Anthony P. Maingot

Miami, Florida

No one has written with greater verve about the upward mobility of "street food" than Sidney Mintz. When Consuelo and I took Sid and Jackie to Miami's "Versailles," the intention was for them to know the place that was a political watering hole and, on Sundays, the family's after-Church rookery. All this before the film "Scarface" turned it into a required tourist stop. At age 40, Versailles is, by Miami time, an historical treasure. While not a center of gastronomical reknown, that restaurant accomplishes something Sid would, and did that Sunday appreciate: serving Cuban street food in surroundings composed of faux-French columns, wrap-around mirrors, and generally a mix of odds-and-ends of art nouveau and rococo decoration. No matter. The moment the waitress addressed us collectively with "À Como esta mi gente?" and Sid and me specifically as "Papi" and, later, "Mi amor," we knew that we were in Havana North. Sid wanted to know about the "tamales" and the "pasteles" and the waitress' response gave every indication that she had memorized the relevant sections on tamales and pasteles in Nitza Villapol's incomparable and indispensable, Cocina Criolla.

We proceeded to discuss the possible origin of this Cuban food. As it turns out, the Christmas dish in my native Trinidad is called "pastelles" and, despite its French spelling, is of Venezuelan origin. Since my mother is Costa Rican, I also grew up eating "tamales" which, I later discovered is a tame cousin to the Nicaraguan "nacatamal." Sid will have to tell me next time he comes to Miami whether this etiology of the tamal and the pastel is correct. Many societies have developed ways of recycling left-overs by wrapping them in a cake, tortilla, bake or other "flap" made of flour (or its stale bread version) or corn meal. What the tamal has incommon with the English "Toad-in-the-Hole," the Mexican taco or, indeed, the Cuban tamal, is that it is composed of three fundamental ingredients: a flour or corn flap, a filling (relleno in Spanish) of infinite varieties, and a way of wrapping these two before cooking. Because they boil the product, Cubans use corn husks (from there the name "tamal en hoja"), Trinidadians and Costa Ricans use banana or plantain leaves.

Since every island I have ever lived in or visited invariably has the loveliest beaches, the purest water (and thus rum or beer), the most beautiful women or men and the best pasteles/pastelles/tamales, I will simply say that nothing equals my Mother's Christmas tamales. They had everything and anything: chicken, pork, olives, raisins, prunes, petit pois, onions, bell peppers, garlic, capers, tomato paste…and, fundamentally, something Sid has always appreciated: cooked with love for family and friends. And let it be said, while Christmas is still the preferred time, "any time" is good enough when friends are involved. So, if you are going to cook tamales/pasteles, always remember this Dominican rule of etiquette: "Mejor llegar a tiempo que ser invitado."

Hurry back, Sid and Jackie, you do not need an invitation. We are selfishly waiting to put Sid in the kitchen and for his innovation on the tamal and/or pastel. We will have a wide variety of left-overs on hand.

Anthony P. Maingot