As Miamians prepared for the onslaught of Isaac — which, fortunately, missed us like a gutter ball misses the 10 pin — I took a more casual, less frantic approach to the impending doom. I opted to go on a small tour around town sampling one of the city’s tastiest culinary delights, the croqueta (croquette) — Cuban cuisine’s most underrated gem.
Every croqueta seemingly has a story behind it and these stories make up our family lore.
My first stop on the croqueta tour was in the heart of Little Havana, El Brazo Fuerte Bakery. At first glance I noted how dainty their croquetas are. I remembered my friend Bill Teck’s theory that certain foods are only good in a particular size. Like many croquette connoisseurs, he is of the opinion that smaller is better. As I sampled a delectable ham-filled croqueta, I exchanged croqueta impressions with Narcis, a fellow croqueta enthusiast who arrived from Cuba six years ago.
She told me that the abundance of croquetas was one of the things that most impressed her upon arriving in Miami. “I grew up in Cienfuegos eating my abuela’s croquetas in the ’60s. As things got tougher in Cuba and we entered the ‘special period’ (a government-sanctioned belt-tightening of the Cuban economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall) the croqueta was another part of our heritage that we lost.” Sad, I thought, because croquetas instantly evoke memorable family get-togethers and exchanges for me.
My earliest memories of croquetas are in Hialeah, my grandmother’s kitchen to be precise. We didn’t have a “special period” here but we had a heck of an energy crisis and a depressed economy. As a boy, I knew my family was struggling to make ends meet. And yet on Saturdays, regardless of circumstances, my abuela would make me cod croquetas as a lunch treat after my catechism classes.
I recall sitting with her while she prepared her specially seasoned fill. Life wasn’t easy for my grandmother; she had sisters in Cuba, whom she could not easily communicate with — they eventually died without ever reuniting. There was always a solemn silence between her anecdotes. I recognize now that she was shielding me from the harshness of her reality. I understood that those croquetas were made with lots of love — all the love she could muster in her broken heart.
As I reflected upon my grandmother’s cod croquetas, I ventured over to El Floridita on Bird Road to taste their fishy delights. True to form, they were exceptional. It was Friday, a day when most Catholics opt for fish and most of the predominantly Cuban patrons at the restaurant were ordering the bacalao (cod) croquetas. I guess the delicious croquettes make it easy to refrain from eating meat on Fridays. “ Catolico a mi manera” (Catholic my way) is how many Cubans would describe their faith and I would venture to say that cod croquettes are part of the “Cuban way.”
Finally, on Saturday, on the eve of the weather catastrophe that never came (perhaps thanks to the great sacrifice of all the Cuban Catholics who obeyed the church doctrine and ate hundreds of cod croquettes the previous day) I took my soon to be five-year-old daughter to Islas Canarias and treated her to the gold standard of all croquetas. Disparately shaped and clunky, these croquettes are the tastiest fried delight I’ve ever had.
I cherished the moment much more as I watched my daughter make a mess devouring her croqueta. We laughed and shared stories. This experience, after all, was a celebration as she successfully finished her first week of kindergarten. As I attentively listened to her tell me about her discoveries at school, I remembered my grandmother’s kitchen and how much love can be transmitted to a child by the protective silence of what is not said and by sharing a delicious croqueta.