Eduardo Machado shares his experience as a Cuban exile, complete with recipes, in Tastes Like Cuba
Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Homeby Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich
Gotham, 368 pp., $27.50
A Cuban-born actor, award-winning playwright, and playwriting professor currently living in New York City, Eduardo Machado often uses his own experiences in his work, drawing inspiration from his life as an exile. His latest book, Tastes Like Cuba, is no exception. This bittersweet autobiography recounts his life from the time he was forced to leave Cuba at age 8, through his family's transition from refugees to immigrants, and finally his return to Cuba 40 years later. Through it all, woven into the very fabric of his life, is a journey of culinary longing and discovery that helps shape his identity.
As an immigrant foodie myself, I fully identify with Machado's struggles to adapt to a new culture, especially when it comes to the cuisine. It was nearly impossible to find many dishes and ingredients familiar to me when I came to Austin in 1984. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for him in 1961, when being Cuban went from exotic to threatening practically overnight. Thanks to a relentless propaganda campaign, many affluent Cuban families were scared into sending their children alone to the U.S. to save them from the supposed threat of being sent to Moscow for indoctrination. Machado and his baby brother went from living life in an island paradise that excited all the senses to a humiliating poverty situation in a completely foreign land, eating plastic foods that tasted like nothing, in a loveless, threatening environment. Things began to change for the better when their parents were able to join them and move the family to a permanent home in California. There, they were eventually able to find familiar foods and ingredients – or at least adequate substitutes – to re-create the flavors of their rich Cuban culinary heritage. They also discovered many previously unknown foods from other cultures, such as Mexico and Asia. Through experimentation and improvisation in the kitchen, their mother helped reshape their identity from Cuban into Cuban-American.
Machado still has his Cuban citizenship and was finally able to return home for a visit in 1999 with partner Michael Domitrovich, who co-authored this book. Their visit was bittersweet, bringing a sense of loss and anger while at the same time providing closure. Tastes Like Cuba is a sensuous, mouthwatering read. It might just change Americans' perception of an often misunderstood and maligned culture.