My four-year-old’s blonde curls fall into her face as she eats black beans out of her plastic monster dish. Heaping them on the fat, ergonomically toddler spoon until they spill onto the table. “It’s okay,” she assures me, picking the escaped beans with her fingers and shoving them into her mouth. She gives me a dark, bean-crusted grin and piles more on. The kid loves black beans. Like her momma.
I like to say a white woman taught me how to cook black beans and rice. She was my own mother and her maiden name was White. If you asked my mother the roots of her ancestry, she’d tell you with a dismissive wave of her hand that it’s “some German.” Perhaps her lack of enthusiasm about our German lineage was because in Cincinnati, everyone had German roots and you could find goetta and sauerkraut in the supermarket or that our family tree grew and sprouted long ago from those German roots but she didn’t teach me how to cook anything German. Instead, she drew from my father’s side of the family.
My paternal Cuban grandmother died when my father was very young. Growing up in the Midwest during the Bay of Pigs and the red scare, my father didn’t talk about being Cuban. Sometimes, when his guard was down or if he were distracted, he’d let something slip, but we could always count on my mother to get the details. In a hushed voice, crowded around the stove, she’d tell the story to my younger sister and me.
“They hid guns in the chandelier when Fidel’s army came,” she’d whisper.
“They had a chandelier?” I asked in awe.
My mother was our own family historian, repeating stories and reminding us of our heritage until it became part of us. She didn’t want us to lose it—whatever that it was to her. And so, she tried to cook black beans and rice, the most traditional of Cuban dishes.
My mother’s first secret family recipe for Cuban Black Beans and Rice:
1 can of Campbell’s condensed black bean soup
3 cups of cooked rice
The puree of black sludge that moved around the cast iron pan sent my sister and I into squeals of distrust.
I asked, “What else goes in it?”
My mother’s voice changed to the clinical, nursing one that I was sure she used on patients in the hospital. “Beans and rice provide the perfect complimentary protein profile. Nutritionally, it’s the perfect food. Nothing else needs to go in it.”
My sister and I pushed around the tar on our plates, watching as the rice stuck to it. Being the oldest, my sister waited for me to try it first. I closed my eyes and stuck the fork in my mouth. It was dark and salty. The texture of the fluffy rice contrasted against the sticky, bean paste. I nodded. It wasn’t as bad as it looked.
My father and I fought over which language I would take in middle school. I wanted to take French like the rest of my friends, but he insisted on Spanish. He spoke no Spanish, so why should I? He told me that it was the only useful language in this hemisphere. I pouted and cried. But eventually, I took Spanish.
On long car trips, my mother would ask me to teach us some Spanish.
“Tell me the words for ‘I love you’,” she said.
“Te KEY AIR ROW.” She pronounced over and over again. Me, trying to correct her accent, “No, Mom, quiero” and she kept with the “KEY AIR ROW” and not hearing the difference.
My father taught us the only phrase he knew in Spanish, “Dos cervezas, por favor. You should always ask for two in Mexico,” he said.
We would have contests—the roll of the double “r.” My sister was the best at it; she could roll her tongue slowly like a purr or high and rapid like a squeaky fan. My mother couldn’t roll her r’s at all. We coached and she tried but it never happened. “Girls, it’s lost on me. It’s your Cuban genes.”
Beans and rice was a staple. My mother worked late shifts and my father traveled for work often. It was cheap and easy but more importantly, it filled us, nutritionally and culturally. We’d eat eagerly, rarely complain.
My mother became obsessed with finding the perfect version of black beans and rice to pass along to her children. We had nothing else from Cuba. My father’s family left everything behind except for a few pictures. She wanted something of our Cuban heritage to take root in our own family tree.
My mother’s second secret family recipe for Cuban Black Beans and Rice:
Saute one chopped onion, two chopped green bell peppers and one clove of garlic in a tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the onion is translucent, add a can of chopped tomatoes and two cans of black beans, drained. Reduce heat to low and simmer for half an hour. Serve over white rice.
As a teenager, I was hungry for Cuba—anything with Spanish on the label or remotely Latino—but there was little in Ohio. I’m not sure what it was that drove me to my obsession—my mother’s influence, the idea of being different in Middle America, or just that this was part of me and I wanted to keep it.
As an adult, I moved to California and I finally practiced my Spanish. My accent was just as bad as my mother’s. I found food stalls in Barrio Logan and roach coaches that turned me on to tacos de cabeza and Oaxacan cheese. There were whole supermarkets with food I couldn’t find in the Midwest. When I spoke in Spanish, the workers would answer in English. I’d smile the next time I saw them, open my mouth and the words would stick on my tongue. “I’d like some chicharones. Thank you.”
I studied literature and took classes in Spanish. I met other Cuban-Americans for the first time. They grew up speaking Spanish and raised an eyebrow, looking me up and down, when I said my grandmother was from Cuba. I stopped telling people my ancestry. I decided I had no right to my Cuban heritage.
But, I still longed to cook Cuban food. I learned how to make plantains and croquetas. Ropa Vieja produced the tenderest beef that melted on the tongue. I read articles on the current slow food movement in Cuba and how the lack of food had produced large community gardens so, I started a garden in my own yard.
Like my mother, the perfect black beans and rice eluded me. I dreamed about wells of black beans simmering in the ground. They looked like shallow puddles with bubbles of black liquid on the surface but they were deep, and I was afraid to go near the edge because I could tumble in. Eventually, I stopped trying to cook them, too frustrated, too afraid that I was trying to pretend I was something I couldn’t rightfully claim.
When I went to El Salvador to visit my friend in the Peace Corps, she nicknamed me Profunda Piscina. It means deep pool. She gave it to me because of the gallons of potable water I drank. I liked the name Profunda Piscina. It reminded me of the black beans in my dreams and how my heritage may look shallow on the surface, like a puddle, but that it ran deep in me because of my mother and her insistence that we hold onto our roots.
In my four-year-old daughter’s Spanish language playgroup, I am one of the few white women that speak Spanish. In our first class, the teacher greets us and tells us to grab some food before I answer in Spanish and a woman overhears. “Oh! You speak Spanish!”
“Yes, a little. Not well. I mean, I have a terrible accent.”
“If I spoke Spanish, I wouldn’t care!”
I try not to roll my eyes and I smile politely. We wedge ourselves between other families on metal folding chairs. Index cards with Spanish phrases litter the table.
I say it low and softly to my daughter. “Siéntate, mija. ¿Quieres un poco de espagueti?”
“Yes, please!” She sings to me, crawling up on the chair. She doesn’t understand me but she knows there’s food on the table and she knows I am asking her if she wants some.
I smile at her. “Háblame en español, por favor.”
Screwing up her face, she nods.
“Okay.” I look into her brilliant blue eyes, a mirror of my own. I speak slowly, “Dime sí. Sí. Yes.”
“Sí, yes, mamá.”
“Gracias, mija.” I give her a kiss and go to the food table.
She stands on her chair and yells, “Gracias!” to everyone’s surprise.
I stopped trying to find the secret family recipe for Cuban Black Beans and Rice—some perfect recipe that doesn’t exist in my family because we’ve changed, we’ve adapted. We’re a fusion family. I stopped worrying about perfection or authenticity. It’s more about adaptability of where we are right now. Sometimes I use peppers that come from my patio garden or bacon from my farmers’ market. My daughter loves to crumble the salty cojita on top and more cojita halfway through. I rarely serve it with rice. Our secret family recipe combines my influences and my heritage. I call it Profunda Piscina de Frijoles Negros. It’s a staple of my family dinners.
Jessica Hilt is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and University of California San Diego. When she’s not writing odd little stories, she has a fabulous career as a geek socialite. Her work has appeared in Bourbon Penn magazine, on stage at The Old Globe, and in various bars around town—with or without provocation. A version of this story first appeared on stage with So Say We All in San Diego.