Food by VICE

Nitza Villapol Taught Generations of Cubans How to Make Do and Eat Well

To say that Nitza Villapol wrote the most important Cuban cookbook would be to understate her influence.

by Ashley Rodriguez
Dec 13 2018, 5:26pm

“You probably have a counterfeit,” Sisi Colomina says. “Tell me which edition you have.”

I flip through my copy of Cocina Al Minuto to check what year the book was printed. I can’t seem to find it anywhere, which is a red flag. This particular edition—which Colomina is able to identify because “it has an hourglass on the cover, right?”—has been sitting on my parents’ shelf since before I can remember. Of all the cookbooks in our house, this is the only one that shows any wear and tear, and that’s probably true across all Cuban and Cuban-American households.

The reason for that is Nitza Villapol. Sisi Colomina is Villapol’s ex-daughter-in-law and keeper of her legacy. So I asked her about the book I’ve always associated with Cuban cooking: Cocina Al Minuto, or, roughly translated, Minute Kitchen. When I tell her what my copy looks like, she confirms that “yeah, that’s a counterfeit.” Although many immigrants left Cuba clutching their copies of Cocina Al Minuto, that didn’t stop unauthorized reprints from springing up all over Miami, for which Villapol never received royalties. Colomina says that dozens of editions of Villapol’s books were printed illegally in the United States—including my copy.

To say that Nitza Villapol wrote the most important Cuban cookbook would be to understate her influence. And yet, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the physical book itself. Her name doesn’t appear anywhere on the cover. There’s no picture of her, nor glowing foreword from another, more well-known chef extolling the virtues of Villapol’s cooking. She didn’t own a restaurant, and most of her writing is still only available in Spanish.

But she wrote The Book, this book. No other cookbook encompasses the spirit of Cuban cuisine better than Cocina Al Minuto because Villapol wrote it with a focus on the lived experience and actual eating habits of her readers. Her culinary career straddled pre- and post-communist Cuba, and she was adept at meeting the changing needs of her audience, continually adapting her recipes to meet the fluctuating political climate.

Villapol was born to Cuban exiles in New York in 1923, but was living in Cuba by age 11. She reportedly learned to cook by watching her mother, who focused on fast and easy food because she believed that women should spend as little time in the kitchen as possible. She studied nutrition in London and briefly taught Spanish, but after reading about Cuba’s very first television station launching in 1948, Villapol wrote a letter to the owner pitching an idea for a cooking show, and he accepted.

Although she had studied nutrition in school, Villapol wasn’t a chef, nor did she consider herself one. But Cocina Al Minuto (the book, which came later, was named after the show) ran on television for almost 50 years, airing its last broadcast in 1997. Throughout that time, Villapol showcased cuisines from around the world. For Villapol, Cuban cuisine wasn’t a set of recipes, but instead a necessary reaction to the unique amalgamation of historical influences and political circumstances facing Cuban people.

Flipping through the cookbook, you’ll see recipes for just about everything—not just traditional Cuban dishes, but also things like chow mein or borscht. When I tell Colomina that one of my favorite recipes from the book is for congri she explains that it’s a Haitian dish based on Creole traditions. Villapol was an expert on how external forces shaped Cuban cuisine, and even contributed to an UNESCO publication on Caribbean influences on Latin American cuisine. (Although she was notably critical of the American impact on Cuban diets, calling mayonnaise “an American invention to ruin food.”)

Most notably, Villapol was sensitive to the changing political climate of Cuba, releasing multiple editions of her book throughout her career and constantly revising her recipes. In the early 1950s, she published the first edition of Cocina Al Minuto with a focus on entertaining; at the time, Cuba was an escape for wealthy Americans and socialites. The recipes were miles away from the recipes we associate with Cuban cuisine today and those early editions of her book included advertisements for then-high-tech kitchen equipment—which also appeared in her television kitchen. That changed in 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power and implemented sweeping political changes, including the 1962 food rations that are still practiced today.

Villapol quickly changed the way she cooked to show a generation of Cubans how to adapt their favorite recipes when food was scarce. She could make a pudding without eggs. She could recreate your favorite hearty stew without meat. She was a proponent of using food scraps and leftover parts of the animal in all her dishes.

"I simply inverted the terms,” she said in Con Pura Magia Satisfechos, a short documentary about her life filmed in the 1980s. “Instead of asking me what ingredients were needed to make this or that recipe, I started by asking myself what were the recipes available with the available products.”

Villapol thought of herself as an educator above all else, and approached her show as a way to teach Cubans how to eat. “In a recorded interview that was done when she was older, her last words were that she wanted to be recognized as a teacher,” Colomina says. “She wasn't a cook who showed you a recipe. Her show was an educational show.”

Many articles, like this story from NPR, honor Villapol by calling her ‘the Cuban Julia Child,’ and it’s easy to see why. She was on TV for over 40 years, like Julia, making Cuban cuisine accessible to everyone. But the analogy doesn’t quite fit. “The difference is that Julia Child made it known that she made French food and brought it into the homes of North Americans and Nitza also adapted traditional international recipes…but for Nitza, her adaptation was systemic,” Colomina says.

According to Andres Oppenheimer’s book Castro’s Final Hour, Villapol would often consult with government officials about the specific rations that would be available to citizens and tailor her recipes to the week’s allowance. Nitza was incredibly intentional with the way she presented food and recipes, mimicking the needs of the country while still encouraging healthier eating habits. In this way, her show was less of a distraction from the political and economic realities of 20th century Cuba and more a necessary accompaniment to living within them.

Villapol went on to publish other books and articles, but is best remembered for Cocina Al Minuto, which she updated every few years—the two most notable editions coming out in 1954 and 1991 (in the 1954 version, almost half the chapters talk about different cocktails. In the 1991 version, there’s no mention of cocktails at all). When Cubans began fleeing the country in the 1960s, many brought their copies of Cocina Al Minuto as a way to stay connected to the home they were leaving behind.

Although the scope is expansive, individual recipes are sparse—most are just a list of ingredients and a few sentences on preparation, with room to explore and adapt based on what’s available. Villapol didn’t give her readers step-by-step instructions to recreate a precise dish, but instead left room for exploration, and more likely, a pathway to find flavor in scarcity.

Growing up, I used to find this frustrating. Looking over my copy of Cocina Al Minuto, I wonder if I’ll ever master the recipes I remember loving as a kid without a clear blueprint to recreate them. I used to agonize over the translation notes, adjustments, suggestions that my grandmother wrote in the margins and wind up making multiple grocery store trips for a single dish. But I realize that Villapol would probably find that sort of fussiness ridiculous, and insist that I have everything I need to make a hearty meal already in kitchen right now. After all, she inspired a generation of Cubans to be resourceful and to find not just sustenance, but nourishment, in whatever food was available to them. I hope I can do the same.