As Cuba and the United States tentatively move past decades of hostility and normalize relations, nostalgia is in the air. Havana Hardball conjures a colorful era of baseball that predated big-money sports, and Sofrito celebrates traditional Cuban cuisine, which might soon be under assault if American fast-food chains begin to litter Havana.
In 1947, just weeks before the Brooklyn Dodgers called Jackie Robinson up to the major leagues, he played in spring training in Havana, where baseball was already racially integrated and where many greats, including Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, had played exhibition games. Much of what Brioso recounts in Havana Hardball has been recorded elsewhere, but his timely retelling reminds readers of how closely integrated the U.S. major leagues were with Cuban teams prior to the revolution in 1959, after which Fidel Castro abolished for-profit professional sports and Washington and Havana both imposed travel restrictions that prevented individual Cubans from joining American teams, at least until a handful began to defect in the 1990s. Prior to the revolution, marketing executives even weighed the feasibility of establishing a major-league expansion team in Havana; had things gone differently, it’s possible that the franchise that eventually became the Montreal Expos might have played in Havana instead. Today, Cubans remain baseball enthusiasts, but it’s not clear whether they have the purchasing power that U.S. team owners seek when identifying fan bases. Nevertheless, at the very least, as U.S.-Cuban relations thaw, American teams will likely resume exhibition games and establish more routine channels for the recruitment of Cuban talent.
Sofrito, a debut work of fiction, tells a familiar tale of a noncommittal American man who finds love in the arms of a sensual, warm-hearted Cuban woman. This particular version of the story also involves a search for a mysterious, top-secret recipe. In the novel, a famous restaurant in Havana offers roast chicken marinated in an unknown combination of local spices, and the story’s protagonist, an American of Cuban heritage, sets out to discover the tasty ingredients for use in the struggling restaurant he owns in New York City. Along the way, he stumbles on family secrets shrouded in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. Sofrito, named after a classic Cuban marinade, explores the anger and alienation of many older Cuban Americans while suggesting that the assimilated younger generation would do well to rediscover their Cuban roots. Diederich renders Cuba as a complex country whose people are frustrated and poor but also authentic and proud.