Pilar Borroto: Love Must Never Be Absent from the Kitchen

Entrance to the school.

HAVANA TIMES – Working as a cook in an elementary school is a profession that few want to pursue. Pilar Borroto, 62 years old, has spent her life with an apron on. She knows no other job that brings her more satisfaction.

HT: How did you end up in the kitchen?

Pilar Borroto: I studied until the 9th grade. I was never very smart, but I was very alert and hardworking. My parents didn’t oppose when I decided to leave school. They had noticed my lack of interest. I stayed at home helping my mother with the chores. A few years later, my aunt called me to help her in the cafeteria of the company where she was working.

Was it a workers’ cafeteria?

Yes, it was in the Playa municipality. I was 15 years old, and they didn’t allow me to enroll as an employee in the company at that age, so I started helping kind of hidden: washing dishes, washing vegetables, chopping salads. It was a job I enjoyed very much. I remember when I turned 19, the cafeteria manager asked me if I wanted to work legally. And of course, I accepted. I no longer had to hide when someone from the company visited.

Were the conditions of that cafeteria the same as they are now?

Of course not. Cleanliness was a priority. We wore boots, gloves, caps. We couldn’t work with painted nails, the uniform had to be impeccable. The kitchen utensils shone, as did the floor. What can I say about the kitchen, every month maintenance was done on it as well as on the extractors and drains. Actually, everything was very well stocked: beans, root vegetables, salads, meats, rice. On special occasions, ice cream, yogurt, and desserts were offered. There was no shortage of detergent, floor cloths, or gloves.

Safety and health were priorities for the kitchen and pantry workers. I tell you this because now the kitchen of a cafeteria, whether it’s for workers or a school, is a war zone. In the school where I am now, the manager gives us a little liquid detergent, and it must last until the following week. We have to get the gloves, buy boots so we don’t have wet feet, mend the caps or have them made by a seamstress, as well as the coats; we have to pay for everything ourselves.

From our limited resources, we manage to get scrubbers for the pots, floor cloths, and even towels to dry our hands. My salary is very low, I earn 3,410 pesos per month (equivalent to a little more than $10 at the current exchange rate), and it’s not enough for anything. Still, I prefer to stay in this position, not only because of the love I put into my work and because in a few years I will retire, but also because sometimes, I can still take a bit of cooked food home.

In the kitchen.

How long were you in the workers’ cafeteria with your aunt?

Approximately 36 years. In 2018, I moved with my husband to Marianao, another municipality of the capital. Miramar was too far for me, and I decided to look for work in my new municipality. After visiting several cafeterias in different companies and daycare centers, I decided on a primary school. I enjoy cooking for the children very much. Cooking is an art, although upon reflection, it’s even more commendable to cook now with so few supplies.

To what extent do current conditions affect the food preparation process?

The impacts are multiple; as you can imagine, with scarce resources, preparing the menu dishes is an act of pure magic. Another difficulty that hits us is the lack of gas, which has led us to cook with firewood. We must carefully select the rice and peas because they often come with weevils and pebbles.

How do you manage to get vegetables and greens to dress the menu?

There is a school garden. The manager and the gardener are responsible for maintaining the production. Many times, the children participate to acquire food and nutritional education. These gardens also have condiments and medicinal plants. With these condiments, we season the grains, especially the peas, which are always on our menu.

The school garden.

Do the children eat all their food?

Many do, it’s painful to see how some devour lunch, especially those who look thinner, with worn-out and dirty clothes. Although we try to make the food as well-prepared as possible, it’s not easy to cook the same thing every day. Not all children bring appetizing snacks, I can attest to that because I see them coming into the cafeteria at noon, passing by the tray silently, and looking at the peas, rice, and bread. Some bring their own snacks and place a pork steak, a sausage, an egg, or a piece of ham on the tray, but many bring nothing.

What happens to the leftover food?

The leftovers are distributed among the manager, the pantry worker, and the gardener; the three of them have pigs and chickens. Many times, I’ve had to scold them because they argue among themselves for the larger share. But I prefer them to take it rather than throw it in the garbage bin. The situation is very difficult, and there are many children who end the day with only one meal.

Tell me, what you do when you get home? Do you still cook?

I have no choice. I always bring some containers to fill them with food and thus get ahead at home. What’s left is to make something fried or a salad and improve the seasoning. My husband works far away, and when he comes home, he’s hungry. He likes my food. Before, the whole family would gather and lick their fingers with the dishes I made, but now everyone has to eat at their own home because there’s no room to share.

Have you ever thought about another profession?

There aren’t many opportunities for someone who didn’t study. I settled on cooking, maybe I chose the easiest path. I can’t see myself in an office doing paperwork or in a clothing factory. I love transforming a raw product into something tasty, I like to serve. I love being surrounded by aromas. As long as garlic and onions (which are getting more expensive) exist, the magic of a good dish is assured, as well as seasonings like oregano or basil; but above all, there must be love in the kitchen, that’s something that can’t be missing.

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One thought on “Pilar Borroto: Love Must Never Be Absent from the Kitchen

  • Thank God for these* Angels in Aprons* things would be even sadder than they already are.

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