By 1991 the Cuban economy was in tatters. Its primary trading partner, the Soviet Union, had dissolved, cutting imports by 80 percent. Tractors were abandoned in the fields, cars stalled along the roads. And most markets were bare: The average number of calories available, per capita, dropped by more than a third; the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds. While there had been shortages in the decades prior, none had been so dire.
To help them cope during the years of deprivation that came to be known as the Special Period, many of those Cubans who could turned to television—specifically, to Cocina al Minuto, a wildly popular, four-decade-old cooking program. In one fondly remembered episode, the show’s host, Nitza Villapol, taught viewers how to prepare one of her least appetizing recipes, ropa vieja, a traditional dish of shredded beef and vegetables, but with a twist: Villapol instructed viewers to substitute plantain peels for beef, which had become scarce and expensive.
The no-nonsense Villapol worked in a shabby kitchen, dutifully explaining to viewers the nutritional value of the plantain peel while demonstrating how to chop and spice it heavily—just like the classic version of the dish. Notably, she limited her ingredient lists to what Cubans could buy that day from the local market, in order to show a hungry nation how to cook, deprivation be damned.
Today, long after the end of the Special Period—which arguably did not end until 2004, when Cuba’s economic indicators returned to pre-1989 levels—and nearly two decades after Villapol’s death, her influence continues to reverberate within Cuba and beyond. Many Cubans who fled the country regard her writing as their Bible for traditional Cuban cooking; many who stayed behind through the worst of the food insecurity revere her. And lately, Villapol has been the subject of resurgent interest among Cubans and Cubaphiles, thanks in part to the sudden spike in American enthusiasm for visiting Cuba since the easing of travel restrictions between the countries. Given that the Special Period, in particular, affected all aspects of Cuba’s food chain—from what crops farmers grew, to how fishers integrated modern conservation practices into their trade—Villapol’s beloved show and cookbooks helped shape the food, and, through it, the culture, of an entire country at a time of dramatic change.
Born in New York City in 1923 to Cuban parents, Nitza Villapol moved to Havana as a nine-year-old. After studying nutrition and education in Cuba, in 1949, she auditioned for the role of television host on a whim, not long after national broadcast television first came to the island. Weeks later, she became the host of a cooking show she would name Cocina al Minuto—“Cooking in Minutes.” On the program, she taught viewers how to prepare classic Cuban dishes like the Christmas-time special guanajo relleno, (a turkey marinated in garlic, citrus, and spices) and shrimp enchiladas (or shrimp in tomato sauce). Those years of plenty, before the Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, produced some of Villapol’s “happiest memories,” according to Angela Giron, a professor at Arizona State University and author of the upcoming play Nitza – A Cuban Flavor.
Traditionally, Cuban food is meat-heavy; most Cuban markets in those days carried a relatively small variety of produce, much of which came from the United States and elsewhere. Villapol showed viewers and readers to use healthier ingredients like hake in fish dishes such as escabeche, and encouraged the use of more and varied produce, as evidenced in her vegetable-heavy recipes for soups and stews. But all that changed with the beginning of the Castro regime and the start of the U.S. embargo.
Following the revolution, Villapol was one of the few television hosts to retain her position in the new government-owned television station, after many were replaced by Castro loyalists. The embargo created a void of the American-produced ingredients that had once flooded the markets. The economic turmoil that followed the regime change further limited what the country could afford to import, creating shortages, even after the Soviet Union became the country’s main trading partner.
Much of Castro’s government rhetoric focused on providing ample food for all Cubans—“Everyone eats the same,” as one revolutionary adage put it. Instead, what happened was that “ingredients began to disappear,” as Villapol said in the 1983 documentary Con Pura Magia. So she evolved, as Cuban author Antonio Jose Ponte recalled in a speech he delivered in 2015, making sofrito with water rather than fat and picadillo with cornmeal instead of meat. Ponte also noted that she persuaded Cubans to raise tilapia through aquaculture, for both its health and economic benefits. “Three-quarters of Nitza Villapol’s professional career was spent in a wasteland,” he said. “She was austere, but also imaginative.”
Villapol also assumed the mantle of revolutionary chef. Following the revolution, she updated her cookbooks to reflect her embrace of Castro’s politics. Despite her political disengagement prior to the revolution—and her ability, as a natural-born U.S. citizen, to leave Cuba—she grew to “disdain all the Cubans who left ... following the revolution,” Giron said.
She was not without her critics. As the anthropologist Hanna Garth wrote, after Villapol began changing her recipes and approach to Cuban cooking, some in post-revolutionary Cuba turned against her for supposedly watering down traditional recipes. Others considered her a lackey for the increasingly unpopular Communist government, viewing her program as promoting acceptance of deprivation—and, by extension, Castro’s policies—rather than using her considerable influence to support change.
By 1989, Villapol, then in her late 60s, had been hosting Cocina al Minuto for 40 years, and was perhaps Cuba’s second-most recognized woman (after Castro’s wife). Giron said that Cubans perceived her “as a constant in their lives.” During the Special Period, in particular, her role was to teach Cubans to be innovative with their food in the face of hunger, desperation, and disempowerment. While she taught viewers to make traditional dishes with the available ingredients, her most important contribution was her introduction of “arte de inventar,” or art of invention, as Garth wrote. Villapol taught Cubans to improvise.
In 1993, the Castro government abruptly took Cocina al Minuto off the air. No one I spoke to seemed to know why. Tom Miller, author of Trading With The Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba, believes it was because of the economic cutbacks of the time. "Everything, and I mean everything, was drastically reduced or eliminated in 1993 and 1994." These were "the worst years of the Periodo Especial . . . [when] [s]treet lights, food products, clothing, electricity, pumps, petrol, transportation, newsprint, everything was down and out." (José Luis Santana, then president of the Cuban Culinary Federation, later reportedly admitted the cancellation was a mistake.) By the mid-1990s, Villapol was overwhelmed in any case, consumed by taking care of her aging mother. She died in 1998.
But Villapol’s influence remains visible in the growing number of urban gardens and farms in neighborhoods around Havana and beyond. Such gardens were started to meet the need for fresh produce in cities during the Special Period, when more urban areas were often the last to receive the limited fruits and vegetables being grown in Cuba’s more agricultural interior. Farms like Vivero Alamar, started in 1997 in Havana province, are now part of the local food-cultivation system—a system that by 2006 supplied up to 90 percent of the produce consumed in the city. Much of the food grown on these farms hadn’t typically been available prior to the Cuban Revolution. It was Villapol who helped introduce it to Cuban kitchens.
Kate Daley, a longtime tour guide and cook based in Santiago, Cuba, has observed an ever-growing variety of vegetables available in the country’s markets. People continue to use Villapol’s lessons on making more nutritious food using locally grown and seasonal produce, she said. “This would be the legacy of Nitza Villapol: that, little by little, people get the message that good-tasting food doesn’t mean a huge piece of roasted pork. It can mean green-leaf vegetables, well-prepared root veggies, and, above all, interesting flavors and colors that appeal to the eyes and nose as well as the stomach.”
Today, Cubans still face shortages of many necessities. Culinary staples like milk can be prohibitively expensive or hard to find. But on most days, local produce markets are bountiful. And thanks in part to Villapol, their spoils have become part of the modern Cuban cuisine. Most Cubans have found a tentative food security, albeit one that looks very different than the culinary landscape of pre-revolutionary Cuba. With relations between Washington and Havana continuing to thaw, the cost and availability of food and other goods will only continue to evolve—hopefully, for the better.
In his speech, Ponte recounted a (perhaps apocryphal) episode in which Fidel Castro supposedly gave a lobster recipe to a foreign interviewer. Castro’s remark was “nothing culinary,” Ponte said. “Because it’s not about lobster in its sauce, but rather about power in its sauce, thickening. ... The power to cook lobster while the masses are forced to substitute and make do with garbage.” Nitza Villapol, for her part, found a kind of power in making do—the power to help people feed themselves and their families, to think for themselves, to innovate, in the kitchen and beyond.