Carlos Frias, a longtime writer for the Palm Beach Post, began March 28 as the Miami Herald’s Food and Dining Editor. Here is his introductory column.
I was raised by a man in an apron. Sure, my mother, Iraida, cooked, too — and well. But it was my dad, Fernando Frias, who I remember putting on an apron over his shirt and tie in the small kitchen in the back of the Carol City jewelry store they owned for 23 years. He would whip up lunch for us in between selling affordable earrings and garish gold chains to locals.
What always struck me was the quantity. He cooked enough potaje and ajiaco in that cazuela de presion to feed a family of Duggars, though it was only him, my mom and me.
But that’s just how he learned to do it when he was cooking for 80 men in a forced labor camp in Cuba.
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My dad had to work two years in agricultural fields in western Cuba to earn his exit visa for the United States in the late ’60s. He had already served two years in La Cabaña prison for trying to sneak off the island on a speedboat when his original application was rejected — after he and his four brothers had lost their cafes and lunch counters to nationalized government.
While he was in the labor camp, the former cook had gotten his exit visa. Who was going to man the stove now? The soldiers asked whether anyone had any experience in a kitchen. My dad shot up his hand.
Not that he had ever worked as a cook. Yeah, he’d sling a saucepan at home and learned from watching the Chinese-Cuban chef at their restaurant in Marianao. But his other option was working the fields — where he cut tall grasses by hand with a machete and dug latrines in fetid soil that once got in his face and caused an infection that still leaves a mark, all while armed guards with German shepherds looked on.
He had already faked being a stone mason to help build a school to get out of the field work. Why not cook, too?
The workers had subsisted on nothing but chicharos, split peas, and rice for as long as he could remember. They were dying for something sweet.
His first week on the job, he noticed three enormous felled Cuban palms that workers had cut while clearing the fields and got an idea.
He remembered a story his father, Pancho, had told him about how men during the Cuban war of independence had subsisted in the mountains for weeks eating nothing but fresh hearts of palms.
There was something poetic about Cubans staying alive by eating the heart of their iconic tree. Maybe they could do it again.
He asked a pair of his conscripted coworkers to butcher the palms and bring him their hearts. They delivered three, pearly stalks about two feet tall and as white as the rose Jose Marti cultivated.
He cubed the hearts, put them in a cauldron with water, sugar and cinnamon sticks and simmered them until they were tender and candied, syrupy and sweet.
That day, on the menu chalkboard, he wrote:
Chicharos and white rice
Dessert: Dulce de Palma Frías”
The men approached it cautiously at first. And then, they couldn’t believe their taste buds. Every last ladle of Dulce de Palma Frias was devoured.
The next day, workers showed up to his kitchen with as many as 20 peeled and glistening hearts of palms from the land they had cleared that day. It was so much, my dad had to store it in the icebox.
No one touched the chicharos the next day. Everyone only wanted double servings of Palma Frias.
More than 20 years later, my dad was crossing a street in Hialeah when someone called out “Palma Frias!” One of the men he had cooked for still remembered. The man now owned a restaurant on East Fourth Avenue and dragged my dad there, where he stuffed him with lechón and congri rice. My dad ate there for free during very lean years.
Just returning the favor, the man had told him.
And that’s how I learned about cooking and life, at the heel of a man daring to take chances, acknowledging he didn’t know everything but determined to learn and improve himself and his station.
These days, when I’m cooking Cuban food in my Flagami kitchen for my three daughters, I sometimes turn to Ana Sofia Pelaez’s James Beard-nominated The Cuban Table. But when I want to feel like a boy again, I call my dad and ask him to walk me through a red beans potaje that he only knows how to make in military proportions.
My dad is 88 now. He still cooks for himself and my mom every day. Before it’s too late, I want to make dulce de Palma Frías with him, so he can guide me and we can both nourish ourselves with memories.
When I do, I’ll share the recipe here, in these pages, where I care as much about the thousands of Miami food stories like this one as I do about the fine dining chefs who call Miami home and helped put it on the map. Food tells our story as a city.
We could all use more heart in our food.