Memories of Bertha Saladino: Food provides instant bond
I met Bertha Saladino in the spring of 2000.
A plucky mixture of sass and smile, Bertha made me feel like I had been covering the Saladino Baseball Tournament for a decade. Energetic and playful, we found an instant chemistry.
Baseball was the conduit, but food was our connection.
Hot dogs and hamburgers were all I could reasonably expect at a high school baseball tourney. On my shoestring college budget, a cold Spam sandwich would have been a treat.
“Oh, no, no, no, my friend (she always used to call me her friend)” she said. “Come with me.”
And there it was, a spread fit for kings. Roast pork, plantains, yellow rice, Cuban bread, salad, this chocolate pudding dessert thingy that I would consider chopping off a toe for. All spread out on a huge buffet table. In spades.
“Thank you so much for dinner,” I said.
“Oh no, my friend,” Bertha said. “This is just a little snack. Dinner will be out in an hour or so.”
Over the past decade and half, visiting with Bertha has always been one of the highlights of Saladino Tournament week.
Even though we were surrounded by hours and hours of baseball, we rarely talked of it.
Mostly just food.
I’m sure at some point she was sick of my incessant questions, but she never let on. As the years passed, Bertha became less mobile but easier to corner.
“Was that adobo in your picadillo? What kind of pork did you use to flavor your black beans? Tell me what cut of beef you prefer for your ropa vieja.”
“My friend, it’s all about the love,” she said. “Not the ingredients.”
Rain or shine, hot or cold, tired or not, year in and year out, Bertha was always there to cook for the scores of teams, umpires, volunteers and media to pass through the gates. One night as we sat out in the tents at Brandon, I asked what was the biggest kitchen nightmare over the years. She told me about the time a generator blew and they lost power at the University of Tampa site. With hundreds of hungry mouths to feed, Bertha rounded up five George Foreman grills, a few volunteers and instructed them to find any available power outlet to get some hot dogs ready on the fly.
“I told them to look for lights,” Bertha said. “Because where there’s light, there’s power.”
She was so right.
The Saladino Tournament will carry on this year, albeit with a heavy heart and a gaping hole. Tony once told me the tournament was all her idea. She was the engine, she was the light and, indeed, she was the power.
Goodbye, my friend.