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Exiles sipping coffee at Miami’s Versailles restaurant has become one of the enduring images of the Cuban experience in America. Havana-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has transplanted the ritual to Capitol Hill.
The Florida Republican is known to drink four or five cups of Cuban coffee a day.
“Cuban coffee is food for the soul, so I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of that,” she said.
“I drink coffee every day and usually more than once a day. At the start of my meetings, I like to welcome my guests with a hot shot of Cuban coffee,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Most of them love it because it’s a taste of Miami and Cuban culture. Cuban coffee also eases the mood and allows for a few minutes of small talk before delving into the serious topics. It’s a unique icebreaker.”
The last time Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee, which Ros-Lehtinen leads, the chairwoman had a cup of the coffee before and after the hearing. While Clinton’s schedule prohibited her from indulging in a cup with the chairwoman that morning, other high-ranking officials and diplomats have enjoyed the energizing elixir with her.
A Turkish official, quite fond of coffee, told the committee staff one time that the chairwoman’s coffee packed a stronger punch than the coffee he was accustomed to back in Istanbul.
Before the revolution gave rise to the Castro dictatorship — and the ensuing flight of freedom-loving emigrants from the island — a good cup of Cuban coffee was difficult to find in the United States. A persistent aficionado had to fly to Havana.
The mass migration of Cubans to New Jersey, Puerto Rico and especially Florida during the years after the revolution brought families with an entrepreneurial spirit and a devotion to their native cuisine. Their coffee became a ritualized cocktail whose singular purpose was to awaken the synapses in a group setting.
“Cuban coffee symbolizes a generational link that unifies the Cuban family,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Most Cuban-Americans first drank Cuban coffee with their families around the table talking. In turn, their children passed it down to their kids and so on.”
A typical Cuban coffee is alarmingly sweet with a bitter aftertaste. Others are less gritty but still assault the palate. In some respects, Cuban coffee is the anti-espresso. An espresso can be romantic. A Cuban coffee shocks the nervous system. Thick and nearly acidic, it leaves the drinker thirsty, sometimes craving a cold chaser. While one cherishes a fine espresso at a cafe overlooking the Seine, Cuban coffee is forced down without much thought.
For the Congresswoman who has represented Miami (home to Little Havana) and the Florida Keys since 1989, coffee is personal — the glue that connects her district’s social fabric.
“Growing up, Cuban coffee was a staple in my household. I learned to make Cuban coffee at home, like most Cuban-Americans,” she said. “Cuban coffee is sold everywhere in South Florida. You can enter most commercial places and they will sell you a shot of great Cuban coffee.”
Inside a kitchenette in Rayburn Room 2206, Ros-Lehtinen and her staff have to replace a standard aluminum espresso coffee maker every few months because they use it so frequently. The coffee maker is typically about nine inches high. Every morning they make cups of Cuban coffee using the Café Bustelo brand, available at many supermarkets.
It takes less than 10 minutes for Ros-Lehtinen to prepare the coffee. The first step is to fill the bottom of the coffee maker with water and then add Café Bustelo to the strainer. After that, fill the strainer to the top and close the coffee maker tightly. Ros-Lehtinen then puts the coffee maker on the stove on medium-high heat for several minutes.
She follows that by placing a healthy amount of sugar in a separate cup. When the coffee is done percolating, the chairwoman pours a few drops of coffee into the sugar. She then stirs aggressively.
“So now we’re going to wait for a little bit to percolate. Then we put it in there. And then we’re going to chee, chee, chee, chee [stir]. That’s what makes the ‘espuma’ or the foam,” she explained.
Thicker foam makes for better coffee. That’s the mystique. Well, that and the sugar.
As she is often telling her staff: “You can’t have too much sugar.”