Fernando Frías was a successful cafe and restaurant owner in Havana, but when Fidel Castro came to power, the government nationalized Fernando’s businesses and imprisoned him for trying to leave the country. Eventually he got out, settling near Miami like so many other Cuban expats. Even though Fernando never went back to Cuba, he was always searching for pieces of his homeland in the Cuban-American community in Miami. This week Dan talks with Fernando’s son, Carlos Frías, who’s now the food editor at The Miami Herald. Carlos was close with his father until he was tragically murdered two years ago. In his grief, Carlos sought a new connection with his father by writing about Miami’s first ventanita.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell, with editing help this week from Kimmie Gregory.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Dance Hall" by Hans Erickson
- "Enigmatic Rhodes" by Stephen Sullivan
- "Minimaliminal" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Twenty 99" by Erick Anderson
- "Limon Coke" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Midnight Grind" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Can't Bring Me Down" by Jack Ventimiglia
Photo courtesy of Carlos Frías.
Dan Pashman: This episode includes discussion of violence and may not be appropriate for all listeners.
Carlos Frias: A colada is about 4 oz. of that sweet Cuban coffee and a little stack of cups.
Dan Pashman: That’s basically like a full coffee cup of espresso and it comes with a stack of plastic espresso cups or plastic shot glasses. It’s like the mini cuban coffee version of one of those jug of joes type things.
Carlos Frias: Exactly, this is how you don’t show up empty handed, is you show up with a Colada. And nobody ever turns it down. It just automatically kind of hugs you with culture. You know, it just kind of brings you in for the hug. You know? And god forbid you ever try to drink the whole thing directly, or as the late comedian Ralphie May use to say, you will see into the future!
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. Before we get started, big news you guys. We’re doing our first Sporkful live taping in New York since before covid Can't wait to get back out there! I’ll be chatting with Kim Pham from Omsom and Chitra Agrawal from Brooklyn Delhi. These are both up and coming food brands founded by Asian American women, who are working to market Asian inspired products to a mass American audience. So what are the challenges and opportunities of that? How do you do that while keeping your flavors "authentic"? This is gonna be a fun and thoughtful conversation, and we’ll have food samples and goodies for sale, including, yes, Sfoglini and Banza cascatelli! In fact, Sfoglini co-founder, Scott Ketchum, famous from his appearances on The Sporkful, will be there lie and in person manning. He’ll even autograph your box of cascatelli. The show is Wednesday, July 20th at the Bell House in Brooklyn, get your tickets now at sporkful.com/live. Okay, let’s get to the show.
Dan Pashman: Carlos Frias is the editor of the Miami Herald Food Section, and host of an interview podcast for the Herald called La Ventanita. It’s named after the little window shops that sell coffee around Miami, where locals gather to chat.
Dan Pashman: Coffee has always been a huge part of Cuban culture. So when I visited Carlos at his home just west of downtown, that’s where we began. He made me a classic Cuban coffee, walking me through the process step by step. First, you brew the coffee in a Moka pot, one of those hexagonal metal coffeemakers that you put right on the stove. When the coffee starts coming out of the pot, you pour the first teaspoon of it into a cup with the sugar …
Carlos Frias: And as the rest finishes brewing, you whip it together to kind of emulsify that sugar, and then you combine that with the coffee, and that, and that creates the crema and basically a coffee flavored simple syrup. Now, when you have that on its own, its heaven. You add a little bit of evaporated milk to the equation, and it just takes it to a whole other level.
Dan Pashman: I visited Carlos in 2017, parts of this conversation were featured in an earlier episode. We talked a lot back then about his father, Fernando. Recently, I spoke with Carlos again, because of a shocking, terrible development. In 2020, Fernando was murdered by a neighbor.
Dan Pashman: We’ll get to that later in the show. We’re going to focus most of this episode on Fernando’s life, and the food story it inspired Carlos to tell. Fernando Frias was part of the early wave of Cuban immigrants who transformed South Florida after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. Like many immigrant groups, the Cubans who came here tried to recreate the culture they loved in a new place, after being forced to leave their homeland behind.
Dan Pashman: Fernando was one of eleven children, raised on a farm in rural Cuba. When he was in his twenties, he moved to Havana with his brothers, and they started opening cafes and restaurants just outside of the city.
Carlos Frias: Pretty soon they had several businesses in this major plaza that was at the center of this suburb of Havana, called Marianelle. And here they were, these young men in their late twenties, early thirties running businesses. They brought their parents later, all living in the city, in one big house, living the moment, living kind of an American dream in Cuba, right? And then here comes the revolution. And before the end of three years, all their businesses had been nationalized. You know, uniformed military would come into your store. And this exactly happened. They said, well, we're going to need you to close the cash register, hand us the keys and file out. This is now the property of the state. And that's how they lost their businesses.
Dan Pashman: Fernando applied for a visa to get out of Cuba, but his application was denied. So he tried to sneak off the island in a speedboat. He was caught.
Carlos Frias: And he spent two years in one of the most brutal prisons in Cuba. His first night in jail, he heard 17 men executed. And I think back on it, it's like my dad would have been about 38 at the time. And that's a hell of a thing. I can't imagine — I can put myself in his place in life, but I can't imagine what it's like to then overcome that.
Dan Pashman: In prison, Fernando met a university professor who taught him English. A Chinese-Cuban inmate taught him to play chess, but one day that young man was taken by soldiers and never came back. After two years, Fernando got out of prison, but he still needed an exit visa to get out of the country. The only way to get that was to earn it, by spending two more years in a labor camp. He worked in the fields, cutting sugarcane, digging latrines. Then one day …
Carlos Frias: When the cook of this concentration camp got his exit visa, they looked around and said, "Can anybody cook?" Well, anything was better than working in the field, so my dad put his hand up and he said, “I can cook, but but I need my brother with me because he's my assistant. I've never really cooked without him. So I need my brother.” So that got them off the hard labor.
Dan Pashman: Out of the fields.
Carlos Frias: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And into the kitchen
Carlos Frias: Out of the fields and into the kitchen. And —
Dan Pashman: And did your dad actually know how to cook?
Carlos Frias: See, because they owned these restaurants and cafes. He had learned by watching and doing simple things. They had a — their chef at their one restaurant was a Chinese Cuban guy. So he cooked this Chinese Cuban cuisine. So that's the bulk of his knowledge is having watched them cook and cooking at home.
Dan Pashman: Up until then, the only food the prisoners ate was split peas and rice. Nothing sweet. One day, Fernando noticed that the workers in the camp had cut down four royal palm trees, and he remembered hearing stories about how back in the 1800s, Cuban independence fighters survived on hearts of palm. So he had the workers strip the palm trees and bring him the hearts, the crunchy inner core. He boiled them with tons of sugar and whatever spices were around, cinnamon, star anise, until it became like a syrupy pudding.
Carlos Frias: And he writes down on their board — they had a little chalkboard.
Dan Pashman: Like the menu of the day?
Carlos Frias: In the menu of the day, he wrote down on the chalkboard, chicharon rice, split pea and rice, and Dulce De Palma Frias, Frias Palm desert.
Dan Pashman: Frias is being — is his, you — his last name.
Carlos Frias: His last name.
Dan Pashman: So he named the dish after himself.
Carlos Frias: After himself, right. It's like such a cheffy thing to do, right?
Carlos Frias: So people just line up and they're not sure what to make of it. And from the story he tells, you know, they had one bite and people just lined up for it. The next day he walks out and they had 12 palms fell ...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Carlos Frias: Waiting for him to make dulce de palma Frias, you know? It was little moments like that that allowed him to escape to a place mentally to kind of survive that.
Carlos Frias: And it's funny because years later in Miami, he met a man who was with him in that concentration group, who then owned a restaurant. But as long as that guy was alive, he said, “As long as I'm alive, you eat for free at my restaurant.” He remembered that, he recalled that in the end, he appreciated it and that to this day I think about that. And it's like, you know, you made — food helped you make that little bit of a difference for yourself and for a desperate group of men.
Carlos Frias: Cuban-Americans of my generation grew up with these borrowed memories from our parents. It's a standard that we bear that no one will ever go back to Cuba, certainly while our parents’ generation is alive. But that doesn't mean that there's not an incredible curiosity.
Dan Pashman: In 2006, Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother, Raul. At the time, Carlos was writing for the Palm Beach Post, and they asked him to go to Cuba to cover the story.
Carlos Frias: So the first call I make was to my father because I feel like I still need his blessing to do that. And I call him up. And we have like this conversation full of pregnant pauses. And when I said, “Dad, I'm going to Cuba,” and he says, “Take me with you.” So it was a blessing from him, you know, to say, I wish I could go with you, but take me there in spirit.
Dan Pashman: I mean, did you sense that he was hesitant?
Carlos Frias: What I sensed — really what I felt when I got back is he was really curious and he was scared for me. He did, confided in my he mom several times that he was worried that I would say or do the wrong thing that would get me in trouble with Cuban secret police. And on my third day in Cuba, like, I outed myself as a journalist to someone who is a family friend who turns out to be the wife of the president of the local committee for the Defense of the Revolution.
Carlos Frias: It's like a community-based spy network, you know, where if someone's doing something wrong, if your neighbor is doing something wrong, you report them to authorities and the authorities come and knock on your house and say, “Why are you saying such terrible things about Castro X, Y, Z?”, and that's how they keep everybody in line. So I went to this family friend, and I was telling her I was there as a journalist, and she reveals to me that, like, her house is the neighborhood's C.D.R. headquarters.
Dan Pashman: And what were you thinking at that moment?
Carlos Frias: I was like, I'm toast. I was like, Oh, three days in Cuba. That's as long as I made before I ended up in a Cuban prison.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Carlos Frias: And she said because of her allegiance to my family, that she wouldn't say anything. And and but I felt her tense up. And I like I didn't last more than like another half hour at her house. And I was like, “Well, I got to go...”
Dan Pashman: Right.
Carlos Frias: Yeah. So, I mean, I really did get a chance to feel the pressures that average Cubans live with every day, even in the so-called more forward thinking Cuba.
Dan Pashman: And one of those pressures is around food. In the early days of the Castro regime, the government started a system of food rationing that continues today. You get a booklet of coupons that you can exchange for basic staples like rice and beans, meat and oil. Most Cuban families rely on these rations to survive, but the country is plagued by food shortages, and sometimes it's not enough. Seeing this up close, Carlos was confronted with the difference between his life growing up in South Florida, and the world of modern day Cubans. He always saw himself as Cuban, but …
Carlos Frias: The food wasn't any Cuban food that I'd grown up eating. I went into one of the restaurants that opened to tourists because a lot of the restaurants aren't open to Cuban nationals. If you live there, it's not open you. It's only for tourists, which is bizarre. And I asked them…
Dan Pashman: It seems like in a lot of ways they're like putting up a front for people, for the outsiders to come.
Carlos Frias: Absolutely. It's a facade. It's a Hollywood movie set [Dan Pashman: Right.] in a lot of ways. And then I asked for a Cuban sandwich and they looked at me like I had two heads. And so a lot of these dishes, like they would have steak on the menu, but it wasn't a palomilla steak, which is what we know here. And they didn't have vaca frita, because beef is — beef is actually reserved only for tourists in Cuba. Or it was at the time when I went. Like if you were a Cuban national, for you to have beef and have it not be illegal, you had to have a prescription from your doctor that said that you had a protein deficiency and you needed beef.
Carlos Frias: How do I know that? I have a cousin was a Cuban doctor and he's like, I remember writing scripts for my mother so that she's, you know, this frail little bird of a woman so that she could have some meat protein. They lost access to certain important ingredients like maybe you couldn't get fresh garlic, maybe you couldn't get cumin. And it's like you've just eliminated two of the most basic things in Cuban cuisine. So you know what I saw a lot of? A lot of pizza. And yet ... and yet, people find ways like the best meals that I ate were cooked in Cuban households, like friends in the family who'd make like a succulent pork chop. They were using oil and using salt and there was lard in it, you know? Like they had lard so they had it nailed.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Carlos Frias: And she made beans and rice. And the beans were right, you know, and you could you could feel, oh, it's still here, but you had to go find it in Cuban households. And they were making do with what they can with the memory of the cuisine that they remember.
Dan Pashman: Am I correct that the Cuban food that you find in South Florida today is more similar to the food that your parents grew up eating than the food that they have in Cuba today? Is that fair to say?
Carlos Frias: Oh, absolutely. I think if my parents went to Cuba today or to a restaurant in Cuba, they wouldn't necessarily recognize it. The reason that Cuban food in Miami looks the way it does is because of that generation of Cubans preserving it and then handing it down to their kids.
Dan Pashman: But as much as food was always a way of staying connected to Cuba, the cuisine of South Florida has evolved. Cuban-American chefs have put their own spin on their grandparents’ food, pulling from a range of influences. As for Fernando …
Carlos Frias: I think about it now. My dad came over at age 42, so I'll be 42 in a couple of months, and he's now — he's turning 90 this year. So I joke with him that he's more American than he is Cuban now. He's lived here in this country longer than he was in Cuba.
Dan Pashman: What does he say to that when you make that joke?
Carlos Frias: He just laughs and he has to recognize that, yeah. That he is — that he has a stake in being American
Dan Pashman: That was me and Carlos in Miami, back in 2017. We kept in touch after that visit, and I continued to follow his writing about the Miami food scene. Then, just before the start of the pandemic, I saw a tweet from Carlos, sharing the news of his father’s murder.
Dan Pashman: I wanted to talk to Carlos again. First, to see how he was doing after what happened. But also, when we talked that first time, my focus was on Fernando’s life in Cuba. We never talked about his life in Florida, which, as Carlos pointed out, was actually where he spent most of his life. We’ll share that conversation when we come back. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week was the third and final episode of our series “By Us For Everyone”, about the past, present, and future of Black food media. In last week’s episode, I speak with Stephen Satterfield. You might know him as the host of Netflix’s High on the Hog, but he’s also one of the only Black food magazine publishers in the country. His company, Whetstone Media, tells stories about how food and people are connected to the land they came from. The first few years of Whetstone, he received a lot of praise for his work, but that praise didn’t necessarily translate into the funding he needed to grow.
CLIP (STEPHEN SATTERFIELD): If you want the work that I'm making to have a place in the world, that lip service isn't actually going to cover it. The only thing that I'm asking for is can y'all help keep the lights on? Can you put some in the collection tray? And then when people don't do that, but then they want to say, “Oh, your work is amazing,” no, that is enraging to me.
Dan Pashman: Stephen and I talk about his early days as a sommelier, how he finally got his first million dollar investment, and his latest challenge: leading from a place of success. That episode’s up now, check it out. Okay, back to the show.
Dan Pashman: Fernando Frias never did go back to Cuba, but he was always trying to reconnect with it in America. Fernando came to Florida the day after his 42nd birthday, in 1969. He lived in Hialeah, near Miami. His future wife, Iradia, was also a Cuban exile. They met while she was shopping for a fridge.. He was the salesman. She bought the fridge. And two months later they were married and in business together. At first, they bought ice cream trucks, selling frozen treats in their neighborhood. After a few years, they sold the trucks and opened a jewellery store.
Dan Pashman: As a kid Carlos often hung out there. Remember the cooking skills his father picked up running those cafes in Havana, then honed in the labor camp? They came in handy.
Carlos Frias: I always say that I was raised by a man in an apron because my dad and my mom worked at this little mom and pop jewellery store in a city called Carol city. And he would work the front of the counter and he has a suit jacket and a tie every day, but at midday he would put an apron on over his suit and he'd go into the back of the store where they had a little four-burner stove and he would cook, cook food that he learned to cook when he was in prison, really flavorful food. My dad was not easy on the spices. And like a lot of salt, oil.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Carlos Frias: And lots of cumin and — he loved to taste everything in his food, he loved to feel the life in it, you know what I mean?
Dan Pashman: Growing up, Carlos learned about his parents’ lives in Cuba. His father surviving the labor camps, his mother leaving on a Freedom Flight in her 30s. But when he stepped outside of his house, he was in Broward County, a calm, quiet neighborhood that was also very white. His mom’s cousin had found a good deal on a house, and Fernando took it and moved in. But Miami’s Little Havana, the center of the Cuban diaspora, was 20 miles away. It felt like another world, a world Fernando always wanted to be a part of.
Carlos Frias: Three times a week, four times a week, we drive into Miami, to visit his mom, my grandmother and all my cousins, you know, the 15 cousins and nine aunts and uncles, we’d all meet there every weekend and a couple of times throughout the week. So it was like it was a little bit louder. It was like this tactile excitement. What’s funny is that he had always wanted to live in the center of Cubanness. He wanted to live in the city of Miami.
Dan Pashman: Fernando’s desire to live in the center of Cubanness rubbed off on Carlos. After college, he started writing for newspapers, first in Cincinnati, then Atlanta, and then Palm Beach, an hour north of Miami. He felt like he was slowly making his way home. Finally, he got a job at the Miami Herald food section, and moved into a neighborhood called Flagami.
Carlos Frias: So it's this kind of real central, old Miami neighborhood. My neighbor is from Venezuela. She's lived here 30 plus years. My neighbor across the street is a Cuban and she may or may not partake in santería. So it's like this neighborhood that's really well-established and feels very, um ... it's just very authentic.
Dan Pashman: And so when you first moved in there, how did that feel?
Carlos Frias: Oh, my God, it felt like home. It felt like the place where I had wanted to live my entire life and it was just like this kind of buzz that still living here, going on seven years, still I have not gotten bored with.
Dan Pashman: Carlos’s father stayed in the suburban house Carlos grew up in. But he continued to make regular trips into the city. He and Carlos would meet up, sometimes just for coffee, sometimes for much bigger events. Like when Fidel Castro died in 2016, and Cuban Americans poured into the streets to celebrate. Fernando was there, middle of it all, dancing.
Dan Pashman: In 2019, Carlos’s mother died suddenly. She had been dealing with health issues for a few years, but one day, she became unresponsive and needed emergency surgery. She never fully recovered, and died a month later.
Carlos Frias: My dad says, "I really don't want to live alone. Would it be okay if I live with you?" And my heart like leapt because I'd wanted nothing more over the years. As my parents got older, I wanted them to move closer to me, to Miami. He moved in with me in November. And I begin to get to show him the Miami that he had always wanted to live in. So there's this strangeness and kind of showing something new to your dad. So here I am taking him to Cafe LaTrova, which is like an old Cuban-themed bar and restaurant, and watching him sing along to these old Cuban songs, drinking cocktails, you know, in this very Miami vibe. And taking him to my local bar to have a beer, taking him to the local wine shop that plays loud music and serves tapas, and really get this incredible Miami experience.
Dan Pashman: Back in 2006, when Carlos went on his reporting trip to Cuba, his dad told him: "Take me with you." He meant, take me with you in spirit. But now, in a way, Carlos could take his father with him to the center of the Cuban diaspora in Miami.
Carlos Frias: In January we have an annual parade down Calle Ocho. La Parada De Los Reyes Magos, it's the parade of the Three Kings. And it becomes an event, like the place gets full. And my dad says, "I'd really love to go to this. I've never been to this." And I was like, “Dad, Calle Ocho, it's such a nightmare. It's such a ... it's going to be a mess, you know?"
Dan Pashman: Like, so crowded, you mean? Like you're not going to be able to park. You're not going to be able to go anywhere, like ...
Carlos Frias: Yeah, you're going to be tripping over people. He's 92-years-old, and he's like, “Ah, it's okay. I understand. I understand.” And later I felt bad and I was like, "You know what? Screw it. Let's get in the car." And he's like, "Nah, if it's too much trouble ... no, no, it's not going to be any trouble." And I drive down there and I drop him off as close as I can and I park, make my way through the crowd. And there he is watching the parade with his cigar in his hand and his big hat. And he's standing next to Domino Park, which is this park for those who are 55 and older And a little old lady who was playing at the park points to my dad and says, come on, we need four, we need for you guys come play with us. And she turns to me and goes, "It's only 55 and over, but you know, we'll let you in so you can play.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Carlos Frias: So I sit down there and I play dominoes with my dad and these two old folks, and we have a great time. And I was so glad that I had done that with them, especially looking back, you know, giving him something that he really wanted to do. And frankly, we ended up having one of the most memorable times that we've had together.
Carlos Frias: In my entire life, I'd never been closer to my dad, he got to be around, you know, his granddaughters, you know, my daughters who lived here. And he had his own room in my house and to wake up in the morning and see him and make coffee for both of us, you know, stir together some sweet Cuban coffee and just sit next to each other and sip and look out the window and sit in the yard and talk about life and being able to introduce him to the Miami he'd always kind of aspired to live in. I mean, it was really one of the greatest moments in our relationship.
Dan Pashman: Was he still cooking at all when he lived with you?
Carlos Frias: We were kind of like cooking together. You know, although I do remember at least once he came home and he'd kinda dug through, you know, the cans and fresh food and he'd started like a big stew, which is the thing that he always made at home. And that it feel great that you had created a place that both you and your dad could feel at home. It was really special.
Dan Pashman: Did he ever make you Dulce De Palmas Frias?
Carlos Frias: You know, my one regret is we never got around to making that together. But it's one of those things that kind of — that I have in the back of my mind, like this is a thing that I should make at some point in my lifetime. Although part of me feels like the moment has been lost, you know, to do something like that together.
Dan Pashman: Um, so I mean, I want to talk about your father's murder and I just want to say, like, you can go into as much or as little detail as you feel comfortable with.
Carlos Frias: No, I understand.
Dan Pashman: So it's really up to you how much we want to spend talking about it.
Carlos Frias: Of course. So the interesting thing about my dad moving in with me is that he maintained his other house and we had planned to sell it. So he was reticent to leave because he had filled the yard with fruit trees. So he would go up there and he would pick the fruits and he would distribute them to the neighbourhood. And it wasn't uncommon for him to go up to the house and spend the night there and then come the next day. So he went up there on a Saturday and I didn't hear from him that he was spending the night, which was odd, but not totally unusual. And by evening time, the next day, when I still hadn't heard from him, um, it felt like something was wrong.
Carlos Frias: I asked my brother who lived 10 minutes from him, if he would go in and check in on him. My brother called me and he says, I'm here and dad's not coming to the door. I'm gonna use my key to come in and I hear him open the door and just ... and just say something like, “My God, my God. This is not okay. This isn't okay. Call the police.” He'd found my dad, uh ... he found my dad dead shot to death right at the door. Um, and I live with knowing that, um, that my brother had to see that, you know? And, um, I wish that there was a way to have avoided that happening, um, because I think he's very haunted by it.
Dan Pashman: The police said that Fernando had gone to a neighbour’s house, a young guy he knew, who helped him with yard work sometimes. Between police reports and evaluations after the fact, Carlos says it appears that this young man was having some kind of a psychotic episode. There’s not much of an explanation beyond that. Fernando just happened to show up at the wrong moment.
Carlos Frias: You know, the guy had a handgun, had like a Glock, and for some reason that we still don't know the answer to, he shot my dad to death.
Dan Pashman: Well, I mean, I'm really sorry, first of all. I mean, just awful.
Carlos Frias: I appreciate it, Dan.
Dan Pashman: I mean, it must — also, though, sometimes, I would imagine just — I would be so angry. It's like this weird thing to have a parent getting murdered at age 92. Of course, it's always going to be painful and sad to lose a parent, no matter what. You would imagine them declining slowly in health and gathering around the hospital bed or the bed at some point, the whole family, like that's the picture you have in your head?
Carlos Frias: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I would just be so angry if it happened like this.
Carlos Frias: You know where I've found that I have the most anger? And maybe it's wanting to find something to sharpen that focus, that's gun laws. We should have stronger gun laws in this country. We should have gun laws so that everybody doesn't have a gun. You know? Frankly, I don't think that everybody in this country should have a gun.
Dan Pashman: Two weeks after the family buried Fernando in March 2020, the entire country went into lockdown. Carlos couldn’t process this tragedy, and the shock of COVID, all at the same time. For months, he says, he was in a fog. He was in the center of Miami’s Cuban community, but for the first time his dad wasn’t there.
Dan Pashman: Carlos began going through old photos of his father, and came across one from around 1957. Fernando is at one of the cafes he owned in Havana, standing behind the counter, drinking a coffee. There are waitresses on either side of him, and a few customers in front of the counter, well dressed young men, hanging out smoking cigarettes. It seems clear this was a gathering place.
Dan Pashman: The photo reminded Carlos of Miami’s ventanitas. Ventanita means “little window” in Spanish. They’re take-out windows attached to cafes and restaurants where you can order coffee to go from the sidewalk.
Carlos Frias: So you'd have these little stands, these little counters where you're handing out coffee and people gather at the counter and they buy a cigar, they buy a little snack, a pastelito, a croqueta, and that little shot of Cuban coffee. And that little counter is the place where people gathered and caught up with each other. It's where they talk politics. It became this little town square.The fact that my dad had been a cafe owner, it — I connected those things somehow, subconsciously you know? It became a way to like, learn more about my dad and learn more about this thing that was central to our culture.
Dan Pashman: Carlos decided to research the history of these ventanitas, and write a story about it for The Herald. Looking back, he says it was a way for him to connect with his father. These ventanitas are a hallmark of Cuban culture in Miami, a culture Carlos always associated with his father, but Carlos didn’t know much about their origins.
Carlos Frias: These ventanitas, you don't find them in New Jersey where there's a large Cuban population. You don't find them in Chicago. You don't find them in Los Angeles and you didn't find them in Cuba. So I started wondering: Why did the ventanita happen in Miami?
Dan Pashman: In the early 1960s, Miami was changing in two big ways. One was that hundreds of thousands of Cubans were arriving. And the other was air conditioning. The window unit AC had just been invented, and in Miami, it quickly went from a luxury to a necessity.
Carlos Frias: Now, if you've ever been to Miami in summer, it's unliveable. Like unless you're indoors with air conditioning blowing your face, it can be unliveable
Dan Pashman: Before AC, Miami’s Cuban restaurants were mostly open to the street, no windows, no doors. At the end of the night they just pulled down a shade. That meant tables spilled out onto the sidewalk, people walking by would stop to see friends. It was the heart of the community.
Dan Pashman: When AC came along, the restaurants installed windows. Suddenly all the customers were inside. People weren’t seeing each other and gathering outside. A piece of Miami Cuban culture was in danger of disappearing.
Carlos Frias: The question was, how do we keep our guests cool and comfortable? but still be able to keep Cuban coffee culture, the little meeting around the counter.
Dan Pashman: As Carlos learned, many of these restaurant owners brought this question to Felipe Valls. He owned a couple of manufacturing businesses in Santiago, Cuba, then sold restaurant appliances in Miami. And one of his best selling items was espresso machines, because every Cuban cafe and restaurant had to have an espresso machine. Felipe had an idea …
CLIP (FELIPE VALLS): Y yo poni una ventana, y una mostrador …
Dan Pashman: This is Felipe Valls in a video for the Miami Herald from last year, explaining how he would cut out a window in the restaurant facing outward, install a counter, and just like that, create a coffee take-out section for a restaurant.
Carlos Frias: Now, today it doesn't seem like anything special, but during a time when whole stores didn't even have a front, you know, they were open. It was like ... it was mind blowing. So the guy starts installing these windows all over Miami.
Dan Pashman: One of his first customers was the grocery store El Oso Blanco, a hangout for Cuban immigrants in what would soon be Little Havana. Another customer was Badia’s, a popular sandwich shop on Eighth Street. Felipe was instal ling that ventanita just as Eighth street was being renamed Calle Ocho. Pretty soon, Felipe says to himself, "Why am I just working for all these restaurants? Why not own some restaurants myself?"
Carlos Frias: I would say he’s probably the most important restaurant figure in Miami, the guy that went on to open Versailles Cuban Restaurant, quite possibly the most famous Cuban restaurant outside of Cuba.
Dan Pashman: Felipe eventually opened more than 40 restaurants, and by the 1970s, his restaurants and Miami’s ventanitas were at the heart of Cuban culture there. For Carlos, talking with the city’s restaurant and cafe owners for his story made him feel closer to his father, who owned his own coffee shop for two decades in Cuba.
Carlos Frias: Learning more about the ventanita culture and let me kind of explore what his life must have been like those 20 years, you know? And I kind of needed that. I don't think I realized until I was done how much it helped me get through that period. When I was writing that story and I had to refer back to what the Cuban counters looked like in Cuba, I was able to kind of look at this iconic photo of my dad, and it was those little tidbits, you know, little pieces that he had taught me over the years that I had learned from him and from his experiences over the years that I was able to weave in and I think gave that story its heart and its purpose. And when I got to the other side of it and saw those things talked to all the people who were connected to it, it made me feel like it was kind of this tribute to the people that had helped make Miami into what it is and the knowledge that my dad was one of those folks.
Dan Pashman: That was Carlos Frias, food editor at the Miami Herald. In 2008, he wrote a memoir about his travels to Cuba, called Take Me With You. You can also check out his podcast, La Ventanita. And just a few weeks ago, he won his second James Beard Award for his writing in the Herald. He used his acceptance speech to talk about his father’s murder and to call for stronger gun laws in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, for fourth of July, a history of American BBQ. I’ll talk to culinary historian Michael Twitty about the origins of barbecue, from West Africa to the American South. Then I’ll look at a very specific barbecue tradition in an unlikely place: the south side of Chicago. That’s next week. While you wait for that one, check out our series “By Us For Everyone”, about the past, present, and future of Black food media. Get those episodes wherever you got this one.