Phillippe Diederich’s debut novel, Sofrito, is a splendid allegory of the Cuban experiences both on the island and in the United States. Part Bildungsroman, part mystery, it is also an exploration of the history, homeland and identity shared by many Latino Americans from all backgrounds.
The book derives its title from the garlic, onion tomato and cilantro based sauce used in Cuban cooking, “the mother sauce of our food, All Cuban cooking must begin with a good sofrito.”
In the novel, Frank Delgado and his brother Pepe, along with a family friend Justo, have opened a restaurant in New York’s upper Eastside. The restaurant, Maduros, is at first successful for its acclaimed Cuban food, but five years later the restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy.The only thing that may save them is a unique recipe concocted generations ago by Frank and Pepe’s grandfather who owned one of the premiere restaurants in pre-Revolutionary Cuba. Frank takes it on himself to travel to his natal land and try to secure the mythical recipe. What appears at first as a preposterous premise–searching for a culinary holy grail in the land of Fidel–becomes the convincing vehicle for one man’s quest for his past and discovery of a new identity.
In the course of visiting family relations in Cuba in hopes of tracking down the elusive recipe, Frank discovers unsettling truths about his father’s past. These revelations transform his understanding of who his father really was and what role he may or may not have played in the Cuban Revolution. During his stay in Cuba Frank falls in love with a Cuban jinetera (escort) who is used to accompanying wealthy foreigners. What begins as a one-night stand soon develops into a full blown romance as Frank’s entire life is turned topsy-turvy. All that he believed in is suddenly thrown into question. In the course of Frank’s quest and machinations to secure the secret and well guarded recipe, Frank finds himself doings things he never thought he would or could. He discovers a new Frank he never knew existed.
Author Diederich is Haitian. He was raised in Mexico City and South Florida. With many years as a photojournalist in Cuban, he makes good use of his knowledge of the streets and neighborhoods of Havana to explore the Cuba of the islanders as well as Cuba seen through the eyes of an estranged prodigal son. The language, nuance and settings ring true and give insight into a world not known by many Americans. Using the metaphor of the sauce essential to all Cuban cooking , Frank Delgado’s journey is a search of his personal sofrito, the personal foundation needed to understand his life and identity as a Cuban American. Food epigraphs in each chapter underscore the importance of food as a unifying cultural experience for all Cubans and for that matter all Latin Americans.
The story of one Cuban American’s quest for his past and identity is so well wrought and universal as to be emblematic of the quest by many Latin Americans to understand their past, present and future in the United States. As such, the allegory of a recipe for the ideal meal become a metaphor for the quest for total understanding of the self. Sofrito ends where the story began, back at the Maduros restaurant. but with a transformed Frank who is now ready to undertake what some readers hope will be a sequel to the novel.
Copyright by Jesus Salvador Trevino. Sofrito published by Cinco Puntos Press is available through Amazon.com.