Dec 14, 2021

Dr. Prats Disarms a Hijacker

Sometime in 1962 or 1963 Dr. Benito H. Prats boarded a flight from Havana to Camaguey that was hijacked to the U.S. It never got there. The exact date is no longer known, but the story and its surprise ending is now family lore.

Passengers Boarding a DC-3
Through A Real Gate in the Fence
Once upon a time airline travelers could stroll from the ticket counter to the tarmac and up the stairs to their airplane without getting in line to be frisked by dour and suspicious security agents like what happens at all airports today. Then in the 1960s the hijacking of airliners by criminals who wanted to fly to another country to evade arrest became popular and by the end of the decade airport security checkpoints prior to boarding were de rigeur.

Hijackers were treated harshly when they landed — as they should. Even if there were no casualties the ordeal terrorized passengers and crew and endangered lives on board and on the ground. However, U.S. hijackers that successfully reached Cuba were treated as heroes and given asylum and plenty of press there, and, surprisingly, Cuban hijackers that reached the U.S. were likewise given asylum here and released without charge. This was a perfectly normal aspect of the cruel tit-for-tat dance that was the Cold War.

Cuban Exit Permit
By 1962 the Cuban middle class was desperate to leave (the rich had already fled) and the authoritarian government of Cuba was equally desperate to save face. Why would anyone want to leave the utopia they had created and heavily promoted to the rest of the world?  So Cuba followed the Soviet Union’s lead and imposed exit controls on its citizens, and permission to leave the island was severely curtailed. Even if you could afford the ticket and had permission to enter another country, without an exit permit you could no longer board an international airplane, ship or ferry.

All airworthy private aircraft and seaworthy watercraft had been appropriated without compensation by the government and carefully accounted for, and the coastline and air space was heavily patrolled. To escape the prison that Cuba had become, the only choice left was to find a leaky boat, or lash together a raft, and set off at night to evade the Coast Guard and brave the dangerous and wide Straits of Florida. Many did and many died.

There was one other choice. Hijack a domestic flight and order the pilot to fly to the U.S.

Cubana DC-3 At Havana Airport
Benito had flown to Havana earlier and was now on his way home. The trip may have been for a professional meeting as he was associated with a number of hospitals and clinics in Camaguey, or he could have needed to get to an embassy in his quest for visas or to a government agency for permission to take himself and the rest of his family out of the country. By this time his four older children were already in the U.S.

It was another gorgeous Caribbean day: beautiful blue skies with fluffy white clouds — perfect for flying.  The flight was probably Cubana de Aviación’s flight 482, the 342-mile two-hour nonstop flight to Camaguey that departed Havana at half past noon.  (Today this flight is just an hour by jet.)

Cubana had used 28 passenger American-built Douglas DC-3 twin-engine aircraft for their domestic flights since the 1950s. Seat configuration was two seats on each side of the aisle. There was plenty of leg room and recline pitch compared to today’s coach seats. But the U.S. embargo had made spare parts difficult to procure, so late in 1961 Cubana added two Soviet-built Ilyushin-14 twin engine airplanes to their domestic fleet. They had capacity, speed and range similar to the DC-3. Benito’s flight could have used one or the other. So for this story, because I cannot find a good photo of an Ilyushin-14 in Cubana livery, lets put him in a DC-3.

Benito said that the flight was half-full: maybe 12 to 15 passengers. Like they did back then all over the world, everyone was dressed for travel. Suits and ties and fedora hats on the men, smart dresses and pinned hats on the ladies. The overhead rack on airplanes of that era was just a narrow open rack designed to hold men’s hats and not much more. It made the cabin look just a tad less cramped. The ladies kept their hats on.

Model of a DC-3 in Cubana Livery
It was an uneventful takeoff and flight 482 quickly reached cruising altitude.  The Fasten Seat Belt sign and the No Smoking sign had just been turned off and the azafata — the flight attendant — began walking the aisle collecting drink orders. She returned with the drinks balanced on a tray, handing them out one by one. The airline was still attempting to maintain the service it was known for when it was a private concern 42% owned by Pan American Airways.

Later in the flight she passes out box lunches — a waxed pasteboard box with perhaps a couple of pieces of cold fried chicken, cheese and crackers, a small piece of fruit of some sort, and perhaps a slice of guava paste on a cracker.  For some reason, the passenger across the aisle from Benito did not touch his drink and refused lunch.

“Miss, here’s your Coca-Cola”
The flight attendant was collecting the empty boxes when the passenger across the aisle, a young man in a suit and tie, jumps up and pulls the pin of a hand grenade he was holding. He was sweating profusely and looking quite agitated.

“This plane is going to Cayo Hueso!” he shouted, waving the grenade with one hand and the pin with the other.  Cayo Hueso is the Spanish name for Key West.

The door to the cockpit was open — they usually were to improve circulation — and the crew of three — the captain, copilot and navigator — heard the commotion. The navigator steps out.

“Young man! Young man!  What are you carrying on about?”

“I’m commandeering this airplane and you are taking me to Key West!”

“We can’t!” says the navigator.

“Why not?  Are you the pilot?” asks the hijacker.

“I’m the navigator. The captain is flying the plane.”

World War II Hand Grenade
Pin with pull-ring secures safety
lever. To use: hold lever against
grenade, pull pin, throw as far
as you can, and take cover.

By then the copilot is in the narrow aisle of the cabin behind the navigator.  Benito’s eyes, and all the other eyes in the cabin, are riveted to the hijacker’s left hand and more particularly the fingers that hold the grenade’s safety lever tightly against the grenade. He’s got a tight grip, but his arm is spastic, waving the grenade every which way. In his right hand is the pin he pulled, the only path to salvation.

If he lets go of the spring-loaded lever, even if just for a second, the grenade is going to blow. You can’t squeeze it back closed to stop the explosion. The delay element lights when the lever is released and when the burn reaches the detonator the explosion will occur. If he lets go, no heroic quick action is going to save the day because there is no quick way to throw it out of the aircraft.

“We can’t fly to Key West, “ says the copilot. “We only have enough fuel to get to Camaguey.”

¡Mentira!” — “you lie!” spits the hijacker. “It’s 90 miles to Key West and 300 miles to Camaguey!”

“We’re almost halfway to Camaguey and we have been flying further away from Key West. We spent a lot of fuel taking off and reaching this altitude. We can’t get to Key West with the fuel we have.”

DC-3 Banking into a Turn
The pilot, in radio contact with the ground, had quietly announced a mayday and began to slowly and carefully turn the eastbound airplane around and return to Havana, hoping the hijacker would not notice.

The hijacker noticed the change in the sunlight entering through the windows and screamed, “Where are you going now!  We’re changing course! I need to get to the U.S. or die.  I’m going to release this lever!”

“No! no! Don’t worry! We’re returning to Havana so we can refuel and get you to Key West. Stay calm!”

The hijacker is anything but calm. He started hyperventilating.

Dr. Prats
Benito stands up — there was enough room to stand up straight at the aisle seat — and says to the hijacker, “I’m a doctor, and you, young man, you are suffering from a panic attack. You don’t want to kill us all, do you?  Let me give you something to calm you so you can hold that grenade safely.”

Benito went everywhere with his doctor’s bag, a small black hard-leather satchel with his initials BHP in gold leaf above the latch. He rummaged around inside and came up with small white glass bottle with a yellow label: a sample bottle of meprobamate. He unscrewed the lid, shook out a tablet, and offered it to the hijacker.

A Doctor’s Bag
Launched in 1955 by Wallace Laboratories, Miltown (the generic name was meprobamate) was the first blockbuster psychotropic drug in U.S. (and therefore in Cuban) history. It was the Valium of its day. Celebrities from Hollywood to Manhattan were popping it to calm their nerves. And the characters they played on screen and stage took it, typically chased down with whiskey, to calm their hysterics. Pharmaceutical salesmen handed out samples as they made their rounds of doctors’ offices, and Benito had a sample bottle in his bag.

“That’s going to knock me out! I’m not taking it!” cried the hijacker.

So Benito popped the pill in his own mouth and swallowed it with an audible gulp.

The Valium of its Day
The situation remained tense, the copilot and navigator continued negotiations, and the flight landed back in Havana and taxied to a distant part of the airport well away from the terminal and shut down its engines. Soldiers surrounded the airplane, guns drawn. It did not look good for the hijacker.

There is another thing to note about airplanes of that era. If they were not moving there was no air circulating in the cabin. The hijacker refused to allow the door to be opened and the temperature inside the aircraft was becoming unbearable.

The hijacker had been holding the grenade for more than an hour now, gripping it with all his might. His hands were sweaty. It was evident he would not be able to keep hold of it for much longer.  And the airplane was surrounded by soldiers.

Suddenly, without a word, the hijacker looked into Benito’s eyes and reached across the aisle with the grenade. Benito carefully took it in both hands and worked his fingers around over the lever. The hijacker offered him the pin. Benito took the pin and carefully put it back in the grenade, locking the lever. He then gingerly put the grenade down gently on his seat and let it go.

The hijacker was slumped in his seat, sobbing, as the crew opened the door and soldiers entered and roughly took the man away.

Fidel Shaking Hands at the Airport
No, that's not Benito
Passengers and crew were bused to the terminal where they were greeted by Fidel Castro, the supreme Cuban leader himself. He shook everyone’s hand, declaring them all brave heroes, patriots, and fighters for the revolution. Ice water and saltines were offered. The airplane was fueled, repositioned at the terminal, and passengers and the same crew boarded to restart their interrupted voyage to Camaguey. I wonder if they were served supper.

What a story he got to tell Mariana when he finally got home!  He checked radio and TV newscasts that evening and the newspaper the next day for news on the hijacking.

Not a word! And no words of congratulations from Communist Party and government functionaries were forthcoming. After all, who in the world would be so desperate to leave the sun-drenched egalitarian utopia that the second revolution had brought to Cuba.

# # #

 

 


Want to read a first-hand account of how daily life was for Cubans in those years?  Check out a Belgian priest’s wry account of what he saw and experienced in Camaguey in the 1960s:  A Priest in Red Cuba

 

 

Nov 30, 2021

The Tree with Fruit of Gold — A Fable

 Antonio Martínez, Mariana M. Prats’ uncle, wrote down his version of this sad tale in happier times, back when he was a college professor in Camaguey. This is my translation. 

Once upon a time a boy found himself lost in the forest. Without success he tried and tried to find the way home.

  He walked in the woods for hours and hours and now dusk was approaching. As daylight waned his anguish grew. Overcome by fear and exhaustion he sat down on a large flat stone and, hiding his face in his hands, he began to cry.

 He was still crying when he heard the brush of footsteps in the grass nearby. He raised his head and saw before him a beautiful young woman looking at him with sympathy and concern.

“Who are you?” the boy asked, surprised.

 “I am the fairy of the forest,” replied the young woman. “Why are you crying?”

 “I am lost. I cannot find the way back home.”

 “And why do you have to go back?” the fairy asked. “If you return, you will become nothing more than a poor woodcutter like your father. On the other hand, if you search the forest, you may find the tree with golden fruit that Fortune, my sister, planted.

“Every spring this tree is covered in beautiful flowers and every summer it is laden with fruit made of the precious metal. If you can find it just once, and you collect its prodigious yield, you will be richer than the most powerful monarch on earth.”

 And as she finished these words, a swirl of wind enveloped the fairy and she disappeared into a mist. 

— — —

  At first the boy was not sure what think as he marveled after the strange apparition he had seen; but it was not long before the tantalizing words he had heard began to take effect. Then and there he resolved to set out in search of the tree with the golden fruit.

 Walking and walking day after day, he reached the edges of the forest and doubled back to search again. Later — in search of other forests — he crossed valleys and gorges, he climbed rugged mountain ranges, he explored dark jungles and broad savannahs, he crossed mighty rivers, and more than once he had to sail across a sea. He was always in search of the tree with the gold fruit—which he could never find.

 And so years and years passed by, the boy became a young man, the young man reached adulthood and the adult became an old man. But there was always a brightness in his eyes, like rays of light. It was the light of hope of one day soon finding that remarkable tree.

 More years passed as he continued his search, and the tree was not appearing. One day discouragement finally overcame him. He felt old and tired. Then and there he decided to return home to the house of his parents.

But before arriving he wanted to take a last walk through the forest where, when he was a child, the fairy had appeared to him. Entering the woods of his boyhood, the old man realized he wanted to see the large flat stone again—the stone where on that memorable afternoon all those years ago he had shed so many tears. Suddenly, there was the stone. 

— — —

 The old man stood before the stone in religious contemplation while a thousand memories swirled in his head. And when he distractedly raised his gaze, he saw before him—right there next to the stone—a stout tree whose branches bent under the weight of thick pomes of gold that shone like suns.

  The tree had been there next to him—sheltering him with its branches — the day the fairy told him about its existence. And he, driven mad by his obsession, had thrown his life away searching the world for it — without ever thinking that the tree he sought so fervently could have been so close to home. He had never suspected that the more he walked, the farther away he walked from the object of his travels, and of his dreams.

 He needed to climb the tree of gold to reach its fruit, but he could not — he was too old and his arms and legs too weak for climbing. He tried standing on the stone, grasping the rough bark of the ancient trunk with one hand so he could reach the lowest branch with the other, but he could not — he was no longer strong enough to raise a hand high enough.

 And there, sitting down on the large flat stone on which the boy had cried, the old man cried again. It was not long before his body surrendered to the pain and fatigue his obsession had kept at bay. That night he drew his last breath under the tree he had sought all his life — under its fruits of gold.

 

THE END

 

Mariana M. Prats found a short manuscript in Antonio Martínez’s papers after he died. It was an essay in Spanish titled “La Tierra Más Hermosa” (The Most Beautiful Land).  It is a reminiscence of the natural beauty that can be found on the island of Cuba, and contains this fable about a golden tree.

She decided to type it up.  This was in the late 1980’s and she typed it into a cobbled-together personal computer running Microsoft DOS with the PC-Write word-processing shareware.  

She showed it to me one day and gave me a 3¼" diskette with it. She did not know when it was written, but it could be inferred from the text that it was written in Camaguey before Antonio emigrated to Maryland.  In 1990 I formatted it for Hewlett-Packard’s first laser printer, the LaserJet model 1, and printed and bound a stack of booklets of the essay for her to give away.  She asked for more and I commandeered a Xerox machine at work and made another batch.

As you can see, the fable stands alone without the rest of the essay. Antonio used the fable to caution the reader to resist the seduction of foreign travel. Why travel far away to see natural wonders when there are so many you have not seen near where you live.  But this fable has many more—and less trivial—morals to its story than the one he chose for his essay.

 Stock photos license paid to Shutterstock.com

Jun 24, 2020

Carnaval in Camagüey

Also a Recipe: Ajiaco de Camagüey

The feasts of Saint John and Saint Peter are celebrated throughout Cuba, but the six-day Carnavales del San Juan—a summer festival held annually in Camaguey since 1725—was by mid 20th century the most important San Juan festival in Cuba and a significant annual event in the island nation, attracting tourists from throughout the nation and the world. It was so big it was named in plural: “The Carnivals of San Juan in Camaguey.”

A float at a 21st century
San Juan Festival parade in Camaguey 

Celebrations begin on Saint John the Baptist day (June 24) and end on Saint Peter the Disciple day (June 29). A traveling circus and menagerie sets up at the vast Casino Campestre park and amusement rides and their midways crowded the city. Daily scheduled events and parades co-existed with daily impromptu happenings beginning late afternoon and continuing late into the night. There were fireworks daily except for the last day. What began in joy ends on the 29th with a city-wide parade somberly celebrating the burial of Saint Peter, the disciple, first pope, and martyr.

In the 19th century equestrian events dominated, with riders arriving from all over the island to show their skills and their mounts at parades, contests and events. There were dancing horses!  In the 20th century, equestrian parades and events continued—after all, Camaguey is cowboy country—but they got more and more competition from fotingos (the Cuban word for antique automobiles) as the century progressed. 

The festival continues uninterrupted to this day. At the height of the festival’s popularity before Cuba descended to today’s poverty, and in a manner similar to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras traditions, like-minded individuals got together in clubs and brotherhoods months in advance to plan neighborhood block parties, parade floats (carrozas), marching bands, dancing bands, and, of course, fotingo shows and parades. Some also planned unofficial “spontaneous” parades and light-hearted disruptions. 

At “the San Juan,” as locals called the festival, the sacred mixed with the profane, and the multi-day festival engulfed just about every street and plaza in the city. A somber religious procession could be followed (after a decent, but very short interval) by a conga line led by musicians playing the drums that gave the conga its name. Not just congas but all types of dancing troupes paraded.  Spectators watching from the sidewalk were invited to join the parade and dance.

Music at the San Juan was non-stop, not only congas, but comparsas, rumbas, guarachas, son, and, in the 20th century, also big bands playing mambos, salsa and jazz could be heard day and night. The frenzied beat slowed down at times to allow for romantic and old traditional dances like danzón, contradanzas and habaneras as well as for música campesina (peasant music) and pop music. And of course zarzuelas, operas and classical music played in Camaguey’s theatres while brass bands played patriotic and marching music at plaza bandstands.

Beer and liquor was abundant at the San Juan and fueled the festival’s intensity. In a 2009 article of reminisces in the magazine El Camegueyano LIbre published in Miami, Víctor Romero Sóñora fondly recalls a brotherhood known as Los Sangrones (The Bleeders) who were known for humorous pranks like wheeling a urinal filled with beer and a single sausage down the street, offering cups to passersby. They were mock-offended and called you chicken if you did not partake. Many partook!  Others in the troup would infiltrate the onlookers and drop a five dollar bill tied to very thin almost invisible thread and then yank on the thread when someone tried to pick it up. Still others would “accidentally” splash fake blood made from Camaguey’s blood-red dirt on anyone wearing especially fine clothing.  It was all taken in good sport as I have been told that there were surprisingly few reports of violence at the annual San Juan.

 There is always plenty to eat at the San Juan. All types of street vendors could be found around event venues and accompanying the parades. But it’s the food at the many block parties held on the street that first-generation Cuban exiles remember most fondly. 

Old Camagueyans of the Cuban Diaspora—most of whom have now passed on—recalled the street parties and most specifically the party’s pot of soup, and my ancestors commemorated in the stories in this blog were no exception. You weren’t just welcome at your own street party, you were welcome at all, and almost without exception they all featured a communal ajiaco.  To your own street party you brought something for the pot, but to the others street parties you just brought along a bowl and a spoon so you could sample their ajiaco.

I never attended a San Juan. My family practically inaugurated Camaguey’s first suburban development so I lived outside of the festivities, and I was considered too young to attend other than the circus and an amusement ride or two before I left for the U.S. at age 9.  But I heard plenty of stories form my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  They always exclaimed the deliciousness of the different ajiacos you could smell from blocks away as you made your way around the festival.  

Ajiaco Soup
The color in this photograph is a bit off
An ajiaco-style soup, at least in Camaguey, has no set recipe. It is pot-luck in one pot. Some Americans know it as Stone Soup, where the hosts provide a pot full of water on a fire and the guests bring the ingredients to turn the water into soup.  For a communal ajiaco the host controls what and how much goes into the pot when, otherwise the soup or stew could get too salty, too spicy, or the ingredients could end up swimming in too much fat. Therefore an ajiaco, (pronounced ah-hiA-ko), is more a suggestion of how to prepare soup than an actual recipe.

At the San Juan festival in Camaguey, at each street party, someone would set up a large pot on a trivet over a charcoal fire. The pots were large, some made from the bottom half of 55 gallon metal drums. Initially the pot was filled with gallons of a thin broth started from a sofrito, but after contributions were added and started cooking, it quickly became a multi-course single-bowl meal that changed in flavor and texture as the party progressed and late-arriving ingredients were added.


Ajiaco Recipe.

This 30 gallon jambalaya pot
would make for a great ajiaco
Ajiaco soup would make a great main dish for a large gathering, whether cooked outside on coals or on propane, or in the kitchen in your largest canning pot for a winter get together. I’ve already confessed I never personally tasted a Carnival del San Juan Ajiaco, and there is no family recipe to fall back on because it is not something you needed to write one down. So all I can offer here is guidance from what I’ve been told and occasionally fed.

  1. Depending on how many folks are coming to your party, tell them to bring half to a pound of meat or one to two pounds of vegetables. Coordinate it so there is a variety of ingredients. They’ll bring too much no matter what you tell them, so be sure to control what goes in the pot or you’ll run out of room and have to fish stuff out so you can add something different.
  2. Borrow a 20 quart (or bigger) stock pot.
  3. Fill the pot with 6 to 8 quarts of vegetable or chicken broth. You can also start with water but be sure to increase the salt if you do.
  4. In hot skillet, fry up a sofrito and set it aside
  5. Light the fire under the pot as folks begin arriving and mix in the sofrito.
  6. Add ingredients to the pot as they arrive, making sure they are first cut into pieces that can be easily ladled up.  You may want to brown the meat first in a fry pan, with a little oil, before adding it to the pot, but it’s not necessary.
  7. Skim off foam periodically when it forms.
  8. Add water if the soup thickens too much. The soup should have a richly-flavored broth, not be a stew.
  9. Cook until ready, reduce the fire, ladle some out, and then cook some more. Restock the pot with more ingredients periodically.

Suggestions for the sofrito:

2 or 3 tbs. vegetable oil (or use equivalent amount of bacon drippings)

1 large onion, finely chopped (or use a food processor)

1 green pepper, finely chopped (likewise)

4 or more large cloves of garlic, finely chopped; some folks use a whole knob.

1 small can tomato sauce, or for more tang, use 3 tablespoons of tomato paste instead.

Salt

 Below are some ingredients used to make authentic Cuban Ajiaco. Use any or all! Or use something not authentic, like mushrooms and carrots. After all, in its origin Ajiaco is a soup that uses scraps of whatever is laying around the kitchen that is reaching the end of its shelf life.

  • Green or yellow plantain, cut in ¾ inch rounds. If you are using plantains, wait until you’ve added the plantains and then follow quickly with the lime juice (below) to keep the broth from darkening.
  • * The juice of two limes. Add lime juice whether or not you use plantains.
  • A tablespoon of cumin powder and/or oregano
  • * Corn on the cob, cut into 2 inch pieces.
  • * Two or more kinds of root vegetables
    • Yucca root, peeled, deveined, and cut in chunks. You can find it already peeled in most grocery store frozen cases these days. Peeling yucca is not fun.
    • Cooking potatoes, cut into chunks (avoid baking potatoes, as they tend to disintegrate in the soup).
    • Sweet potatoes and/or white-root yam (boniato)
    • Other Caribbean root vegetables like malanga and taro.
  • * At least one type of salted meat
    • Beef jerky (tasajo) that has been soaked in plenty of water overnight. Discard the water and dice.
    • Hand-cut bacon, cut in small cubes. Fry it first and render out as much fat as you can.
    • Ham such as a ham steak, cut in large cubes
  • * Chicken on the bone. Cut the breast up in multiple pieces.
  • Chunks of beef stew meat and/or pork. Cut these into bite-size and put them in first so they get nice and tender.
  • Optional: green vegetables like okra and string beans, but add them late in the cooking process so they don’t disintegrate
  • Optional: an onion, chopped into large chunks

* The soup will still be tasty, but you can’t really call it ajiaco if you don’t include at least the items marked with the asterisks.  Also, it’s not an ajiaco if it has rice, noodles, beans, milk, cream or cheese in it.

 If the party is large enough, ajiaco soup continues to cook for the entire party. Early-arrivals will be eating a completely different soup than latecomers.  Serve smaller portions and encourage guests to come back for more, letting them know that it will taste different with each refill.

 Serve in broad soup bowls with crusty Cuban, French or Italian bread; and provide olive oil and vinegar cruets to be used as condiments. The only utensils needed are soup spoons.

 Unlike many other Latin-American cuisines, Cuban food is never spicy-hot food, but you could also set out an assortment of hot sauces for those who want a bit of spicy heat.  Be sure to put up a sign that says “this not Cuban” next to the hot sauces.

 This is a messy meal. The corn and chicken is eaten with fingers once it cools down a little bit, and the smaller chunks of meat and vegetables with a spoon. The broth is sopped up with bread. Juices will dribble down your chin and splash on your clothes. Hand out plenty of napkins and keep plastic lobster bibs on hand to hand out to finely-dressed folks. 

A twenty quart pot should feed 15 to 25 people.  More, if you keep restocking it.

 

 

 

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 to be 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 at No. 53 Avellaneda Street in Camaguey in the home of his grandmother, Rufina Pereira. She and her adult granddaughter Bertha Respall 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 became 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. It was in English and 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.