Monday, January 30, 2006


Those Oldies But Goodies

"Those oldies but goodies remind me of you..."

This is what I thought about one day at Roma Bakery as I was ordering a croqueta and a cangrejito. It led to my writing, "Those Oldies But Goodies." Below you'll find my revised version. Somehow it found its way to the desk of a Saveur magazine editor. In its final form, it appeared in last January/February's issue, as Number 44 on the Saveur 100 list. Those oldies but goodies, indeed.



The other day, I was grabbing a quotidian quick bite. A “Cuban quick draw lunch,” as I’m now calling croquetas con galletas. Croquetas – or croquettes – are short, stubby fried snacks that remotely resemble what a larger cocktail sausage would look like. A member of the family of the (almost) infinite variety of Spanish appetizers known as tapas, these little tidbits contain a variety of fillings mixed with flour, egg… and, according to an elderly Cuban gentleman in the know, with Béchamel sauce.
Once formed into these sausage wannabes, croquetas are rolled in cracker meal, more egg, and more flour, and then they’re deep-fried. Once they’ve cooled down, you grab them with your fingers and consume them. Right? I’d been exposed to croquetas all my life, but I didn’t realize there’s a “special” way of eating them.
A while back, one of my father’s friends from “the old days,” Debesa, invited me to join him for a merienda (snack) at Versailles, one of the – if not the most – popular Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho. Calle Ocho – or Southwest 8th Street – is the heart of the Cuban community in Miami. He ordered a platter of four croquetas, which arrived at our table, piping-hot, along with at least four packets of galletas (crackers). My first instinct was to grab one, as I always have. However, not wishing to appear indelicate, I had begun to delicately pick away at one with my fork. Wrong.
I don’t remember if Debesa was dismayed, merely shook his head, or whatever, but he proceeded to show me how you’re supposed to eat the croquetas. You’re supposed to squoosh them in between the galletas and then consume the “sandwich.” With your hands, of course. After carefully observing this Cuban rite of passage, I began to squoosh and munch away, along with the best of that late-afternoon crowd.
More recently, I performed the ritual on my own. Once again at Versailles, I was grabbing a quick lunch. This time, I was downing un café con leche. It’s these milk-softened, yet heavy-hitting, pick-me-ups that often get me through the midday blues. It feels really good to take my bandejita (little tray) with my croquetas, galletas, and café to one of the little round tables at Versailles Bakery, sit down, gulp and munch away… and, most importantly, watch the world go by.
Different places produce different-tasting croquetas. They come in several varieties: jamón (ham), pollo (chicken), pescado (fish), and queso (cheese). The most important thing, however, is that every bakery, every cafetería, every timbiriche (hole in the wall), every restaurante de categoría (classy joint), is well stocked with croquetas. And galletas.
My “Cuban quick draw lunch” the other day was at Roma Bakery, in Granada Plaza at the corner of Southwest 49th Avenue and Calle Ocho. I’m especially fond of their café con leche. It’s always served piping hot. Sometimes I scald my tongue with it, but I don’t generally care. It’s hot. And that’s the way I like it. As I was really in a bit of a rush, I decided to try them out, croqueta-wise. Do you have any? Yes. What type? Jamón. OK. But, wait, then I saw the cangrejitos, which are little crab-shaped mille-feuille-type pastries filled with a tiny amount of meat.
And that’s when I thought of the old song, “Those Oldies But Goodies.” I asked the counter lady for one croqueta and one cangrejito. On a little plate, on top of a waxy, absorbent paper, she placed my tentempié, along with the requisite packet of galletas. “Tentempié” means to eat on one’s feet. That’s the way you’re supposed to eat Spanish tapas.
I, however, intended to sit down at one of their little round tables to squoosh and munch away. Before I left the counter, I struck up a brief conversation with a woman who had been standing next to me. I commented on the “sweet” pastry at either end of the cangrejito’s “claws.” She agreed. I also told her how the cangrejitos – and the croquetas – reminded me of fiestas de cumpleaños (birthday parties) in Cuba. She agreed. “Those Oldies But Goodies,” indeed.
Copyright, 2004 by Georgina Marrero All rights reserved

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