From the very first time photographer Ellen Silverman visited Cuba, she was in love. She joined a Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Cultural Exchange program in December 2010, and recounts, “We arrived at night, under a cloak of darkness. In the morning, I awoke to a world of sound, rhythm and visually rich textures, colors, and movement. It was all very exciting.” She remembers the experience fondly, saying, “Visually, it’s so stimulating. I loved the people that I met, the photographers I was meeting, everything.”
Jumping at the opportunity to visit Cuba on one of The Workshops’ licensed cultural exchanges fulfilled not only Ellen’s a long-standing desire to experience Cuban culture, but also awoke in her a passion that became the basis for three different personal projects: A photographic series called Cuban Kitchens, a cookbook titled The Cuban Table, and a recent master’s thesis video project called My Roots Lie Here.
Ellen’s first Cuba-inspired project, Cuban Kitchens, was created on her second journey to the small island nation. “When I went back the second time I wanted to have more purpose,” she explains, “so I self-assigned this kitchen series.” The series was well-received and led to a show, and then to her first cookbook collaboration, The Cuban Table.
“I thought it would be amazing to do a cookbook,” she says, adding, “I didn’t want it to be just a collection of recipes. I wanted to include the history, influences and culture of the food—the personal stories.” She partnered with Cuban-American food blogger Ana Sofia Pelaez, and the two set to work. Using connections made during her trips with The Workshops, Ellen and Ana Sofia joined forces with Carlos Otero, a local Cuban photographer who works with The Workshops. The trio traveled from one end of Cuba to the other, knocking on people’s doors, visiting restaurants, and collecting recipes from home chefs and professionals. “People were happy to let us in,” Ellen recalls, “We got access to their homes and were able to talk with them,” adding, “People wanted to share themselves and their stories and talk with me.”
They kept their travel plans loose, which allowed for a satisfying degree of spontaneity and luck. Ellen remembers one instance where they saw a man on the side of the road making pan de mais cake, and they stopped to photograph him. They ended up talking at length about recipes, food, and life. “I loved meeting all the people, the whole experience was a treat and a joyful exploration.”
These personal projects are a refreshing change of pace for Ellen, who spends the bulk of her photographic life doing commercial work. “For years I’d been looking for a project like this,” she says, “It’s a collaboration of two people who are passionate about their art,” Ellen says.
That passion really shows. When asked what the most difficult part of the project was, she earnestly replies, “Laying out the book! There were so many images that didn’t make it in. Creating the images was not challenging, but choosing what to include, that was hard.” When asked to choose a favorite recipe, she’s similarly torn: “I love the flan recipe, the pastel de pollo, oh, there are so many good ones!” she exclaims enthusiastically, “I like the el pecado, that’s a drink, and the nadilla noche, or the lechon asado…there really are a lot of good recipes.”
It would seem the public agrees: the book is currently the #1 Latin American cookbook on Amazon.com, it was included on both Tasting Table’s and The Chicago Tribune’s seasonal Top Ten Cookbook lists, and it has been featured in The New York Times and The Miami Herald. Check it out for yourself—The Cuban Table is available for purchase here.
Experience the magic of Cuba for yourself: Join Ellen and Santa Fe Workshops for At Home in Havana, this November 3-11.
“I appreciate the lucidity of The Cuban Table. . . Ellen Silverman adds cohesion to this story of losses and gains with soulful pictures that capture the restraint and dignity of the Cuban kitchen and table and the enduring beauty of an island where the weathered and imperfect are not just what is left of the past, but the only present.”