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Cooking lessons from Abuela keep Cuban heritage alive

Lindsey Tercilla’s abuela — grandmother — has taught her how to cook traditional Cuban dishes. Luisa Sabina knows her stuff.
Courtesy of Lindsey Tercilla

Lindsey Tercilla’s abuela — grandmother — has taught her how to cook traditional Cuban dishes. Luisa Sabina knows her stuff. Courtesy of Lindsey Tercilla


Lindsey Tercilla always follows her abuela's advice about black beans. With guests coming for dinner, she spent her money on the El Ebro brand. Into the pot with the beans went the olive oil, cumin, white rice vinegar, sliced green pepper and, Abuela's secret, sugar.

Lindsey, 22, is a first-generation American. Her grandmother, her abuela, Luisa Sabina, was born in Cuba in 1939. Lindsey was indifferent about cooking until four years ago. As a University of Florida freshman, she suffered from homesickness and hunger. Also, she had a new boyfriend. Abuela swooped in to help. "If you want to get married,'' she said, "you need to be able to cook for your husband.''

Some American granddaughters might have groaned. Some modern postfeminist young women might have gotten snippy with their elder. Lindsey didn't even sigh. She needed to learn, at the very least, how to feed herself. And if she acquired a life partner in the bargain so much the better.


The cooking lessons commenced in a very 21st century fashion — by email and by cellphone, Lindsey in a Publix in Gainesville and Abuela in her kitchen in Miami.

"Abuela, what should I buy?'' Lindsey asked in Spanish by phone from the ethnic foods aisle. Abuela directed the child to the proper products for a variety of Cuban dishes, then advised her to skedaddle over to the spice aisle.

"You must buy garlic powder, cumin, onion powder — and this is the important one — Badia Complete Seasoning powder. You'll use it in almost everything.''

At home, Lindsey checked her email and found Abuela's recipe for beans and rice. She translated it from Spanish to English and then followed up with another call. Abuela had been cooking so long she didn't include standard measurements. Lindsey needed to know what "one finger" or "two fingers" meant.

Abuela coached her granddaughter through the beans and rice. The two women talked until the boyfriend knocked on the door. Lindsey promised to call later and tell her how everything went.


Now, four years later, tonight's dinner guests were on the way. Lindsey had shopped without Abuela's help, set the table, laid out the ingredients next to her favorite spoon and pot. She had purchased ground beef and tomatoes for picadillo and no longer had to refer to a recipe.

Lindsey was born in West Palm. Her parents were born in Cuba. Her Mom, Liz, is a good cook. Liz is also a career woman who works in the human resources department at a big company and often lacks the time or energy to prepare a meal when she gets home.

Abuela's mother died when she was a child. Her two sisters raised her and taught her the art of Cuban cooking. "If you want to get married,'' big sister Josefa told her, "you had better learn to cook.'' She learned as a teenager and married a boy named Jose. A half century later he still savors his wife's cooking.

Lindsey's University of Florida boyfriend didn't last. His loss. By then she was a pretty good cook. Nothing fancy, understand, but tasty stick-to-the-ribs Cuban food. "I am not a master Cuban cook,'' Lindsey tells people. "But I'm pretty good.''

She is more proud of her college work. In May she graduated with honors from the University of Florida's journalism college and in the fall she begins law school. In the meantime, her Web page, Cooking Cuban Cuisine, includes family recipes and cooking tips and is aimed at young Hispanics who may not have an abuela in their lives.

"You must pass down your heritage,'' Lindsey says. "That's what Abuela always says. Cooking keeps culture alive.''


From the kitchen she heard a knock on the door.

"Welcome,'' Lindsey said. Her guests included Anglos and Hispanics, friends, cousins, a stepsister. A guest made fun of her colorful apron and Lindsey laughed. The intoxicating smell from the stove wafted through the apartment.

"Okay. Serve yourself."

Guests filled plates with picadillo and black beans and rice. Cue the sound of forks scraping plates.

Later, at the oven, Lindsey fretted. She was trying something new: guava pastry. "Is it brown enough?'' she asked, blowing on one to cool. She nibbled and squeezed her eyes shut with pleasure.

She picked up her cellphone and speed-dialed the familiar number.

"It's really good,'' she whispered. Over the line you could hear Abuela's excited voice.

"Bueno. Bueno."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] His latest book is "Alligators in B-Flat."

Learn more

Read Lindsey Tercilla's Cooking Cuban Web page.

Cooking lessons from Abuela keep Cuban heritage alive 07/03/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 3:20pm]
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