Just before Cuba busts open and its complicated essence is diluted by un montón de turistas, Phillippe Diederich's debut novel gives us an immersion complete with sights, sounds and — maybe most importantly — tastes. Food and travel go together, both with the power to edify, transport and even haunt. Sofrito does all three.
Middle-aged New York restaurateur Frank Delgado is sleep-walking through his life, a fact that must be apparent even to even the most casual customer of Maduros, on the Upper East Side. Business is dead, debts are mounting.
His mother, a vehemently anti-Castro Cuban expat, plants the seed when she describes a fabled Havana chicken dish from her youth.
"Dios mio, it is difficult to describe. It was delicious, of course, but it was more than that. It tasted earthy … a little bitter. And sweet … like when there is a storm and the sea is raging against the Malecón. ... That chicken tasted just like Cuba."
And thus is our introduction to the poultry that launched a thousand ships. Frank goes to Cuba to steal the recipe, strictly government property. It's a risky endeavor complete with unscrupulous Cuban MININT agents, torture and extortion, prostitutes and sweaty mojitos, and, finally, one complicated chicken recipe, part of it written in code on Frank's shoe insole.
Diederich, who received his MFA from the University of South Florida, was born in the Dominican Republic, his parents kicked out of Haiti by the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier. Yet he writes eloquently about what it is to be Cuban, and about the heartbreak and rootlessness that can dog a Cuban expat. Food is metaphor: the secret ingredient in the chicken rub? Naranja agria, bitter orange, "the most Cuban of Cuban ingredients," something that is simultaneously sweet and bitter.
In searching for the recipe, Frank unearths his dead father's past, a secret history filled with revolutionary acts and a once-fervent conviction in Fidel Castro's ability to change the small island country's direction. Did his father keep his past a secret, or did Frank and his brother fail to ask the right questions?
It's a nearly universal father-son lament. Grappling with his father's past, Frank "loved his father, but he had never respected him because he had wanted more from him. But it had been there all along. If only they had talked."
Non-Spanish speakers will likely wear out a phrase book reading the short novel — Spanish vocabulary, especially of the blue variety, is liberally peppered throughout Sofrito. It serves to deepen the exotic stew, much in the way a sofrito (onion, garlic and green pepper, the holy trinity of Cuban food) amplifies the flavors in a dish. I would say, however, that the quotes used as chapter openers, a compendium of random references to Cuban food, don't advance the story and serve mostly as head-scratching non sequiturs.
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That said, Frank's triumphant return from Cuba and his family restaurant's transformation into the less stodgy, more Cuban Sofrito is a lively romp. Why did the chicken recipe cross the border? So Frank could get to the other side. And I'll be stalking Diederich in October at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading to see if I can get a crack at that recipe.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.