The Miami Herald
October 21, 1998
Nitza Villapol, 74, Cuban cooking advisor

             By FABIOLA SANTIAGO
             Herald Staff Writer

             Cuban culinary guru Nitza Villapol -- who taught generations of Cubans how to
             cook and, in the last decades, how to cope with a ration book and acute food
             shortages -- has died in Havana at age 74, Cuba's official press announced

             The circumstances of her death were not reported.

             Villapol was known for her cookbook Cocina al minuto (Cooking to Order),
             dubbed ``the bible of Cuban cuisine,'' and for her TV show of the same name. A
             Cuban Julia Child of sorts, she also starred on radio cooking shows and wrote at
             least two other books on Cuban cooking.

             In the 1950s, young brides took their cooking lessons from Villapol. Some of them
             later fled to exile in South Florida with their worn copies of Villapol's Cocina al
             minuto. Copies of the book -- reprinted in the United States without her
             permission, Villapol once complained -- still circulate in Spanish-language
             bookstores in Miami-Dade County.

             A home economist, Villapol became well versed in making do with little while
             studying in wartime England. She put the skills to work decades later in what
             became her greatest challenge -- and a controversial role: teaching Cubans how to
             cook without meat, milk and a whole range of spices indispensable to traditional
             Cuban cooking.

             Many Cubans resented her cheerful approach to the shortages, while others poked
             fun. Villapol took it in stride.

             ``The first thing I think about is, `What does the Cuban homemaker have and what
             can be done with it?' '' she told a Herald reporter in 1991. ``We're not starving
             here. . . . If you have good food habits, you can have a balanced diet in Cuba.
             Food habits [in Cuba] are geared toward a society, an economy, that no longer

             Villapol liked to say she was ``a cultural hybrid.'' Named after a Russian river by
             her communist father, she spent her early years in New York. Her parents
             returned to the island when she was 9.

             Villapol was fond of the food she remembered from her days living in Washington
             Heights -- Fig Newtons, liverwurst and Good Humor ice cream.

             But she detested mayonnaise. ``An American invention to ruin food,'' she called it.

             Unlike many Cuban cooks, Villapol said she seldom made a sofrito, the traditional
             oil-based seasoning mix used to spice up various dishes. She preferred to season
             the food as she cooked it, she said.

             In South Florida, Villapol was a controversial figure because of her unyielding
             support of the Cuban Revolution.

             ``I believe this damn revolution is right, despite all our problems,'' Villapol said in

             She also criticized Cubans for not eating enough vegetables. ``To old Cubans,'' she
             said, ``salad is grass and water. It's not food.''

             Although Villapol wrote two other cookbooks -- Sabor a Cuba (The Flavor of
             Cuba)  and El arte de la cocina cubana (The Art of Cuban Cuisine)  -- it was
             Cocina al minuto  that remained a favorite on both sides of the Florida Straits.

             Perusing the first editions is like visiting yesterday's Cuba. The book is filled with
             advertisements for American products -- a finned 1958 Dodge being sold on
             bustling La Rampa, a new two-cycle Whirlpool washer, Osterizer blenders.

             In the first revision after the revolution, all references to the brand names were

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