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.