Rosa González never expected to publish a cookbook.
With a background in nuclear engineering, she serves as chair of Erie Community College’s Emergency Management and Fire Protection Technology departments and operates her own consulting firm. A Cuban immigrant, González was the first Latina to earn a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering sciences in the United States, and has been honored by the U.S. House of Representatives, New York State, Erie County and many others for her extensive community involvement and trailblazing accomplishments.
Over the years, she has become just as accomplished in the kitchen — a passion that was first ignited as a child, during long afternoons in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother and aunts. About five years ago, her daughter, health coach Tatiana Amico, suggested González go vegan and share her recipes with the world.
González accepted the challenge, and the result is Mamá Rosa’s Kitchen: Plant Powered Cuban, a guide to her vegan Cuban dishes with stunning photography and anecdotes from her life.
“It’s amazing,” González said of the opportunity to pass on her food and heritage through the book. “I’ve always cooked for a lot of people. I love parties, enjoying people and serving people. We have to give back, to love people and serve others — I learned that from my mother.”
Born in 1945, González grew up in Holguin, Cuba. After Fidel Castro seized power when González was a teenager, she watched as her aunt was deported for being a nun and the government seized her father’s successful business. She began to protest and speak out against the communist government, resulting in her expulsion from college.
“They had a public hearing, calling me names, and it was very painful,” she said. “Finally, because I was such an activist, a friend called my father and said: ‘You better take Rosa out of the country. If not, she’s going to be in jail.’”
In 1967, three years after petitioning the government for the right to leave, González left Cuba for Madrid, Spain, uncertain if she’d ever see her family again. She took the only job she could find — selling razors door to door — but money was still tight.
“I am the product of a soup kitchen,” González said. “Sometimes I didn’t have any money to pay for the metro, so I had to be outside asking people to help me, to buy me a ticket. It was a hard, difficult time, but at the same time it taught me a lesson: You have to be humble and you have to be sensitive to others.”
After a year in Madrid, González was able to immigrate to the United States and reunite with the rest of her family in Miami. At her mother’s insistence, she enrolled at the University of Florida, while working a full-time job and teaching herself English.
“I had to study with a dictionary until three o’clock in the morning,” she said. “I only slept two or three hours a night, but I did it. That’s why I tell my students, ‘You can do whatever you want in your life.’”
González earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nuclear engineering sciences and her PhD in engineering management, and moved to Buffalo for a position in nuclear waste management at West Valley Developmental Project, where she worked for nearly 20 years.
Along the way, González — who grew up buying farm-fresh produce every morning for that day’s meals — found it difficult to adjust to the chain grocery stores and processed foods that are ubiquitous in the United States. Inevitably, she picked up bad eating habits.
That’s why, with inspiration from her daughter, González adopted a vegan diet and now strives to eat organic, non-GMO fruits and vegetables.
“It was a transformation,” she said. “Health-wise, it helped a lot. My cholesterol went down, and I have more energy, not only physically but mentally as well.”
Through much experimentation, González took her family’s recipes and altered them, replacing the meat with tofu and seitan that mimics the flavors of chicken, pork or chorizo. In Mamá Rosa’s Kitchen, all of her recipes — including appetizers, sandwiches, pastries, salads, soups, main dishes and sides — promote “a sustainable and more compassionate way of life” (see sidebar).
As González writes in the introduction, “Cuban cooking is a fusion of Spanish, Arabian, African, Chinese and French traditions that influenced the Cuban culture and its foods.” In the book, designed by Buffalo’s 12 Grain Studio, she includes varied items like croquettes, empanadas, vegetable paella, Cuban-style bread pudding and a classic mojito.
“I hope to show that you can eat healthy with a lot of flavor,” she said.
Since the book published in August, González has hosted a three-course dinner for 70 at Merge on Delaware Avenue, cooked for the Western New York Hispanic Women’s League and received a congratulatory letter from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“Cooking is my passion,” she said. “You can follow a recipe, but if you don’t have the passion for it, it tastes different. It’s all about the passion and love you put into cooking.”
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