Last August, Viviana Russell realized a childhood dream when, for the first time, she visited the country where her father had been raised—Cuba. Her father was 26 years old when he came to the United States in 1951, in the pre-Castro days when Cuba was under the rule of Fulgencio Batista, and he never wanted to return.
“I yearned to go to Cuba for as far back as I can remember,” said Russell. She and her aunt often talked about making the trip and last year they got their visas and went. “It felt like a completeness—going to the place where my father was born, meeting my uncle for the first time.” She connected with her many cousins and she and one cousin, who resemble each other, “just started to cry as we approached each other for the first time.”
While in Cuba, Russell spent a lot of time visiting family, playing dominoes and learning native dances at her cousin’s dance studio, where they were preparing for Mardi Gras, and eating the foods she loves most: mango, avocado and plantains.
Here in the U.S., plantains are eaten daily in the Russell household. At lunch we had them fried in olive oil. Also on the table was boiled yucca, grilled shrimp in a wine and mango salsa sauce and avocado stuffed with seafood. The essential Cuban dish is black beans and rice, called “moros,” which appears to be the Cuban name for their version of this Spanish dish where black beans represented the Muslim Moors while the white beans represented the Spanish Christians. The dish commemorates the Reconquista, a long period of battle between the Islamic Moors and the Christian Spaniards and represents how the groups came to live together in the Iberian Peninsula.
Her husband, Gary, is of Jamaican heritage and both love cooking the foods of the Caribbean. Another hallmark of the Russell household is hospitality. “I grew up around people and being helpful,” says Russell. Her mother would take the children to the hospital to visit patients and her dad would invite homeless people to dine at their home. “What is innate in me is to be of service,” she said. When she and her husband moved into Westbury, community activist Mildred Little sat down with the couple and became “a driving force to keep us involved.”
When government official Robert Troiano Jr. urged Russell to run for North Hempstead Town Council, she wasn’t sure if she was ready. She said she and Gary fasted and prayed and she asked God for a sign. She was at church at a community event when a visiting pastor came up to her and, unprompted, said, “You’d really be good in public service.” That sealed the deal and eight years ago she won the election and is still serving on the council.
Always one for tradition, family and history, Russell cooks her beans and rice in the same pot that her mother used. She has altered the tradition somewhat, leaving out the pork now that she is a vegetarian.
Black Beans and Rice, Cuban Style
1 large onion
½ green pepper
½ red pepper
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon cumin
½ teaspoon allspice
1 pound dry black beans
1 to 2 cups rice
Salt and pepper to taste
Russell never measures so feel free to experiment with quantities: this is an approximation.
1. Saute one large chopped onion, ½ chopped green pepper, ½ chopped red pepper and five cloves minced garlic, 1 tablespoon cumin and ½ teaspoon allspice, and salt and pepper in olive oil and butter.
2. When soft, add one pound dry black beans and water to cover and boil until soft (about 45 minutes—check to make sure water doesn’t dry up).
3. Add one to two cups of rice and more water to cover the mixture, mix, bring to boil, reduce heat and cover. Cook until the rice is done.