Manuela Ballesteros de Gonzalez
Spanish Origins and Tastes
My Spanish-born grandmother Manuela had natural culinary talent and learned skill. She knew the satisfaction of making and serving good food.
In Ledesma, Spain, her parents Manuel Ballesteros and Balbina Martin owned a flour mill and a bakery in the early 1900s. Two daughters came of the marriage: Carmen, then Manuela, my grandmother. When Manuela was 6, in 1916, her mother died of anemia. Her father remarried.
By age 13, Manuela was on her way to Cuba with her sister and father. She brought the tastes of Spanish cooking—olive oil, garlic, onion, sherry, chorizo, ham–along with a love of good bread. It was 1923, a year Spain had a military coup. About 1 million Spaniards immigrated to Cuba between 1900 and 1930.
The trio went to the Punta Alegre Sugar Mill, in Punta San Juan, Camaguey. They lived with the Lorenzo family where she may have learned more about cooking. Her father returned to Spain to his second wife. The Spanish sisters stayed in Cuba.
Manuela Ballesteros de Gonzalez
In 1926, Manuela married a Cuban, Severiano Gonzalez, becoming Manuela Ballesteros de Gonzalez. My mother Maria and my uncle Homero were born.
Breakfast was fresh Cuban bread and café con leche. Lunch was beans or chick peas with rice. A different hot meal was served for dinner. Among her favorite meals are classics: beef stuffed bell peppers, codfish stew, chicken fricassee and arroz con pollo. She loved and made a great variety of fritters.
Like home cooks around the world with the means to buy ingredients, she made and served three meals daily. Reheated leftovers did not exist. Everyone but the cook rested on Sunday. People weren’t welcome in her kitchen–not to cook, prep, talk or clean.
Fresh fish and seafood, meats and produce were always available. Bread was bought early, daily. Milk was also delivered daily to the kitchen’s back door. The Gonzalez Ballesteros had an avocado tree, two sour orange trees, a lime tree, coconut palms and various types of bananas.
Homero typically ran errands, walking to a Chinese farmer’s for fresh greens—cabbages and lettuces. A nearby Spaniard raised sheep and kept chickens. Homero bought eggs. Root vegetables and fruit were bought weekly from a man selling them from the saddlebags carried by his mule.
Venezuela and the U.S. Mix
The Cuban Revolution propelled Manuela’s exile to Venezuela in 1961. Her son Homero was about to marry. She was welcomed into the home of his future in-laws.
A week before the church wedding, a smaller civil ceremony was held at the bride’s family’s house, as was the custom. Manuela’s cooking shone: she made guests an arroz con pollo sprinkled with fried pork chunks. Her daughter-in-law Antonietta Legrottaglie called it “unforgettable.”
In the U.S. Manuela lived with her daughter Maria’s family: the Veiga Gonzalez household in St. Paul, Minnesota, and later, in Miami, Florida. We were fortunate. She made mantecaditos and tamales at Christmas. Cream of wheat with raisins cooled in the refrigerator regularly for late afternoon treats.
My sister Glenna recalls her happy voice on Saturday mornings, calling us to breakfast. She made “panquecas.” We each got one big pancake. It looked a bit like a Spanish tortilla, as round as the black iron skillet it was cooked in.
My brother Juan Carlos remembers shooting a mourning dove. He cleaned it; Manuela cooked it. Our father enjoyed it as he had so often done in Cuba.
Whenever she returned downtown Miami, she brought and shared a succulent piece of chicharron from a little white bakery bag.
After our mother died in 1974, Manuela stayed with us bearing an insurmountable sorrow. With prayers and hard work, she tried to steady a family in crisis. Her cooking faltered. So did her health.
Her Own Kitchen Again
Until the end of her life, she shared her love and talent through cooking. A few days before she died unexpectedly in her own condominium, Manuela invited my siblings to lunch. My brothers still rave about her Cuban-style chicken salad with homemade mayonnaise.
Her hard work and generosity were fueled by love–not obligation.
I have cooked for decades. I do not come close to doing what my grandmother did every day with such heavenly grace.
Copyright – 2021- Cuba Cooks – All rights reserved