Cuban Coffee

My Rouses Everyday, May/June 2017

My exiled Cuban family members, both in New Orleans and Miami, have long since made peace with the rhythms of life in those cities, but they’ve never forgotten their birthplace. When it comes to things like coffee, or café con leche, or the darkest and most delicious of them all — the cortadito — the old ways die hard. Just talking about it, I can smell the aromas from here! But it is truly amazing what satisfaction coffee brings to the whole ritual of every gathering.

As far back as I can remember, which is around the age of about five or six, a requisite stop for this grandson was the home of my paternal grandmother — “Granny” — in New Orleans. Originally from Amite, Louisiana, Granny met my Cuban-born grandfather, known fondly to us as Abuelo, in New Orleans, where he swooped her away from her collegiate studies at Newcomb and brought her back to Havana to live during those swanky decades on the island. Abuelo graduated from law school at Tulane, and only returned to the city for occasional visits. The rest is in the history books.

Saturdays with Granny were special, and coffee was our comforting little secret. She repeatedly warned, “Don’t tell your mom I have you drinking coffee!” When I was that tender age, it was 80% milk, hot and steamy, with a few dribbles of coffee to nurture my developing taste buds. As I grew inches taller, the percentage of milk lowered, and in rolled the caffeine. Granny would take out the steam-pressure coffee maker known to most as the Moka pot, and she would put it directly on the flame of the gas stove. Immediately, it would begin to percolate. There was a whole ritual with demitasse cups laid out in perfect order along with sugar, a spoon and a carafe of whole milk. A sweet, caramel fizz coated the top of the cup — it’s the creamy head that Cubans call espumita. The magical result of the first sips of brew laced with sugar was incredible. Sometimes my pulse couldn’t just beat; it had to race. I was on a perpetual Bustelo buzz. I can vividly remember the vibrant yellow and red tin container of Café Bustelo that sat on the shelf, and the pungent smell when Granny popped open the lid. However, at that age, I was more interested in reaching my hands into the other tin that I knew contained assorted butter cookies with heavy chunks of sugar. I believe I danced around all afternoon, wide-eyed and prematurely contemplating my next moves, but honestly with nowhere to go!

My father had no qualms about taking me to Miami when I turned 15, to experience his closest connection to his native Cuba: the infamous cousins! My cousins introduced me to the absolutely strangest practice I’d ever seen — all these men standing around at counters with coffee-filled styrofoam cups, pouring small shots into other minuscule cups, customarily called cafecitos. I’m talking about cups the size of spit cups at the dentist’s office. Sipping at cafecito counters is a daily social event in the Cuban neighborhoods of Miami. It’s a cheap thrill that only costs about a dollar. But it was so amazing to watch the artistry at work in the coffee shops or grocery stores of Little Havana, as the coffee and sugar were swiftly stirred into golden, frothy foam. There were no cookies to add to the sweetness; the cousins would have toasted bread drenched in butter and cut into finger-sized strips to dip into the coffee. It tempered the strength, but I was still in love with the flavor. It was this very Cuban espresso that made a man out of a boy my age.

That’s the Cuban side of the family; my other side’s roots are permanently “grounded” in New Orleans. As a native, I was weaned on café au lait and beignets. That early encounter with chicory coffee and all its bitterness was thankfully softened by warm whole milk. The amazing marriage between coffee and sweet things was a given, and the excess powdered sugar on the plate was the much appreciated lagniappe. Just like dipping the buttered bread strips in the cafecito, the first bite of warm beignet dipped in the café au lait signaled the inception of a most cherished coffee ritual.

I’ve come to realize in my own restaurant, Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, Virginia, where I have Cuban Day each Wednesday, that the guests who come in have a Cuban mentality. It’s about who’s feeding you. Who’s eating with you. Dining is all about belonging. In the fine Cuban émigré tradition, the food scene is sustained by its coffee first, and by the long-held customs of how said coffee is prepared. To drink it is not just traditional; it’s required. And while my restaurant’s reputation for exemplary coffee service pays tribute to my own heritage, it also rides on the powerful individual resonance that the coffee ritual has for so many others.