Feb 9, 2016


I took the first bite from the little plate of white rice that had been set in front of me and I was in heaven! It was my first taste of the intoxicating aroma that had been swirling around me for the last 20 minutes while the rice cooked. This is my earliest and most vivid memory of food.  I am salivating right now as I write this. It was my first ever taste of garlic!

Rufina Pereira in 1954
I must have been five or six years old and I was in the traspatio, the back patio, of my great grandmother Rufina Pereira’s house in Camagüey in 1957. It was just she and me there, a very rare if not unique occurrence. Normally if I was visiting relatives I would be with my brothers and sisters and the adults would have been alternating between interacting with us and ignoring us as the chatted with each other. But here I was all by myself with my bisabuela who everyone called Paita, a tiny wrinkled woman in her nineties who I always saw in a long-sleeved house dress that reached to the floor, and a shawl around her shoulders no matter how hot the day was. I quickly polished the plate and asked for seconds.

A more modern and larger
version of that charcoal stove
My mother must have been running late picking me up from school for the lunch break and had telephoned Paita to ask her to fetch me. The school, las Escuelas Pias, was just a block away and across a sleepy plaza from her house at 53 Avellaneda Street. I watched as she prepared the simple lunch for me. Unlike practically everyone else in Camagüey who years ago had upgraded to gas or electric stoves and moved their kitchens inside, she still cooked on a charcoal stove which was a continuation of a tiled counter in a roofed alcove of her patio. On a perch nearby her big green parrot squawked periodically and added irrelevant words of his own to our conversation.

First, she took off her shawl and put on a white apron. Using tongs, she pulled out an ember of charcoal that had been hiding in the ashes, added fresh charcoal around it and blew on the ember to make it glow brighter and burst into flame, lighting the charcoal. She put a small round black cast-iron pot on the grating over the fire and added water, rice and a pinch of salt. Finally, she peeled and chopped the garlic and added it to the pot with a generous pat of butter. Or maybe it was a splash of aromatic olive oil. Or both.  I remember a second flavor distinct from the garlic, in the air and coating my lips as I ate up that wonderful food.
A little plate of rice

Then we waited for the rice to cook. There might have been some meat in the rice, but probably not. And maybe she had fried the garlic in the oil or butter first before she added the rice and water and brought it to a boil. My distinct memory is of the smells and tastes that day; less distinct is how it was prepared. Visually I remember the whiteness of the rice — which was not individual al dente grains, but fluffy, soft and glutinous — and the steam rising from it. If there was something else on the plate along with the rice I do not remember it.

Ajiaco Cubano
Garlic is one of the defining flavors of Cuban food. Classic Cuban cooking — at least the style practiced in Camagüey back then — is a variation on the Mediterranean-style cooking of Spain. And in Spain the Catalonians cook the garlickest dishes. (My last name Prats is a Catalan name.) The only green or red peppers in Cuban cooking are bell, and black pepper is measured in tiny fractions of a teaspoon if it is added to any pot or frying pan. Garlic is Cuban cooking’s spiciest and most common flavoring agent.  So why it is that I was six years old before I first tasted garlic?

Simple. My mother, Mariana Martínez, hated garlic. The aversion to garlic ran in the family, as garlic was never in any meal prepared at the Martinez residence at 208 Republica Street where she grew up. Such is love that I never once heard my father, Benito Prats, complain about the complete lack of garlic in his diet that began the day he married Mariana. He loved garlic and often ordered the garlickest plate on the menu — shrimp scampi, for example — when he dined out in Maryland. But at home he was content with the flavor of onion.  

That little plate of rice was not only my first taste of garlic, but also my last for many more years.  I rediscovered garlic when my brother and I lived with our Italian-American foster parents near Syracuse, New York, for almost four years while we waited for our parents to be given permission to leave Cuba — another story for another day — and garlic went away again when the Prats family was reunited in Maryland in 1965. No more garlic until I went to work in Bethesda across Hampden Lane from the Pines of Rome and two short blocks from the China Garden on East Lane behind the post office.

Toum, or Aiolí
One Monday 50 years later, on my weekly after work trek to Maryland to have dinner with my parents, I brought my 89-year old dad a bag of pita chips and a little tub of garlic puree from Cedars of Lebanon deli in Burke, Virginia, near where I lived. The Lebanese call it toum.  It’s white like mayonnaise but light and fluffy, made just with fresh garlic, oil, and a little salt — not cooked, just whipped together.

He takes a bite. “This is aiolí.” He accented the last vowel. “It’s Catalan. My grandmother used to make it.”

Not a minute later my mom pipes up from the other room. “¡Que peste!” — “What’s that nasty smell!”

The author with his great grandmother Rufina Pereira (seated)
and his grandmother Eduviges Respall. They are at Rufina’s house.

Rufina Pereira in 1950