Whispers from Cuba: Part III Food
The Cuban whispers continue…
I did not go to Cuba specifically for the food in April 2016.
My American dollars funneled through the Bucknell University Alumni Association “People-to-People” Opportunity into the Cuban economy and provided me with meals and lodging. Priceless human experiences were the by-products.
I was not concerned about the local cuisine but I did bring Pepto-Bismol tablets and Imodium capsules just in case. I suspected there would be ample beans and rice. I like both. I also hoped I would be offered a couple of mojitos and perhaps some tall Cuba libres with limes.
Warnings and Observations
Travel literature warned me not to drink the local water. I saw why first hand. On a tour through Old Havana I observed an exposed portion of a decaying underground aqueduct system that was still transporting water. Nope, didn’t want to drink from those 1903 pipes!
Furthermore, when I arrived in Cuba, I was advised not to even brush my teeth with the local water. I considered saving my rum soaked mint sprigs from my multiple welcome mojitos to make an organic toothbrush thus bypassing the tainted supply.
I was struck by the scarcity of public dining establishments on the island as compared to my other international travel destinations. In the section of Havana where we stayed, I did not see any blinking neon lights luring me in to eat. The privatization of restaurant commerce seemed to be in its infancy.
On my tour, all meals were provided in one of three types of categories:
The Hotel Nacional, the grande dame of all of the Cuban hotels, had an extraordinary formal dining room that I wrote about in Whispers from Cuba: Part One. Clearly this fine hotel is an established tourist venue and is prepared to serve a large variety of food in a luxury setting. https://kimmeredith.wpengine.com/whispers-from-cuba/
Like the Hotel Nacional, there are a few other reminders of the days when Cuba was a tropical playground for wealthy and influential businessmen— including Americans. An example is Irenee
DuPont’s former mansion Xanadu. This Spanish-style home was built on the Atlantic coastline of Cuba in 1930. It is positioned next door to the hotel Melia Las Americas. The once home is now a fully restored hotel, restaurant and acts as the Club House for the Varadero Golf Course. Our group enjoyed a welcome mojito on the third floor bar of this iconic residence while listening to a saxophone player and feeling the refreshing tropical breeze.
We stayed for one night at the Melias Las Americas. It is a five-star all-inclusive, adult only resort. It provided a sumptuous dinner buffet and unlimited libations. I was told that Cuban citizens are not allowed to check-in to this resort. It has been open for years for international travelers.
Another option for dining was a paladar. It is a more intimate setting where we savored home-cooked Cuban meals. These family run restaurants are located in private homes. I equated them to a bed and breakfast, without the bed. They seem to be a first step towards to more widespread private Cuban restaurants. Profits are shared with the state. This concept has only been permitted since the 1990’s and each location must be government approved.
The outside of the paladars where we ate were anonymous. One would not know that food was being served inside. A choice of two entrees was given verbally by a family member. There were no menus. Often we had to walk up a flight of stairs to get to the second floor dining area. Open windows ushered in the island breeze. Crowded, random wooden tables set with assorted china welcomed us. It was like sitting down for a meal at your grandmother’s house in the 1950’s. Pre-selected sides were served family style. Beer and wine flowed. Sugary desserts finished off the meal.
Farm to Table
By far the best meal I had during my trip was the home-style lunch at the organic farm in the Vinales Valley. It was a feast to rival any Anthony Bourdain destination.
The tour bus navigated an unmarked dirt path off the main road. After exiting, we walked along pathways lined by lush gardens to the farmhouse. Small, wooden handwritten signs marked the crops. Mounds of rich reddish soil separated the rows. Colorful flowers danced all around us. Up a set of rough stone steps to the front porch, more crops spread out towards the base of the limestone hills in the distance.
Our group tramped on the painted floorboards of the front porch, through the living room to a large open area in back. It felt like we were in a pavilion at a neighborhood park for a family picnic.
Before we ate, our hostess waddled out of the kitchen to greet us. I say waddled because she was 8 months pregnant with her first child.
Clearly the driving force of this amazing operation was the clever and charming matriarch Maria. She informed us in Spanish that she had been to the United States. To the White House! She was proud to have been invited to showcase Cuba’s celebratory organic farm-to-table initiative. She was anxious to show us her farm. I was impressed with her generosity and enthusiasm.
Sliced organic beets, cabbage, okra, cucumbers. Tomato and squash soup. Several varieties of beans and rice. Fish. Chicken. Lamb. And a whole roasted pig, curly tail and all.
I gorged myself. I barely had room for dessert. But I forced myself to eat the home-made mango sorbet. It slid down with ease.
I really felt at home. The family dog stretched out next to me on the wooden floor in a sliver of sunshine. Children cleared plates and everyone smiled. The simple wooden table and benches were cozy. The dishes were real. Just like the hospitality.
When we exited through another back room in the farmhouse a second tour group was entering.
Hurrah! Private enterprise will make it here eventually.
My belly was always full in Cuba but I worried about those of its citizens. What were they eating? Where were they shopping? Were they sacrificing for me?
The word socialism was used instead of communism by our tour guide when he was explaining the inner workings of the Cuban society. I had always been taught in school that Cuba was the only communist nation in the western hemisphere. Semantics? A softer message? Not sure.
Cuban Grocery Shopping
The industrial green paint was chipped on the counter when we walked in to the simple ration card store in Santa Clara. I learned that each Cuban is given a ration card; much like my parents spoke of during the Great Depression in the United States. Here Cuban shoppers are entitled to specific quantities of staples provided there is an adequate supply. The approximate dollar equivalency of the subsidy is $25 per month. Startled by the low amount I had to keep in mind that the currency used by the Cuban people is the national Cuban peso, the CUP. Tourists use a different Cuban peso referred to as a CUC, the convertible peso. The exchange rates are different.
I started to feel uncomfortable as we filed in to the small area that was no larger than one of our convenience stores. I felt like I was intruding into a very private space. Each neighborhood has a ration card store. Everyone knows where it was. No signs are needed. I tried to imagine a tour bus pulling up to my grocery store to watch me shop. I know the comparison is unbalanced, but I still would not like someone to watch me pick out my food.
Fortunately there were not any Cuban shoppers in the store during the short time we were inside that early morning. The locals outside on the street seemed perplexed by our parade.
As far as I could see, there was not much food that day in the ration store. Whatever the supply, it was safely behind the green counter. No touching the merchandise.
I saw some burlap bags of rice. I saw a cigarette display. I saw some toothpaste. I saw lots of empty shelves.
I started to regret that I ate so much at the organic farm. I asked my sister to take a photo of me at the counter. And then I left. I did not make eye contact with the man on his bike outside the store who was staring at me. What could I say?
Then we walked across the street to another equally anonymous shopping venue. This second place provided extras. The previous ration card store was for staples like flour, sugar and dried beans. This other store had meat and bread. Luxuries.
I saw a price list on a chalk board for some extras. I was trying to calculate how much an average Cuban would have left over from a typical monthly wage of what would be about $45 U.S. a month. Healthcare was free. Housing was subsidized. Education was free. But there was a need for clothing and an occasional cold Cristal beer on a hot Friday night.
When a shopkeeper brought out a small baked roll to show the daily bread allotment per person, it all became too much for me. I immediately thought back to the professor’s words at the University of Havana in my previous post. “I was a head with a body. I lost 30 pounds” he remarked as he told us about the challenging 1990’s. How could he possible have put that weight back on now? How much better was his life?https://kimmeredith.wpengine.com/whispers-from-cuba/
As a distraction I focused on a nearby poster and started to mentally translated from Spanish into English a warning about the mosquito transmitted Zika. Next to it was a chalkboard with daily prices. I did not recall any warnings about this disease in my trip literature. The small bug bite on my ankle from the seaside resort nagged me. I guess I was okay.
Food in my stomach.
Food for thought.
The two battled each other.
Plenty for me.
But was there really enough for my Cuban neighbors?
I knew Maria and her family would be fine on the farm. She said that they eat the leftovers and even share with members of the community when there is a surplus. But what about the tired looking man outside of the ration store? Did he have enough? Did he have a small plot of land where he might be able to have some fresh produce? When was the last time he tasted a sugary dessert?
It doesn’t feed the body but it sustains the soul.
The people of Cuba are filled with hope. They are generous with their smiles. They are anxious to share their culture.
I hoped that the modest revenue that I trickled into the Cuban economy filtered down to the Cuban workers and to their families who made my trip so special.
I hope that increased communications and more open policies will feed the hope of the lovely people of Cuba.
I hope to return one day.
My Cuban whispers will always be in my head.