My wife and I came from totally different backgrounds, with different eating habits. She comes from a middle class family, and grew up eating a quirky diet of a not-so-typical American kid of the 1950’s. Growing up in rural Ohio she had plenty of garden-fresh vegetables to eat at all times, even in winter, when a good supply of canned jams and frozen vegetables were always available, as well as potatoes and apples in the basement of the farm house in which she grew up.
She’s told me many stories about hating all meats other than the bacon that accompanied the biscuits her grandma would cook for breakfast most every day. She saved money for college by raising sheep, and by her early teens she had a good-sized flock, the best of which were her 4-H project, the rest, competing with overall-wearing farmers thrice her age were sold at market. She loved her sheep but hated the taste and smell of lamb meat. This dislike persists to this day, which made it very easy, first for her and then for me, to become “pescatarians”, which means vegetarians who will eat seafood now and then.
I was born and grew up in Cuba. Mine was a fairly typical middle class family in the Havana of the 1950’s. I never lacked for anything to eat, although as a spoiled only-child I shunned most of the foods that later in life my vegetables-loving wife taught me to devour. For a Cuban kid back then vegetables were an unnecessary inconvenience that showed up occasionally on the table. For me, okra was an abomination, leafy greens were something to pile up and abandon at the edge of a dinner plate, and fruit, except bananas, something best consumed for desert, provided it was made into ice cream.
But life changed when I was 17 and I was sent alone to America with five dollars in my pocket and a student visa that was quickly transformed, turning me into a refugee and allowing me to be processed at the Liberty Tower in Miami and sent on my way with a paper bag that contained canned black beans, a pound of rice, Spam, tomato soup, powdered milk and instant Cuban coffee.
After being relocated to Minneapolis in the dead of winter of 1961, starting college, and getting my first job ever, I was introduced to the typical components of the survival diet of a college freshman: ramen noodles, beer (on Saturdays), pizza, white bread, American coffee, and Nodoz.
In 1966, after a few years of partly attending school and partly working for a living, I continued my studies at the Juilliard School of Music and later at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. In Cincinnati I was lucky to get my own bachelor pad in which digs I learned to cook some typical Cuban meals. My mother would send me the recipes inside packages wrapped in brown paper that contained black beans, Cuban coffee, including the cloth strainer required to make it the way folks used to back in the day, plantains, canned fruit preserves, and now and then a canned ham.
On more than one occasion Kimberly saved my life by confiscating from my refrigerator and trashing hams that had begun to grow gray-green crusts after too many weeks unsupervised.
By then Kimberly – the vegetable-loving Ohio farm girl – was as much a part of my life, and as emotionally sustaining, as the Cuban food that was sustaining me nutritionally through the rigors of Ohio winters. I was going to school on a tight monthly budget cobbled together from a living stipend, a full scholarship, a low-paying Church job, and the good wishes of the Corbett Foundation.
Those good wishes, the scholarship, and the living stipend came to an end when Kim and Rafi eloped in the summer before their junior year, and tied the knot. Our marriage unraveled some attached strings that forbade recipients of Corbett scholarships to get married.
As luck would have it several kind souls came to our rescue, and the first year of our marriage was made even better by Kimberly’s talent for making wonderful meals on a budget. Homemade yogurt and bowls of fresh fruit became always a staple. From our first shared sandwich for lunch the day we eloped, we expanded to legendary dinners at the home of our mentor, Italo Tajo and his wife, Inelda who introduced us to soul and stomach-filling five-course Italian meals that lasted for hours.
In Boston, where we attended the New England Conservatory for our graduate degrees, our student income came from gigs that kept us alive for two years during freezing New England winters. We literally sang for our supper, performing Broadway tunes for every Women Club and Hadassah Donors’ Dinner from New Hampshire to Rhode Island and back to Massachusetts. When not gigging we mostly ate out, with our go-to eatery after classes being a Greek–owned greasy spoon just down the street from our school, where we would fill up on a $1.19 special we often shared in the company of friendly vagrants, impoverished scholars, and BSO players.
In New York, once out of school, we ate out as much as most New Yorkers do by necessity more than by choice. Save for a Christmas or New Year’s splurge, we kept the Hare Krishna Center in business – then not far from Lincoln Center – where we could eat for little money from their vegetarian buffet, study our scores quietly in their lounge, and go out into the Madness of the Big Apple, sharing an apple for desert, before a rehesarsal or a performance
Life changes and so does the way we eat. Our singing afforded us the opportunity to travel and sample the cuisines of the more than 95 countries we visited over the space of nine years. Eating out for nearly twenty years expanded our culinary horizons. In Copenhagen we had our first meal abroad: hot dogs and beer from a street vendor, priced in Danish Kroner at an inflated $20 due to the reduced value of the US dollar on exchange.
As the years passed we had raw herring in Amsterdam, picnics by the Seine made up of baguettes, cheese and fruit, fresh-caught squid in Mikrolimano, the sea port for Athens, Caucasian lunches in Leningrad before it was renamed St. Petersburg, unnamed meats, fowl, and sea creatures in China, sushi in Japan, incendiary food in India, feijoada washed down by lethal caipirinhas in Rio, the best yogurt in the world in Istanbul, and falafel in Tel Aviv.
As vegetarians we continue to shun the flesh of any creature that walks or flies, but once in a while we do enjoy squid, sardines, and fish. And we continue to discover day after day – praise be to Kimberly – all sorts of ways of cooking pasta, vegetables, beans, home-made bread, and soups, all of which have made the isolation brought about by Covid19 somewhat more bearable.
Many food items we have grown accustomed to have become scarce, due to the Covid19 virus. But we are grateful for what we have, feeling sorrow for the many who struggle to get groceries with food stamps and a few dollars in their hands, or stand in line to get a box of whatever a local food shelter can supply.
We know how lucky we are. We give thanks for the food we are able to obtain, not merely to eat, but to savor and enjoy. And we keep a wish in our hearts for plenty of food for all, now, and after we are able to move beyond this ghastly virus. That is our fervent hope for the New Year.
Rafael de Acha
Rafael de Acha