My Family Recipe

Why My High School Boyfriends Had to Take the 'Ropa Vieja Test'

On adolescent love and the resilience of tradition.

July  2, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


As a teen, there are few things more nightmarish than introducing your significant other to your parents. If your partner’s a keeper, it calls for run-of-the-mill parental embarrassment in the form of “awws,” winks, elbow nudges, or, worst of all, photos. If they’re a bad egg, it means anything from interrogations before every date to your mom demanding photos of their car and license plate before you hit the road (or was that just me?).

As a former bad egg connoisseur, here are my two cents: 99.9 percent of the time, you already know deep down when you’re dating someone your parents won’t like. So, I made a habit of inviting my boyfriends over for dinner at my dad’s place, specifically for ropa vieja (meaning "old clothes"), a Cuban staple of shredded beef in a tomato-based sauce. Making my partners look good over a hopefully seamless meal was the easiest way to prove to my parents that they had nothing to worry about, despite their gut assumptions.

The Bad Eggs

The main test for my boyfriends was the actual eating: Will he clean his plate? Will he thank the chef? This part was always easy, considering my dad’s a solid cook from a long line of Cuban foodies. The beef was always juicy and fall-apart tender, the rice fluffy and tinged with gray from being cooked with black beans complete with garlic, bell peppers, and diced chorizo.

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Top Comment:
“My grandparents were Armenian and escaped their holocaust via Cuba - eventually to Chicago and then Minneapolis. Armenian food and the act of cooking were/are love. My brother is now a chef and I am good home cook (so I am told)! Sharing food and showing love through food is an amazing inheritance. Thank you so much!!!!!”
— Kim
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But the toughest test was greeting my abuela, a blind woman in her 90s who made the effort of saying, “Hi,” “How are you?” and “God bless you” to every guy I brought home, despite her limited English. These dinners were exciting for her. Because she couldn’t work in the kitchen anymore, it was one of the rare times she’d get a taste of her old cooking: My dad always used her recipe.

Grandma and Dad (right) in Camaguey, Cuba Photo by Taryn Pire

My abuela and I shared many magical moments over food while I was a child. Perhaps the most characteristic memory I have is her standing at the kitchen counter in a floral periwinkle dress squeezing fresh orange juice by hand. She’d serve nothing less to her 3-year-old granddaughter (as if I would’ve known the difference between the good stuff and Tropicana).

Jack was the first to give it a shot, but he blew it in the handshake phase of the evening. As a blind woman, my abuela uses handshakes to decide how she feels about new people. Unfortunately, Jack shook her hand sheepishly, with a grip so limp she compared it to a dead fish in Spanish aloud before he even let go. In my abuela’s 101 years of life (and counting), many of her memories have gone from foggy to nonexistent, but this one’s vivid and laugh-inducing for her even now.

Then there was Hunter, a rich boy from a few towns over with a Spanish last name I envied. My familial name was Pirez when my grandparents lived in Cuba, but it was stripped of its Z when they reached the U.S. in an effort to Americanize it. I remember being nervous about bringing him to my dad’s apartment after having been to his parents’ literal mansion, but my nerves settled once we started digging in.

The beef was always juicy and fall-apart tender, the rice fluffy and tinged with gray from being cooked with black beans complete with garlic, bell peppers, and diced chorizo.

Finally, there was Joe. I strategically chose a mix CD with songs he might think were impressive for the drive over. Once he was charmed by how cool I was, it was time to go inside. I remember the meal well (his handshake was at least better than Jack’s), but it just wasn’t meant to be.

The Proverbial Birthday Jamón

These awkward but sweet meals were about more than just the guest’s predilection for the food. My dad got a lot of joy out of cooking for them; he takes after my abuela, the daughter of a bread baker back in Camagüey and an enthusiastic hostess in her heyday.

Panadería La Gloria delivery truck, Camagüey, Cuba. Photo by Taryn Pire

Those on the island were facing serious changes after Castro came to power in 1959. While my grandparents had already immigrated to Astoria, Queens, where they faced social and economic strife of their own, the family they left behind often relayed horror stories to them about home, running the gamut from government food ration lines to the forced closing of the family bakery (and all other independent businesses), Panadería La Gloria. For my grandparents, eating well in America held new, profound weight. Food was not only a means of maintaining the family unit, but also honoring their roots while building a new life.

With their relatives’ hunger on their shoulders, it was imperative to my grandparents that they uphold Cuban culinary traditions in their new country. For instance, no celebration was complete without the near-ritual cutting of both the Cuban-style birthday cake from a Latin bakery on West 14th in Manhattan (dressed with meringue frosting, not the fluffy supermarket stuff) and my abuela’s jamón.

My abuela was notorious for forcing my dad to take an annual photo in front of his birthday ham surrounded by national treasures like Coca-Cola in slim glass bottles, potato chips, and Hellmann’s potato salad. One year when my dad was in his teens, my abuela forgot to take the photo—but fixed her mistake the next year by snapping one, repositioning the dishes, adding one more candle to the cake, and snapping another. These photos were proof that they’d come together. Proof they’d been fed. Proof they’d survive.

For my grandparents, eating well in America held new, profound weight. Food was not only a means of maintaining the family unit, but also honoring their roots while building a new life.

It was with this importance and care that my dad prepared ropa vieja for every guy I brought home. Even though it was likely each relationship wouldn’t last, and even though each breakup hurt in spite of their inevitability, the ritual of it all—the crackling oil, the old wedding cutlery, the heap of fork-fluffed meat—mattered.

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Taryn Pire

Written by: Taryn Pire

Taryn Pire is an associate editor and food writer at New Jersey Family magazine. A graduate of Ithaca College, she's covered all things food at GOOD, Taste Talks, and ANNA Magazine. Tacos are the way to her heart and she makes a mean Old Fashioned. Follow her foodie adventures on Instagram @soundbitesnj.

8 Comments

lissette July 8, 2019
Thank you for this! I am also first generation Cuban American. Those photos really got to me. My family also posed for photos like that. We also have one of them sitting at a table joyously eating apples in New Jersey. There were no apples in Cuba, and it meant they had made it to the U.S.
 
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Taryn P. July 8, 2019
We're in NJ, too! Thanks for sharing, I'll have to ask my abuela about the apples!
 
AniB July 7, 2019
Hilarious, loving slice of Cuban-American family! Thank you so much for sharing. Of the three Treasures my mother brought with her, linen sheets, our baby jewelry hidden between cotton inside our dolls legs, the copy of Nitza Villapol's cook book proved to be the most valuable.
A necessity really, Daddy was a foodie and she had never cooked. Pouring over those pages Mami grew into an amazing cook. Her signature Carne Asada con papas, Picadillo!!,
Ajiaco in winter, Escabeche on Good Friday.
Love, food, culture always linked. Fostering our children to cherish who they are.
Thank you
 
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Taryn P. July 8, 2019
Wow, thank you for sharing! Picadillo is also another one of our favorites :)
 
Pepijn July 7, 2019
This was very fun to read! Thank you for sharing. I’ve visited Cuba 2 years ago and this made me want to go back! Arroz con Pollo and Ropa Vieja... ;-)
 
Pamela F. July 3, 2019
Thank you for sharing your story & photos. I loved reading about your family.
 
Kim July 2, 2019
What a great story and thank you so much for sharing those photos. My grandparents were Armenian and escaped their holocaust via Cuba - eventually to Chicago and then Minneapolis. Armenian food and the act of cooking were/are love. My brother is now a chef and I am good home cook (so I am told)! Sharing food and showing love through food is an amazing inheritance. Thank you so much!!!!!
 
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Taryn P. July 2, 2019
Thank you so much for reading! Keeping our culinary traditions alive is so, so important. Glad you enjoyed!