At the beginning of this month, my great-aunt, Aida Olalde, passed away at the age of 95, just two months shy of her 96th birthday. She was known to all as Tia Chiquilyn (Spanish for kid, little one). It was a nickname given to her when she was a little girl.
In many Latin cultures, it is not uncommon for a nickname that denotes infancy or smallness to last someone their whole lifetime. I suppose it is akin to an older gentleman being called Junior.
The last of my late grandmother’s siblings, her passing brought not only great sadness, but the end of an era. It was an era full of steamship travel between Cuba and Europe.
My Aunt Aida, along with my Grandmother Carmen and my Aunt Gloria, were all named for operas. There were two other siblings, Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Arturo. Such a huge part of my childhood and adult life, they are now all gone.
I loved hearing the stories of my great-grandfather, Arturo Loynaz del Castillo. He was consul to Cuba and regularly hosted dignitaries at his homes in Lisbon, PétionVille, Tarragona, Charleston and Guatemala, while my great-grandmother, Nora, played the violin for them.
Arturo met Nora at a ball given in Oslo, where she was the interpreter. Given my great-grandfather’s diplomatic position, all of the children were born in different countries.
Aunt Aida, like most of her sisters, spoke flawless French. When I spoke to her for the last time, this Christmas, at 95, she went between English, Spanish and French beautifully. I learned French so I could speak it with my grandmother and her sisters.
As they’ve all passed through the years, I’ve had no one to practice with, and have forgotten so much. They were my connection to the language. My aunt’s English, like my grandmother’s, had that beautiful British accent. They spoke “The Queen’s English.”
My aunt was a classical pianist and a brilliant painter, and truly encompassed all the beauty and knowledge we associate with the Old World. I adored her. Her life was not an easy one; she became a widow in her late 40s and, less than 20 years later, she lost her only daughter in a tragic plane crash.
I recall when my cousin Patricia passed away. She was an up-andcoming ballerina. She, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s brother had gone on vacation to Alaska. Her boyfriend was a pilot, and they had taken a small plane to look at the Valdez oil spill, which had recently occurred.
After flying through thick clouds, they emerged and were faced headon with a mountain. All three of them perished, and it took rescue teams almost two weeks to recover the bodies due to a blizzard.
In the months after Patricia’s death. As you may well understand, my aunt was inconsolable. Yet, somehow, she found the strength to go on. In The Miami Herald, she found a support group for parents who had lost their children. She became friends with a family in Ocala who had lost their only two sons, and she would travel frequently to visit them. She took up tai chi, began playing piano several hours a day, and immersed herself in her painting. She did some of her best work during this period.
You may ask why I’ve chosen to write about my family for this month’s column. February is associated with love; however, it’s most commonly associated with romance and Valentine’s Day. My aunt, my grandmother and all of her siblings taught me a very important lesson: love for family.
My Aunt Sylvia remained in Cuba after the 1959 revolution, while my grandmother and all of her other siblings came to the U.S. Sylvia did visit a few times, and I was fortunate to meet her. The rest of them who lived here had a truly inseparable bond. Every Tuesday, they would take turns hosting lunch. It would always be a huge feast!
Once the table was cleared, it was time for them to play cards. They would bet with pennies, and I swear they made up the rules and names (one-handed captain,whistling monkey) of the games as they went along. Their laughter and fun were contagious. As they got older and age took its toll, the group became smaller and smaller until, finally, only Aunt Aida remained.
As I mentioned earlier, my aunt would have been 96 in April. After she passed, I deleted her contact from my phone. I also deleted the reminder to send her flowers as I did every year for her birthday. At that moment, the finality of it all truly hit me. There would be no one to call and ask questions about the family. No one to tell me about how my grandmother met my grandfather at a dance, even though she was on a date with another guy at the time (she pawned her date off on my aunt).
My grandmother would marry and divorce my grandfather twice, but that is a story for another column.
At my aunt’s service, her son brought many picture albums to share with the family. In those albums were pictures I had never seen. Pictures of my great-grandmother Nora skiing as a little girl outside her home in Norway. Pictures of my great-great-grandmother Annie strolling through the streets of Europe. Pictures of all the siblings living it up at the Tropicana nightclub in Havana.
Tucked between the pages were postcards sent from ships they took from Cuba to New York and then on to Europe. It was as if all the stories I had heard my whole life now came with pictures. I was mesmerized.
The one thought I would like to leave with you is to pay attention to the stories you hear from your elders. Learn as much as you can about your family, its history, its origins.
The night my aunt passed away, I stood crying in the kitchen after my mom phoned to tell me the news. In between tears, I told my husband, “That’s it; she’s gone. That whole generation is gone, the stories, the memories, they’re all gone.” He took my hand and said, “No, they’re not, you are the keeper of those stories now. You are the new generation. You need to keep that history alive.”
And, I have to say, he’s right. I only hope that in doing so, I make my great aunts, my great-uncle, and my grandmother proud.
This month’s recipes are from my aunt and her siblings. The first one is Aunt Aida’s recipe for “Rosquillas de Anis.” These are anis cookies that are also called buñuelos.
They are widely popular in Spain and most of Latin America. This recipe is the typical one found in Spain that is made with flour. Throughout Cuba and other Hispanic countries, you will find variations using mashed yuca, white sweet potato or plantains. They are usually served at Christmastime or large celebrations.
Mix the following ingredients in this order:
6 tablespoons of sugar
1 shot glass of anise liqueur
1 shot glass of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 pinch of salt
2 teaspoons of anise seeds (I add more than the original recipe calls for. It helps achieve that rich anis flavor.)
Vegetable oil for frying
To the liquid mixture, add regular all-purpose flour (not self-rising), until you are able to make a dough and form a rope. There really is no exact measurement here for the flour, you just need to feel it out. It’s usually about 2-2.5 cups. Form the dough into a rope and cut off small pieces to form the knots. It’s sort of like a figure-8 shape that you are making. Place the raw, formed cookies on a platter.
Once you’ve been able to make them all, heat about an inch-and-a-half of oil in a heavy frying pan. Fry each cookie until golden brown, flipping once, about three minutes total. A medium-high heat is best for these. If the oil is too hot, they’ll brown on the outside but the inside will still be raw. Remove them from the pan, and place them on a plate lined with paper towels.
When they are completely cool, store them in an old cookie tin or any airtight container. They are better after a day or two, and will keep for a little over a week.
Next is a recipe for my Aunt Aida’s homemade mayonnaise. I do a twist on it and make it with fresh garlic. She made this often and would serve it for lunch with hard-boiled eggs and boiled potatoes. I often make it for leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches or even as a dip for french fries.
Once you have homemade mayonnaise, it’s very hard to go back to store-bought. It will keep in the fridge for two to three days (if it isn’t all eaten before that).
6 large egg yolks
½ cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
6 medium garlic cloves,
3 cups light olive oil
Place egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and pepper into a blender, and secure the lid. Start the blender on low, and gradually increase the speed so that it’s just a couple of notches under full speed. Remove the center of the blender top and, with the machine running, add the garlic cloves one by one. Blend for about 10 seconds, and lower the speed of the blender to medium. With the machine still running, slowly pour the oil in a thin, steady stream through the top of the blender until it emulsifies. This last step usually takes two to three minutes. Once it’s done, store in a jar in the fridge for two to three days.
Lastly is my Aunt Gloria’s famous quiche. I’ll admit, this recipe goes against everything I know about how to make quiche. It only has two eggs and gets baked in a graham-cracker crust. However, the combination of salty and sweet is amazing. My aunt would bring this to every family event.
Aunt Gloria’s Spinach Quiche
1 graham-cracker crust (9 inch)
1 package of frozen spinach
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 can of golden mushroom soup
1 medium package of shredded mozzarella cheese
Mix eggs, 1/3 cup of heavy cream, and can of soup in a blender. Boil the spinach, and drain completely. Layer the pie in this order: cooled drained spinach, mozzarella, and then pour over the liquid mixture. The soup will be quite salty, as will the cheese, so there is no need for any additional salt or seasoning. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes. Check with a knife to be sure the center is cooked.
— Santi Gabino Jr. lives in DeLand with his husband, Oscar, and their two crazy dogs, Hope and Athena. Santi is a self-taught chef who has been in the hospitality industry for more than 20 years.