Nitza Villapol is a household name for anyone who lived in Cuba in the latter half of the 20th century. Before establishing herself as a culinary icon of the island, Nitza Villapol was born and raised in New York City. She was born in 1923 to Cuban parents. When she turned 11, she and her family moved to Havana, Cuba, where Villapol would learn to cook and make a name for herself. Like most people, Villapol learned to cook by watching her mother prepare meals. Villapol’s mother was efficient in the kitchen, cooking at a fast pace, and not spending more time preparing a meal than she needed to. At 25 years old, Villapol “read about the launch of Cuba’s first television station in the local newspaper” and “wrote the owner proposing he hire her to develop a cooking show” (Fleites-Lear, 2012). As a nod to her mother’s fast cooking pace, she named her show Cocina al Minuto. First airing on December 23, 1948, Cocina al Minuto would go on to air for over 40 years, with no other Cuban cooking show rivaling its success.
At the beginning of her career, Villapol had many competitors. Television and radio technology was developing quickly in Cuba with “radio and television stations and networks that were the envy of Latin America” (“Television in Cuba”, 2022). In 1958, just one year before Fidel Castro officially took power, “Cuba was the second country in the world (after the United States) to begin color broadcasting” (“Television in Cuba”, 2022). However, as the Cuban Revolution came to an end in 1959, the new government began the process of nationalizing public services. This task included forming a national television network that aimed to ensure its broadcasts aligned with its purpose of building a socialist and progressive Cuba. The network included news programming, current affairs, sports, and entertainment, including cooking shows like Cocina al Minuto. This process cut down the number of programs and regulated the content being produced. Before 1959, it was not uncommon for Cocina al Minuto to advertise “cooking wares and food products of big and small capitalist Cuban and U.S. companies” or to showcase dishes with lengthy ingredient lists and English words (Fleites-Lear, 2012). Things abruptly changed under the new television network. Nitza Villapol became a spokesperson for “revolutionary” cooking while maintaining a politically neutral image in the eyes of the Cuban people.
Women in Cuba were mobilized to actively participate in the revolution, on the promise that socialism would foster a new era of gender equality. While it brought on the expansion of Cuban women into the workforce, they were not relieved of their domestic responsibilities. On the contrary, they were encouraged to be revolutionaries in the kitchen. One of the main themes of Cocina al Minuto was that one could cook well with few ingredients. A central task of the revolution, emphasized by the nation’s leader and delegated to women, was to “feed the people” (Fleites-Lear, 2012). Feeding a family was not an easy feat. Amidst shortages, caused by the U.S. embargo and the decline in productivity brought on by the expropriation of food production, the Cuban diet rapidly shifted to one that would later be, insensitively, described as resourceful and innovative (Severson, 2016).
On March 12, 1962, the government distributed ration books or “libretas” to every household in the country. A preface in the notebook explained that its purpose was to help the Cuban people buy “the products that are in short supply due to the brutal imperialist blockade against our homeland, in its crazy desire to starve our glorious revolution” (Barraque, 1962). The preface ensured citizens that they would be able to purchase the available products without waiting in long lines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hours-long lines leading into nearly empty grocery stores became ordinary for the people living in post-revolution Cuba.
Nitza was performing a balancing act of acknowledging the food shortages her viewers were experiencing, without criticizing the government. One could speculate that Nitza, indirectly working for the government, fell into the category of people described in the George Orwell quote above as “more equal than others” (Harrison, 1984). However, despite her privilege and proximity to food, her on-screen persona was able to relate to her viewers and center them in her recipes.
Cocina al Minuto taught women how to substitute ingredients and cooking techniques in the absence of essential products and cookware. Non-traditionally Cuban vegetables like “eggplants, turnips, celery and beets were given preference, because they were the products most available in the market.” (Fleites-Lear, 2012). A prime example of Villapol’s substitution technique is what she did with oats imported from the Soviet Union. Villapol published her own cookbook in 1956 –pre-revolution– and released a new edition in 1980 –post-revolution. While there is no mention of oats in the 1956 edition, there are 14 recipes in the 1980 edition that feature oats. Villapol recommends the reader to prepare oats in garlic and “with ingredients like dry wine, tomato paste, oil or lard, and the traditional Cuban sofrito” in an attempt to simulate corn tamales (Fleites-Lear, 2012). Whether these recipes made a difference in the health and nourishment of Cubans is highly doubtful, but not for me to determine. From what I have gathered in talking to my family and articles published about her, she made dire circumstances feel somewhat manageable.
In 1961, a popular women’s magazine was renamed Mujeres and has since been “either the only or one of two allowed publications for women on the island”. Serving as the official voice for The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), Mujeres is a women’s journal whose cooking section was overseen by Nitza Villapol between 1968 and 1987. In this magazine and in her TV show, Villapol furthers the narrative that cooking is a revolutionary task. In 1974, she “explicitly connected the Cuban habit of consuming fried food to the relationship of economic dependence on the United States before 1959”. She voiced that the adoption of fried food into the Cuban diet arose, in part, because “during the years of the pseudo republic our country was an easy market for the excess of lard from the Yankee porcine industry”. The United States serves as a scapegoat and a distraction for cooking oil shortages on the island. Villapol’s suggestion to cook with less oil and to reuse cooking oil, repeated throughout Mujeres and Cocina al Minuto over the years, is seemingly innocent and supported by nutritional science. However, in the context of who Villapol was representing, it was propaganda.
In 1983, Constante Diego directed a documentary starring Nitza Villapol called Con Pura Magia Satisfechos or “Satisfied with Pure Magic”. Villapol, and viewers of her show, reflected on the difficulties of food shortages across the nation over the years. She spoke with such conviction that the worst moments had passed. Villapol would soon be proven wrong. In 1989, El período especial en tiempos de paz, or the Special Period in the Time of Peace, began. There was nothing special or peaceful about the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent loss of economic support for Cuba. During this period “Cubans experienced a famine: adults had an average daily protein intake of 15–20 g and lost an average of 5%–25% of their body weight” (CMAJ, 2008). It is strange to find a statistic on something that hits so close to home, with my mother immigrating to the United States in 1996 at 22 years old, barely weighing 90 pounds. The most frustrating part is that despite the glaringly obvious suffering that Cubans were experiencing, Nitza Villapol stuck to the script. She told a Miami Herald reporter in 1991 “We’re not starving here. . . . If you have good food habits, you can have a balanced diet in Cuba”. Despite what Nitza Villapol told the public, it became evident with the cancellation of Cocina al Minuto in 1993, that things had taken a turn for the worst. Continuing the show would have been unsustainable. Nitza Villapol passed away five years later in Havana, Cuba. To many, her legacy is reminiscent of Julia Child’s. To some, she is remembered as a uniquely controversial culinary figure whose work was inextricably bound to gender, politics, and the transformations that took place in 20th century Cuba.
Barraque, C. (1962, March 19). Comienza Hoy el Racionamiento en Cuba Roja. Miami Herald. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.newspapers.com/image/620528709/
Fleites-Lear, M. (2012). Mirrors in the Kitchen, Food, Culture & Society, 15(2), 241-260, DOI: 10.2752/175174412X13233545145264
Harrison, R. (1984, January 8). In Cuba the living isn’t easy, but it’s livable. The Orlando Sentinel. Page 91. Retrieved December 1, 2022 from https://www.newspapers.com/image/228279074/
Severson, K. (2016, May 17). For Cuban Home Cooks, Ingenuity and Luck are Key Ingredients. The New York Times. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/18/dining/cuba-home-cooking.html
Television in Cuba. (2022, December 1). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Television_in_Cuba#cite_note-4
Health consequences of Cuba’s Special Period. (2008). CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 179(3), 257. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.1080068