"It's short for the color, you know; that's why it's called congrí," my dad tells me, as he has dozens of times before. "When you cook them together, the beans turn the rice gray. Con-gris, with-gray," he says in a singsong cadence with hand motions to match.
It was 2011, and I was a freshman in college. Just a few hours earlier he'd picked me up from the local park-and-ride. I'd taken the bus home from college for the weekend, a trip that became more and more frequent as my misery at school mounted. Only a few months into the school year, I realized that getting good grades and actually wanting to be there were two different things.
I grew up surrounded by family and childhood friends. But at school I felt helplessly and unbearably alone. The isolation turned simple daily tasks — from showering to sleeping — into grinding chores. Making friends felt impossible. Whether it actually was or not, I'm not sure. By the end of my first semester, I'd gone from feeling like everyone steered clear of me to realizing that no one actually saw me at all.
Thankfully, there was one thing I still had the energy for: eating. And my dad's rice and beans alone were well worth the trip home.
I was grateful that the park-and-ride was only 15 minutes from our apartment. My stomach was rumbling. Practically the second we walked through the door, out came the congrí pot, a well-worn silver behemoth pocked with sink dents and fork prong scratches.
I'm standing in the doorway of our narrow railroad kitchen while he rounds up dried black beans, rice, and the mise en place for his Cuban sofrito: onions, garlic, bell peppers, an anthill of cumin, and one large bay leaf.
My dad tells me that our culture's cuisine, like many others, has a means of making a lot out of a little. "Meat is always more scarce and expensive than grains, so we put tocino [bacon] in our rice and beans." He goes on about how adding just the right amount of "the good stuff" goes a long way, then throws his speech to the wind by adding two bulging fistfuls of diced chorizo, his forever substitute for tocino (which is traditional to the dish).
He's on a tangent now, re-sharing the hand-me-down stories of Castro's Cuba that I was raised on. Gifted to me like family heirlooms, they were tales I pictured often: My faceless, distant cousins standing in line for hours waiting on a sack of rice. My great-grandfather's shuttered bread bakery, closed by the government. My abuelo's scrawled English footnotes in my abuela's recipe book (meant to help her learn the language) — meatballs, cake, pork, salad. My abuela's notes for him in return — no café, no cigarro, no azúcar — just pages away from her dulce de leche recipe, made with a whole pound of sugar.
We separate the rocks from the beans into a colander as water runs over our hands. I was already hungry from all the talking, and acutely aware of how black beans always seem to take centuries to soften from scratch.
After a long boil, he scoops the bean broth without measuring and dumps it over a hot pot of uncooked rice. The garlicky grains sizzling in shimmering olive oil are quickly extinguished, now on their journey to tenderness. Sizing up the ratio with his mother's eyes — or maybe it was her mother's — he starts humming as he often does at the stove and adds the coal-colored beans. The tiny, inky gems bob to the top as he stirs the rice, already turning a sooty gray, buoying with each wave.
The other name my dad often uses for congrí is moro (or moros), which is short for "Moros y Cristianos." Growing up, I learned that the dish commemorates the Reconquista, a centuries-long battle between the Muslim Moors and the Christian Spaniards in the Iberian Peninsula that began in the 8th century. The black beans in the dish are meant to be symbolic of the Moors, and the rice, the fairer-skinned Spaniards.
Congrí is colloquially said to represent how the groups came to coexist during that period — until 1492, when the Spaniards forced the Moors out of their only remaining foothold in the region, the city of Granada. As a child, I naively assumed coexistence meant that everyone had gotten along.
While he's talking, I do some quick research on my phone and discover that 1492 is also the year that Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba. Within roughly two decades, the Spanish conquered the island and its Taíno natives as part of their broader colonization of the Americas, bringing along with them the slave trade, as well as a number of culinary and cultural markers. Pinpointing its precise origin is difficult, but the rice-and-beans dish we know today was likely influenced by the many ethnic groups that inhabited Cuba. Congrí not only references Spanish history, but also the population of Cuba, a large portion of which was taken there by force (and later, descended from those who were).
It's then that I realize the deeper, more complex implications of the identity Cubans in my life and beyond had so often referred to. I think about how centuries of war inspired one of my favorite Cuban foods, one that I've heard described as a symbol of unity. About how a colonizer's history can become ingrained in the cuisine of the colonized and enslaved. I wonder: What does unity mean after hundreds of years of violence?
With that thought, the congrí was ready. We load up our plates, and with a newfound heaviness I ask if we're eating at the table or in the living room. "Come on, honey! You're finally home," he says, shuffling the ever-accumulating pile of newspapers out of the way to make room for us in the cramped dining room. He's still eager for conversation. Table it is.
It'd be easy — or even convenient — to eat in front of the television watching Seinfeld together instead of talking. But there's so much I want to get off my chest, mostly because I had no one to do so with at school. So I do the thing that's harder, for me at least, and start by telling him about a lit paper I'm working on.
Ravenous, I shovel a heaping forkful of congrí down my throat, treating myself to two caramelized, coveted chunks of chorizo in the first bite. As a child, I'd scoot the little pieces into a pile on my plate and save them all for an indulgent final mouthful.
With each bite, talking gets just a little bit easier. Soon, I'm carrying the conversation. Mid-chew, I say, "Couldn't you make congrí with canned beans instead? To save time?"
He laughed as if I knew better than to ask (I did) and said, "Of course, but is that what you came home for?"
This story was originally published on Food52.com: This Comforting Dish Connects Me With My Cuban Roots — but It's Complicated