No Thyme for Oregano

cuban oreganoI have been on a mission for the past few years to perfect the Cuban dishes of Raphael’s hometown of Miami. If you want to try real Cuban food, authentic Cuban food, Miami is the place to do it. And if you want real authentic recipes, don’t count on getting a straight answer out of any Cuban grandma.

Last month, Raphael and I had the privilege of boarding a plane from Miami to Havana, 50 years after his grandparents had made the reverse trip, never to return to their country. In 1960, Miami was a new promised land – a land of opportunity and refuge, of modern conveniences and Campbell’s soup, of giant supermarkets and processed food. This was the future of America, and therefore the Cuban-Americans.

In 1960, the future of Cuba could not be predicted. Now, 50 years later, it hasn’t changed much. The promise of an autonomous country came and went, and the people struggle for the things we take for granted every day. But there is no sadness – there is pride, celebration, and joy; and even when rations are low, the Cuban family will always gather around a table and enjoy a meal together.

Every farm is government-mandated organic, farmers use oxen to carry crops, and food is only consumed seasonally and locally- it is a place that is only seemingly trapped in a century gone by. In some ways, the agricultural system is in fact more forward-thinking than that of the most productive farms in the Western Hemisphere.

I was so surprised that Cubans and Cuban-Americans, while only 90 miles away from one another, could have such different food philosophies. In the US, all the Cuban delicacies can be found in a can, mango can be enjoyed year-round, and yuca is a peeled-and-ready white starch in your freezer section. And now I fear that one of the most defining ingredients of Cuban cooking has been lost in translation.

When I started this post, I intended to tell you the difference between Oregano and Spanish Thyme, also called Cuban Oregano. Spanish Thyme is the fuzzy, bushy, fresh herb used in all Cuban cooking. I have a feeling that when the Cubans first came to the US, they picked up a bottle of McCormick’s Dried Oregano at Publix – not realizing that this new convenience simply shared a name with its fresh Caribbean counterpart.

And so only when I made it to Cuba, and Raphael’s cousin was giving us a tour of her herb garden, did I realize that such an integral ingredient in Cuban cooking had been lost in translation, lost to convenience.

Cuban Oregano is growing on my terrace right now. It’s the only plant out there thriving in this heat, and will help me perfect the flavors of Cuban-American cooking while honoring the philosophies of their homeland.