Every October, East Tennessee State University Professor Emeritus Dr. Eduardo Zayas-Bazán travels from Miami to Kingsport. His mission: to reunite with his friends and family over a roasting, citrus-marinated, garlicky pig.
Guests drift easily from Spanish to English and back on this special Saturday afternoon as Eduardo’s son Eddy and son-in-law Ed Allen patiently tend the fire.
Eduardo grew up in Cuba. The black beans he serves at the Kingsport gathering remind him of his time in a Cuban prison, where he spent a year after being wounded in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the futile attempt to overthrow the regime of dictator Fidel Castro.
As she prepares side dishes for the October pig roast, Cuban-born Irene Pedroso Mitchell, a retired high school Spanish teacher, remembers as well. She consults a yellowed, olive oil-stained black composition book full of recipes that her mother hustled out of Cuba. When they were fleeing Cuba after Castro’s takeover, they were allowed to take one bag out of the country. The book, full of recipes the family had hurriedly written down by hand, was placed in that bag, along with photo albums and the baptismal robe.
“I often bring my mother Magdalena’s congealed salad to the pig roast,” says Irene. “It’s an Americanized version, but mother made it in Cuba. It has American ingredients — fruit cocktail, cream cheese — but I took it right out of her recipe book. She bought the book at the Havana Woolworth’s probably around 1960. Some of the pages you can hardly read for the grease.”
That well-worn book is one of Irene’s most precious possessions. It’s a carefully chosen compilation of treasured recipes from cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines that the family had collected back in Cuba but had to leave behind in their original form.
“We Pedrosos have been, ever since my grandfather, all about the food,” Irene tells me. “This book is priceless to me.”
Dr. Gonzalo Pedroso, Irene’s grandfather, was a urologist in Cuba. Before Castro, the urology ward of the main hospital in Havana was named for him. Dr. Pedroso was also known for his culinary skills.
The story goes that Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban president before Castro, asked to be invited to eat a meal prepared by the doctor. Dr. Pedroso told the president, however, that he did not want to invite him because of the entourage that would come along. The incident became a symbol of the freedom of the Cuban medical community from political interference, although that was not the original intent.
Dr. Pedroso’s black bean recipe, seasoned with shots of vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, is used every year at the Kingsport pig roast.
“They simmer all day long,” says Eduardo’s daughter, Elena Allen. “My sister-in-law cuts up all the onions and peppers. My dad puts in all of his touches. He’s trying to teach the grandchildren to make the black beans. Every time we have the pig roast, people tell us they’re the best black beans they ever tasted.”
At the end of the long day, Eduardo says the very same thing about the pig. Surrounded by plates of salted and olive-oiled white rice, the oregano-perfumed black beans, and strips of the precious pork, always with some shards of skin, he declares, “This may be the best yet.”
And he says so every year.
Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue,” published by Mercer University Press.