The legacy of Cuban cuisine guru Nitza Villapol arrives in Miami

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A report by Sarah Moreno for The Miami Herald.

Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

The legacy of famed Cuban chef Nitza Villapol has arrived in Miami by way of her daughter-in-law Sisi Colomina, who inherited her author’s rights and has compiled two new volumes of her “Cocina al minuto” books.

Named after the TV program that Villapol hosted for more than 40 years, the books were first published in 1950 and were reprinted several times in Cuba and abroad — at times in pirated versions.

“Editions unauthorized by Villapol were published in Miami, and she also was never paid,” said Colomina, an art historian who has been studying and preserving Villapol’s legacy since 2002. Colomina was married for 14 years to Villapol’s adopted son, Marcos López González, who died in 2016 and bequeathed his mother’s author’s rights to her.

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Sisi Colomina, heir to the rights of the work of Nitza Villapol, has compiled two new volumes of “Cocina al minuto,” to be published by Penguin Random House early next year.

Other violations of the chef’s work took place in Cuba, Colomina added: “Her rights were violated by books published with some of her recipes,” she said.

Villapol, who died in 1998, is considered “the Cuban Julia Child,” a pioneer of the kind of TV food shows that later became popular in many other countries. But for some she’s a controversial figure because she chose to remain in Castro’s Cuba and talk about food as many ingredients were rationed or slowly disappeared.

“Here in Miami they brand her as a Communist,” said Colomina. “They criticize her for staying in Cuba, but they are far from the truth. Nitza always did what she wanted, regardless of anyone. She was very protective of her opinions and her goals.”

The guru of Cuban cuisine also jealously guarded her privacy, so little is known about her outside of her TV programs.

“She did not like to cook, never invited anyone to eat at her home and liked her food parboiled,” Colomina recalled.

Villapol was born in 1923 in New York, where her parents were political exiles, and moved to Cuba at the age of 11.

“Nitza hated the United States. She did not feel at home here,” said Colomina, speculating that was one of the reasons why the TV cook never wanted to leave the island.

She suffered from polio from the ages of 12 to 17, and some say that marked her dry and even dictatorial character. She graduated from a home economics school in 1940, even though she was bedridden, and later taught in public schools.

In 1947, she spotted an announcement by Gaspar Pumarejo, the godfather of Cuban television. “She became a Cuban citizen to be able to work on television,” Colomina said.

She started a live broadcast of “Cocina al minuto” in 1948, from the living room of Pumarejo’s home in Havana, and her first dish was a Christmas turkey.

Villapol took the name of the program, Spanish for “quick food,” from the dishes she watched her mother prepare for Cubans who dropped by to visit her family at their apartment in Manhattan.

“Pumarejo saw that she had spark and charisma,” said Colomina, and the TV program was a great success because it was like a schoolroom where Villapol was the teacher.

One great addition to the show was Margot Bacallao, the perfect assistant and the one who really cooked. Bacallao had worked in television before joining Villapol, in the “Tele Hogar” program hosted by Araceli López Villalonga and Dulce María Mestre, who had been Villapol’s teachers in the home economics school.

“Nitza was left-handed, and Margot always said that she was her right hand,” said Colomina, who co-produced a 2010 documentary about Bacallao.

Villapol studied dietetics and nutrition at the Universities of Havana and London in the 1950s, and later studied art history because it was required by the Cuban government’s Radio and Television Institute.

Her program was initially broadcast daily but was cut back to a Sunday show in the 1960s and was taken off the air in 1993 during the so-called Special Period, when Cubans suffered critical shortages of just about everything following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. There was an attempt later to bring the show back, but the chef died from cancer in 1998.

Villapol never had a director for her program, never used a script and always kept tight control of the broadcast, Colomina said.

She was also selective with the advertisements that appeared in her books when the first editions of “Cocina al minuto“ were published in the 1950s, Colomina added.

Her books became a bible for advertisers during that time, and remain proof of the abundance and variety of the food available in pre-Castro Cuba. Her recipes were invariably accompanied by brand names.

In contrast, her post-1959 recipes were adapted to meet the country’s growing shortages.

Writer Antonio José Ponte described her in a 2012 column as “a master of seasonal cooking. A season that is perennial in Cuba. The season of crisis.” The column published in the Diario de Cuba site, was titled, “Who can eat what that woman cooks?

Colomina said Villapol simply answered the needs of the Cuban people. “She felt fulfilled. She was a teacher for the people, and she defended that at all times.”

The two new volumes of “Cocina al minuto,” to be published by Penguin Random House early next year, include a selection of Villapol recipes from different years as well as sections about her life and her work.

“A lot of things have yet to be said, and denied, about Villapol,” Colomina wrote in the prologue to the books.

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