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Iluminada Milian had no shoes to wear until she was 10 years old. Growing up in Cuba, she would forage for firewood to sell in the market and help her poor family get by. By the time she settled in Atlanta area in 1984, she felt abundantly blessed. And she couldn’t wait to ladle her blessings onto others – especially anyone who ate at Casa Nuova, an Italian restaurant run by her daughter and son-in-law in Alpharetta.
“Portion control was not a big thing with her at our restaurant,” said her daughter Maria Fundora. “If someone had a cup of her lentil soup and cleaned the bowl with their bread, she’d go back to the kitchen and bring them out another cup. She wanted people to leave happy.” Mrs. Milian liked to dole out happiness in two forms: servings of soup and verses of song. Every morning at the restaurant, she made soup from scratch – garbanzo bean soup, split pea soup, pasta fagioli – a different one each day. For the kitchen staff, she sang the Cuban fold song “Guantanamera” while she chopped and diced. For customers, she offered a birthday serenade. “She sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in Spanish for years,” said restaurant regular Anne Dallas of Roswell. “She was like everybody’s mama. Once she knew you, she’d come over and hug your neck and chat with you. And since my own mama died about seven years ago now, it was really nice to go there. She was a wonderful lady,” Mrs. Dallas said. “She just kind of bubbled.”
She immigrated from Cuba in 1966, became a U.S. citizen in 1976 and worked her way up through Western Electric in Chicago. In 1984, she transferred to Atlanta with Lucent Technologies. Her retirement in 2000 left her with more time and energy than she knew what to do with. That’s why she jumped at the chance to help at her daughter’s restaurant.
“The basic elements of Italian food are the same elements of Cuban food,” her daughter said, “with the exception that with Italian, pasta is the staple, where in Cuba, rice is the staple.” Besides, Mrs. Milian was never a by-the-book chef. Her style was more intuitive. “She never said ‘an ounce of this’ or ‘a tablespoon of that,'” her daughter said. “It was always a ‘little bit of this’ and ‘a little bit of that.'” And she was no high-strung diva in the kitchen either, her daughter said. “She was always laughing.”
Mrs. Milian was comfortable enough in retirement that she didn’t need to work. She often reminded her daughter to look out for the restaurant’s older workers. “She would always say to me, ‘One day you will be that age. You cannot ever fire this woman because she needs your help and you cannot abandon her,'” her daughter said.
In 2006, Mrs. Milian went back to Cuba, this time to a church dedicated to Saint Lazarus where thousands of sick and poor people make pilgrimages each year. Before she left, she loaded her purse with five-dollar bills. “She made my cousin take her,” her daughter said. “She said, I’ve got to go.’ I don’t know how much money she had with her,” her daughter said, “but she prayed there and then she sat outside the church and passed out money.”
Mrs. Milian, 72, of Lawrenceville died of pancreatic cancer Thursday September 6, 2007 at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
*excerpts from an article by Holly Crenshaw in the AJC Sep 9, 2007