“¡Qué maravilloso!” he shouts feelingly, and one can only agree. Later, his pal Ana shows up with a bottle of red wine. What a meal! Deep-fried egg, the chorizo and potatoes, toasts spread with the soft Spanish sausage called sobrasada (because you definitely need some sausage with your sausage) and a squat tumbler of red wine for each. Breakfast of champions.
Food, family, caregiving and community are tightly interconnected in Hispanic cultures. I suggest to Andrés that these cultures also teach responsibility for parents and grandparents, and he agrees. “Family is a very important part of who we are,” he says. “Nuestras abuelas, nuestros abuelitos [‘Our grandmothers, our grandfathers’] — there’s a big respect in that. But I sense that in many American communities, like in the Navajo Nation, the elders are loved and protected as well. I think that’s something we need to keep on embracing. Like my friend [hunger activist] Robert Egger always says, ‘Wrinkled people and wrinkled food,’ right?”
By “wrinkled food,” Andrés means produce that seems past its prime. “It doesn’t look picture-perfect,” he explains. “But sometimes it’s the most delicious food, because it’s ripe.” He pronounces this word in a way you can almost taste, conveying lusciousness. “I think that Hispanic people, we understand that. We need to make sure we understand that wrinkled people and wrinkled food are beautiful.”
Andrés has been married since 1995 to Patricia Fernandez de la Cruz, with whom he lives in Bethesda, Maryland. The two have three young-adult daughters: Carlota, Ines and Lucia. In interviews, José and Patricia tease each other good-naturedly, as long-married couples often do. When Bethesda magazine asked him how long he and his wife had dated, he said, “We are still dating.”
The age of 50, he says, is when he began to feel his mortality: “I’ve covered half of my life! But this is clear to me — that you learn that you know nothing as you grow older. You are only wiser when you know how much more you have to learn.” He laughs. “And then … the clock is ticking!”
“I see my daughters more and more like my friends, as they grow older and I grow older, and that’s a good feeling,” he adds. “The beauty of families is that they will be celebrating when you do good and they will be supporting you even more when you don’t. And they don’t need to be blood family, because with some people, the connection is so strong that they’re the people that you know you will count on.”
Responding to the pandemic
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, World Central Kitchen is providing more than 300,000 meals per day to people in need throughout the U.S. Those over 50, who’ve been the hardest hit by the coronavirus, have been a big part of the organization’s overall outreach. “Some of the first places where we began were homes for the elderly, from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to Chicago,” Andrés says. He points out that older people living independently may not have family members nearby, so the hardships they face may not be only financial ones.
“We’re partnering with AARP, which provides solutions for programs like SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and the other forms of food aid used by seniors,” Andrés says. “These programs are digital so that the elderly can order online and receive their meals at home.” (AARP is currently helping World Central Kitchen provide meals for older people in Washington, D.C.; the Bronx, New York; and Oakland, California.)
In addition to offering direct relief, World Central Kitchen has responded to the pandemic by focusing on developing a rescue plan for the beleaguered restaurant industry. In tandem with a group of lawmakers, Andrés helped craft a bill designed to simultaneously feed people and save restaurants. The FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act would authorize the federal government to pay 100 percent of the cost for state and local governments to partner with restaurants to serve food to those in need, as well as support businesses and farmers fighting to survive the pandemic.
Major provisions of the FEED Act were included in the HEROES Act coronavirus relief bill, which had passed the House of Representatives and had been sent to the Senate.
This approach reflects the difficulties World Central Kitchen encountered in trying to feed the Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Andrés’ memoir, We Fed an Island, is largely concerned with institutional and governmental failures and how to address them — moving aside the bureaucratic obstacles facing those who are coordinating large-scale relief efforts. He says nothing has changed since the book was published.
“The perception is that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is in charge of coming up with smart solutions to feed people in emergencies. I understand; they need to be a contract agency…. We are not supposed to be leading, but sometimes we are the de facto leading agency. In the Bahamas, we evacuated, with our helicopters, 40 or 50 people, almost all of them seniors. We are cooks, and we’re the ones evacuating the elderly to the hospitals?” He laughs. “I’m very proud we did it, but I’m also very upset. Because had we not been there, who was supposed to be there?”