboard was in this
The New York operator replies, louder also, “New York international. Washington calling Vitoria.” I don’t know why there are speaking louder, I can hear them both clearly. Madrid responds in English “Yes, operator, Washington calling Vitoria.”

New York says “Doctor Benito Prats in Washington is calling for Manuel or Elia Lopez at 20 Generalisimo Avenue. The number in Vitoria is,” and she speaks the number slowly and clearly. Madrid reads it back in Spanish-accented English, New York says “yes operator” and Madrid says “hold the line.”    

Some more clicks, and a different voice says in Spanish, “Rutas.” She is the routes operator and Madrid International needs to ask for the route to Vitoria, because on her switchboard there are no direct circuits from Madrid to Vitoria. The routes operator has maps and directories of interurban trunks and looks up one or more possible routes to the destination city.

 “¿Madrid a Vitoria?” —I need the route from Madrid to Vitoria, the Madrid international operator asks the routes operator using shorthand.

Dramatization of a long distance call circa 1949

Listen to the operators setting up a call
in this excerpt from the radio drama Dragnet, where
Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) places a person-to-
person long-distance call from Los Angeles to
a number in Fountain Green, Utah. The town must 

be real small because the telephone number in 
Fountain Green is 14. the R2 is the party-line 
ring sequence. Back then two, four or even eight 
houses were on the same number and you would listen 
for your distinct ring sequence when all the 
phones rang.
I was hearing all this for the first time a long time ago in 1969, and I heard it a second time maybe fifteen years ago when I found the tape in Benito’s file cabinets in his garage at Mayfair Manor and played it on my ancient Lafayette tape deck. But the tape is now gone (and so is the tape deck) and I can’t remember the route operator’s response. What I do remember is that the route was three hops. A glance at a Google map gives me some likely city names I will use to recreate the dialog that follows.

 “Madrid a Vitoria,” repeats the routes operator. After a few seconds pause she continues “Valladolid y Burgos,” naming two cities between Madrid and Vitoria. She also adds, “tambien por Zaragoza y Logroño,”  naming an alternate route.

Madrid International pulls her plug from Routes and plugs into an idle trunk to Valladolid. Silence for a few seconds, then I hear the Valladolid interurbano operator answering with the name of her city. Long distance telephone service is called interurban telephone service in Spain. 

“Burgos.” Connect me with Burgos, orders the Madrid operator by simply naming the city.

“Burgos. A sus ordenes.” — To Burgos right away, replies Valladolid and she plugs the other end of her cord into an idle trunk to Burgos.

Central Burgos Interurbano
In addition to housing the switchboard, customers
could walk in and pay cash to place a long
distance or international call from a casilla,
one of the telephone booths inside.
“Burgos interurbano, answers the operator in Burgos. Like the operator in Valladolid, she was on a multiple of the switchboard in charge of inter-city trunk lines.

 “Vitoria,” orders Madrid.    

“Todas a Vitoria ocupadas.” Burgos announces that all trunks lines to Vitoria are in use.

“Madrid internacional. Desocupame una.” Madrid identifies herself and asks that Burgos disconnect one of them. That does not sound kosher to me.

“No tengo autorizacion.” I’m not authorized, responds Burgos. 

Madrid does not waste a minute pulling rank. “¡Soy la operadora internacional!” she exclaims forcefully, and continues in rapid-fire Spanish, “Disconnect any one of them and give me a line to Vitoria immediately!”

The New York operator is listening to all of this along with me. I’m amused at this outburst. The New York operator may not understand a word of Spanish, though, but she certainly understands that there is some conflict. She does not say a word. She is not being addressed.  

Route of the call in Europe
The lines are shown straight, but in reality they
would snake here and there on poles by the
side of highways, in the air between microwave
towers, and via underground cables.
The New York Operator cannot be expected to be multi-lingual, not on her union wages. She is working on a call to Spain now but the next call she works on may be to Germany or Moscow. According to the United Nations 1932 International Telecommunications Union rules that govern international calls, international operators only need to know their own language and some French. If the other international operator does not speak a mutually-understood language, then they would communicate using a very small vocabulary of French phrases listed in the ITU manual. Unofficially, English was also widely used and the Madrid operator on this call, and the Havana operators on calls to Cuba were always fluent in English.  

While Madrid international was working with the other Spanish operators, the New York operator could not work on any other call because she never knew when Madrid was going to switch to English to tell her that the call was ready, or tell her that the call could not be completed. New York was listening quietly along with me.

This was the moment of truth for this call. We were one hop away from Vitoria. Would our call to Spain become a scheduled call for later in the day when lines became available? Or would the Madrid operator pull down the circuit she was building up through Valladolid and try again via Zaragoza? Or would the Burgos operator yield, disconnect an ongoing call in mid-sentence, and give the line to Madrid? That last choice did not seem to me to be according to the rules, and the Burgos operator had already said she was not authorized to disconnect an ongoing call.

Interurban (Long Distance) telephone office in Vitoria
The Burgos operator did not respond to Madrid for a beat or two, and then she said, “Linea interurbana a Vitoria, a sus órdenes” and I knew Madrid had won. A sus órdenesis a wonderful Spanish phrase that means different things depending on the context of the conversation. It translates to “at your service” if the person says it spontaneously. If an order has been given, then it could mean “your wish is my command” or in this case “yes ma’am, right away.” Burgos was not happy and said it sullenly, then went silent and did the deed outside of our earshot. I wondered if she listened in on each conversation for a few seconds until she found one that appeared trivial, or if she just grabbed a cord at random and pulled it out of the jack. Then she had to get the operator at the distant end of the line to pull her plug too to get the line cleared. All I know is that about a minute later the Vitoria operator was announcing herself to Madrid.

Madrid gave Vitoria the number of the convenience store on Generalisimo Avenue. We were almost there!  I hear dial-tone for an instant, then silence while Victoria dials the call, and then ringing.

Typical corner shop of the era
A man answers. “Almacen Santa Maria. ¡A sus órdenes!” There was that phrase again, this time meaning “at your service” this time.

It was the Madrid operator who spoke. “I have an international call from the United States,” she said in Spanish. “Could you please send for Mr. Manuel Lopez or Mrs. Elia lopez at No. 20 Generalisimo Avenue.” It was a question spoken in the form of a command.

Si como no,” was the response. He was saying “yes of course” and his response was followed by a clunk as he puts the receiver down on the counter. Then I hear him faintly, calling out in Spanish “Juanito! Juanito! Run over to No. 20 and tell Mr. or Mrs. Lopez that they have a telephone call from the United States! Hurry!” 

Madrid switches to English and says “waiting for your party.”

Before I can respond New York says “thank you, operator” and then to me, “Dr. Prats, we are waiting for your party.”

I’m not Dr. Prats but I say something like, “O.K., thank you,” and continue waiting.

15 minute 1941 AT&T informercial "Long Distance"
Shown in theaters back then between features.
This video shows some of the procedures
described in this article.  By the 1960's you could 
no longer dial the long distance operator directly. 
You dialed zero and your local operator dialed your 
call, or got you another operator who could complete 
your call.
I had been holding the handset for more than 10 minutes and the call was still not ready. The circuit had been built up manually, segment by segment, and it was now complete. All we needed was one of the persons Benito had specified to come to the phone and the call could begin.

Probably a year later all this manual work setting up a call to Vitoria would be history. Telefonica was busy building out its Red Automatica Nacional, its long distance dialing network in Spain. They were converting some 10% of their telephones to long distance dialing every year, and they had been at it for some time.  Madrid international operator could have quickly dialed the call to the convenience store in Vitoria directly from Madrid if we had been calling a city that was already on the new network.  But in 1969 Vitoria was not yet connected to the new network.

The wait was a number of minutes while Juanito ran down the street to fetch the Lopez' to the phone. Finally I hear someone pick up the receiver from the counter and say “¿que hay?”, the Cuban telephone greeting for “Hello?” Compared with the fading and noisy calls to Cuba, I remember this call to be surprisingly clear. The Madrid operator responds to Elia Maria in Spanish.

Spanish Telephone of the Era
“I have a call from Dr. Benito Prats in Washington. Are you Elia Lopez?”

“Yes I am,” Elia Maria says in Spanish.

With that the Madrid operator switches to English. “New York, I have your party on the line.” She pulls back her talk key and drops off the call.

The New York operator promptly says to me, “Dr. Prats, I have your party. Go ahead please.” Next she pushes her paper ticket into a mechanical clock on her shelf and pulls a lever to stamp the start time for the call. Then she rocks the talk switch for our cord back to disconnect her headset from our call. After more than 15 minutes she is finally free to handle another call.

“Papi! Mami! It’s Elia Maria!” I shout, holding the receiver in the air. Mariana was closer and she grabs the phone from me. Benito hands me his wrist watch and says “six minutes.” I know what he means and memorize the location of the minutes and seconds hands and watch intently as they continue to revolve. My job now is to let him know when six minutes are up.

The adults in the room take their turn on the phone, as do Elia Maria and Manolo at the other end. No speakerphones back then! Six minutes are almost up. I signal my dad. He holds up three fingers. I continue timing. Just shy of three minutes later I signal him again. He grabs the phone from someone in mid-sentence and says into the receiver in Spanish, “Sorry, we’re out of time,” and hangs up. 

This was not considered rude. Everyone knew long distance calls were very expensive and if you went over the next charge was for another full three minutes, whether you used them or not.

The phone rings back almost immediately. I answer: “Hello?”

“This is the operator. Are you through?”

“Yes we are,” I reply.

“Thank you,” she says, and pushes the paper ticket into her clock again to record the call end time, then drops it into a slot on her shelf. She pulls both her plugs from the jacks and the cord retracts into her desktop, its plugs pointing up at the ready for the next call. The line goes silent and I hang up. The Silver Spring operator notices both cord lamps for our cord are now blinking and pulls down both her plugs. The telephone bell quietly dings once, probably from stray current. Our telephone is now an automatic dialing telephone again.

A French Operator
In Paris, the international operator notices her cord lamp for the New York side of the cord is blinking and pulls down both plugs. In Madrid, the International operator notices her cord lamp for the Paris side of the cord is blinking and pulls out her plugs. At the Valladolid switchboard the cord lamp for Madrid starts blinking and Valladolid pulls down her cord. Burgos is next and finally, Vitoria. In Vitoria the operator there already noticed that Elia Maria had hung up because that end of her cord was blinking. But protocol says that she had to wait for Burgos, where the call originated, before she can release the line to the corner store. Now the cord’s trunk lamp is also blinking, indicating that Burgos and all the other operators have pulled their cords. That was the signal she was waiting for. She pulls out her plugs and they retract into her shelf with a snap. With that the last leg of the call has been cleared.

Eight operators and Juanito the store clerk (or was he the shopkeeper’s son?) had worked as a team to set up this call. A very scarce and therefore expensive resource, a circuit on the undersea cable from New Jersey to France was used for more than 15 minutes without revenue to setup this nine minute call. Is the $250 in today’s money that this call cost a fair value what with the manpower (womanpower?) used and the investment on the undersea cable? Or is it excessive? You decide. AT&T did not hide the fact that its long distance revenues, mostly paid by businesses, subsidized its free local calls and $6/mo residential subscriptions.

A C&P Bill from 1983
I could not find one from the
1960s. By the mid 1970s they
were sending multi-page
invoices in envelopes, but

they were still postcard
Later that month the ticket the AT&T operator in New York wrote up made its way to C&P Telephone in Washington, who put the charge on the Prats' post-card sized telephone bill. His payment was split among C&P, AT&T, the international consortium that owned the trans-Atlantic cable, and the French Post Office (they were in charge of phones in France back then), with AT&T settling their accounts with France in gold, after subtracting what France owed for calls incoming to the United States. The French split their share for the call with Telefonica, the government-owned Spanish telephone company. That’s how everyone got paid.

A year later at the Lopez' on Arlington Road
Lopez boys on he right, Manolo in the white
shirt watching TV. Author behind Juan Antonio
Martinez on the right.
So what was discussed on the nine minute call? In addition to pleasantries, Manuel Lopez was corresponding with someone at Bechtel for an engineering job and Mariana may have had an update for him. That job was not to be, but its promise was instrumental in his family moving to Maryland the following year. On their arrival in Maryland, the Lopez became the next tenants in that drafty old Arlington Road house the Maryland Prats had vacated.  


That’s the end of the Person to Person to Spain story. Now a quick postscript regarding calls to Cuba mentioned briefly in that story.

The U.S. embargo that President Kennedy and the U.S. Congress imposed on Cuba in the 1960s, still ongoing today, has prevented AT&T from settling with the Cuban telephone company for completing long distance calls on the undersea cable from Key West to Havana. Benito paid C&P for every call to Camaguey and all AT&T could do because of the embargo was to record each call on a ledger showing how money it owed to the Cuban Telephone Company. This ledger continued to fill year after year.

1950 AT&T film "Cable to Cuba" (10 minutes)

The 125 mile 1950 Key West to Havana cable finally failed hard in 1987 and AT&T was not at all interested in replacing it. Today U.S. calls to Cuba are routed via Canada then across to Italy and back. But because of the embargo that AT&T-Cuba revenue ledger is still open, waiting to be settled—and probably because of its age, to be settled in gold francs, not U.S. dollars (Gold francs were specified by telephone companies for international transactions back then to protect against inflation because the franc’s value was tied to the price of gold. Since 1930 one gold franc is worth the current value of 0.290322 grams of fine gold.)

Despite the thousands upon thousands of expensive calls Cuban exiles placed back to their families and the collect calls from Cuba they accepted until the Key West cable failed in 1987, that ledger on AT&T’s books shows that the Cuban Telephone Company owes AT&T many millions of dollars, not the other way around. What!?!

Cuban Telephone Company Building
Recent photo of 1926 building. When
it was built, it was the tallest building
in Havana. Circuits of the 1950 Key West
Cable terminated in a cord switchboard
For about ten years after the embargo was first imposed, government calls from Havana to Moscow were routed by Cuban operators across the Key West cable, up to New York, and then across the trans-Atlantic cables to London, Paris or Madrid. Cuban international operators repeatedly plugged into jacks labeled Key West and asked the Southern Bell operators in Miami to connect them to New York. From there, using their French ITU phrases, they threaded each of their calls through one of the three European gateways, then most likely on to Rome and finally to Moscow. Cuba had its own undersea cable to Latin America and Europe, but they constantly and with impunity took advantage of “free” calls via AT&T not only to Moscow but to every other country in the world. No wonder Benito Prats had to wait days and days for calls to his mother in Camaguey to be put through.

After about 10 years of not getting paid, Southern Bell Telephone, AT&T’s subsidiary in charge of the Key West cable, ordered the cable to be shut down. The U.S. State Department intervened and AT&T compromised. After that time, AT&T would only accept collect calls (calls where the called party pays) from Cuba. The Cuban government’s free calls were over, Calls inbound to Cuba from the U.S. after that time started to reduce, but never managed to fully reverse that ledger’s debits before the cable failed 37 years after it was laid.

Cuba still owes AT&T a lot of money.