I have spent the last three days thinking about what I want to say about our experience in San Antonio and Cooking With the Troops.
My family has talked and talked and rehashed almost every detail of our weekend, multiple times. And I'm still at a loss for words to describe all that we experienced. I'm just going to post lots of photos and try to give you a feel for what we experienced.
When I first received the invitation to join Cooking With the Troops in Texas in July, I didn't hesitate before I agreed. I can think of no higher honor than doing what I do best to say thank you to those who have sacrificed everything for my personal freedom.
I don't have photos of the troops we served because so many of those that we met over the weekend gave up their limbs and a normal life so we could continue to enjoy the freedoms that we do. Many were waiting for prosthetics. The Warrior and Family Support Center is a beautiful home-like healing facility with an air conditioned kitchen (Thank you, God!). I was grateful that we could be there to do this one act of charity for these, our best and bravest.
They are absolutely heroes and it was our great pleasure to serve them. What an honor!
But let me tell you about the Amazing Volunteers (or Team Cubanaso):
The first thing I want you to know about these people, (including my own family) is that when asked if they were interested in doing this, (San Antonio, Texas in July, people!) not one of them hesitated. "Of course. What can I do?" And that was the attitude that carried through the entire weekend.
The guys from Dos Cubanos Pig Roasts (Texas, you are sooo lucky!) brought their expertise, four pigs, and their families. (Yay! More Cubans!) I think that might just have to be a separate post altogether. (Go "like" them on Facebook right now, please.)
Pig Roasting is their specialty, but Joey Lay and Jorge Carmona were able and willing to help in the kitchen as well. (Yes, that's Jonathan working on his professional photo-bombing skills, but that's not important right now.)
Because this was a service to the military, they named him Point Man on the Pigs. He proved more than capable in his role (thank you, Val and Caja China people)! They started preparing the coals at 5 am.
By 9:00 am, it was time for the Pig Flip.
The pigs were done by 10:30. And the aroma went out in a cartoon-like-smoke-with-a-beckoning-hand and by 11:00 the guys were gathering around to get their first taste of the lechón asado, Cuban-style.
Once the pigs were done, Val came in to help Adam and Jon cut (more!) onions & garlic for the mojo for the yuca.
Our menu? A typical Nochebuena feast:
We spent all of Thursday and most of Friday morning prepping for our Friday lunch. Which meant cutting pounds and pounds of onion, garlic, and peppers for the Sofrito Que Se Le Perdio a Santa Barbara (as my mom would say).
We had 3 vats (VATS!) of Black Beans that turned out delicious thanks to the hard work by Val and Amy Kikita and the generosity of Conchita Foods. At this point, the aroma from the sofrito, the beans and the pigs had people wandering hungrily into the kitchen, which was great.
There was a lot of fun and camaraderie happening in the kitchen, along with a lot of hard work. (We Cubans would call it "relajo." =D)
Chef Ellen Adams of Red Hot Dish was responsible for dinner that night (couscous!) and Heather Solos of Home-Ec 101 was everywhere you wanted her to be. Both of these amazing women were so willing to lend a helping hand, and always with a smile. (When I grow up, they are who I want to be.)
Here's Jonathan helping with Ellen's fabulous couscous.
My family fell in love with these guys (yes, even you, Mike Russo!) and I'm pretty sure the feeling was mutual.
I can't stress enough how every one of these volunteers pitched in wherever they were needed. We worked hard and long and shoulder to shoulder. And we bonded. We bonded in that gosh-that-was-exhausting-work-and-more-fun-than-it-should-be way. Every single person had that "What can I do?" attitude.
Let me just take a moment to talk about my kids.
Thing one: I was so happy they were all able to go on this trip. And I had all four of them with me all weekend – win!
Thing two: They all surprised and amazed me with how willing they were to step up and do whatever was required. What began as helping-mom-do-her-thing became a labor of love for them individually. I loved that they took ownership of the preparations themselves.
Thing three: No way would I have been able to prepare my share of the food without my family. I am completely at a loss. They went way above and beyond any expectations I had and I'm completely grateful and oh, so proud of them all.
Let me introduce you to Jorge, who managed the beautiful Warriors & Family Support Center at Fort Sam Houston. He is Puerto Rican and provided us with our music while we worked (and managed to locate some espresso for us Cubans). In fact, it was a little emotional prepping all this Cuban food with support from Celia, Beny, and Willy. 😉 Thank you, Jorge! (He was still gushing about the amazing food we provided as we were saying our goodbyes.)
I was quite proud that I managed (with lots of help) to prepare 300 of my famous Homemade Pastelitos de Guayaba.
Although the volume was obviously much, much greater than anything I ever make, I felt like I was feeding my own family. I know it sounds corny, but with every dish we felt that same way. Like we were feeding family. (Maybe that's why everything tasted so great?)
But then there was the fiasco with the rice, because really, could everything go perfectly smoothly when you're making lunch for these many people?
I confess that I had no clue how to make rice for 250 people (300 was the final count.). So Adam and I winged it and we got some rice that was cooked on top but hard on the bottom. We also managed to burn some. At 10:30, with the 12:00 deadline looming, the rice was a mess and I was close to having a breakdown.
Jorge Carmona's family to the rescue! They had done congris before at a pig roast event and had encountered the same problems. "Just take small batches, add water, and cook in the microwave." Without hesitation, they stepped up and did just that and rescued the rice. I don't think I could be more grateful. What's better than having a Cuban cook in the kitchen? LOTS of Cuban cooks in the kitchen. 😉
Amazingly, we Cubans managed to get the food out and on the tables at 12:00 military time. This is quite a feat when you usually run on Cuban time. =D
The warriors and their families came through the line and even though the food was foreign for many of them, they ooh-ed and aah-ed and came back for seconds and dove right into the yuca con mojo and the plantains (Thanks, Goya Foods!) without a second thought.
I was most pleased when the guys with the Hispanic surnames came through. They recognized the music. They recognized the food. "Is that guava??" And they were grateful for this "little piece of home."
Much gratitude to the CEO of Cooking With the Troops, Blake Powers who pulled us all together for this amazing experience and gave us the opportunity to serve. Thank you, Blake and cwtt.org. We have all been forever changed by this experience.
And to Mr. Bob Miller, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer and All Around Classy Guy.
I thank you all for the privilege of serving side-by-side with you.
I don't have words to express the gratitude and admiration I feel for the volunteers, the warriors and their families. Thank you all for your service.
Let it be known that we Cubans are very proud Americans.
(cross-posted on Babalú blog)