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The best preparation for living in Cuba is having known hard times. To paraphrase that paragon of faith and insight Frei Betto: “The rich can handle Cuba for a week, the middle class for two, but the poor can live there forever” (see note 1). Poor folks know what it means to have no lights or water or phone and just how costly a bounced check can become (see note 2). And most poor folk have known, if temporarily, what it means to go hungry.
Cubans know many things – salsa, art, history, sports, poetry, rum, rumors. Cubans also know hunger. In the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’ adult Cubans lost 15 pounds on average. During these lean times, kids would be fed and sent to bed while their parents laid awake, stomachs empty, fighting off painful pangs of hunger. These were those notorious times when flour “meatballs” were what was for dinner and ‘pasta de oca’ was a staple (see note 3). Thankfully, tales of banana peel hamburgers and shredded condoms standing in for pizza cheese seem to be apocryphal. Except for the condom cheese, I can attest to the veracity of these stories – I first came here in 1993 during the worst of the Special Period and witnessed the privation first hand.
Though some things have improved some, the Periodo Especial endures in ways. My brilliant friend Fernando summed it up like this: we don’t suffer from physical hunger so much anymore. What we suffer from is psychological hunger. That is, it’s the lingering scepter of hunger that haunts us. This explains a lot, from obesity rates in Miami to the savagery that possesses Cubans at buffets and Coppelia (see note 4). Bells started ringing with Fernando’s “psychological hunger” dictum – this is precisely the condition from which I suffer. Sown during the oatmeal years and now in full bloom, I get like a nervous flyer on a haul to Honolulu without my Xanax when food stores are low. Hunger may make the best sauce as the old saying goes, but take cover when it overtakes me.
Coppelia notwithstanding, Cuba’s not the best place for the psychologically hungry. It’s not Sub-Saharan style granted, but it has its moments. Mondays for instance, when all fruit, vegetable, and meat markets are closed. Run out of fresh stuff on a Monday? Tough luck. Need an egg? Go to Plan B (see note 5). I don’t need Bob Geldof to tell me why I don’t like Mondays. Though open daily, regular stores selling pasta, butter, cheese, and other staples close at 6pm and even if you catch them open, there’s zero guarantee they’ll have what you want or need.
Then there are the seasons. Cuba imports 80% of its food supply – none of it fresh fruit or vegetables. That means if it ain’t the season, you ain’t eating it. No chips and salsa in July or mango chutney in October. Guacamole? You’ve got a three month window. And so it goes with everything from lettuce and parsley to scallions and spinach. Some produce (pears, plums, berries of any sort, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms) is just a dream on that 90-mile-away horizon. This probably sounds like a nightmare to most, but is mostly bearable until one breezy evening when the mouth-watering image of a BLT pops into my head. Agony ensues. It’s too late for tomatoes and nowhere near lettuce time. Ironically, I’ve got the bacon but by the time I can lay my hands on the L and the T, the B will be long gone (see note 6). Needless to say, in almost eight years living here, I’ve never had a BLT.
The seasons, the supply chain, and the complete unavailability of some items (not to mention the occasional hurricane and blight) force a cook to get and stay creative here in Havana. Such creativity sometimes results in radishes in your pasta primavera or squash in your stir fry. When I first got here I was unsettled by the frequency with which cooked cucumbers appeared in casseroles, chop sueys, and other concoctions. But now I’m unfazed by hot cucumbers and other inventions like Tandoori spaghetti.
To be continued…
1. For those of you unfamiliar with Frei Betto, the man is an inspiration to which this wiki doesn’t do justice. He was imprisoned for four years helping people flee dictatorial Brazil and has written 50 (FIFTY) books. His most famous is Fidel & Religion based on umpteen hours of interviews with you-know-who. This book holds some kind of weird record for selling out faster in Cuba than any other title in the nation’s history. I could explain why but that would entail a long and not terribly interesting (for the general reading public) explanation of religious history in revolutionary Cuba. Unfortunately, few of Betto’s books are available in English.
2. Living here for so long, I am woefully out of touch. Do people in the real world even use checks anymore?
3. Literally ‘goose paste,’ this is about as close to pâté as Alpo is to ground chuck. Since the 90s and the worst of the Special Period, the government ration system has relied fairly heavily on “enriched” products to inject protein into the national diet. The most infamous of these is “picadillo de soya enriquecido” or enriched soy pellets. Pasta de oca was along these lines – a gooey, flour-based paste to which microscopic amounts of ground up goose was added. Sounds appetizing right? The point is, pasta de oca wasn’t something to savor, but something to keep 11.2 million from death’s door. Amazingly, it did.
4. Coppelia is Cuba’s world famous ice cream parlor and one of my favorite spots here in Havana. Sure, the lines are beyond what most people reading this blog would ever endure, but put in your 45 minutes and you’ll be sitting down to 5 cent scoops of delicious ice cream surrounded by (real! live!) Cubans. Sure, there’s usually only one flavor available – two in the summer – but the ice cream is wicked and the atmosphere charged. Did I mention the nice price?
What you’ll notice after the monumental mod architecture (inspired by the cathedral in Brasilia) is the ferocious appetite Cubans have for ice cream. Chicks so gorgeous they’d be modeling elsewhere order 4 “ensaladas” without a second thought and tack on a piece of cake while they wait. When the 20 (TWENTY) scoops of ice cream arrive, they set to work. These Cubanas lindas aren’t alone: people all around the place are digging into their own score of scoops and if you’ve ever sat elbow to elbow digging in with them, you know I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.
And if you’re ever find yourself stuck between a Cuban and a buffet, run the other way, fast!
5. In the up north world, an egg is something easily resolved – just head over to the neighbors and see if they’ve got one to spot. Not so here, where eggs are nicknamed “salvavidas” (lifesavers) since they’re a major source of protein. While neighbors reliably loan sugar, salt, rice and other ration book staples, it’s seriously bad form to ask for a protein float.
6. Ironic because Cuba is awash in pigs and pork products – lard, feet, ribs, ears, sausage, and more are all easy to come by – but bacon? No, my brother. I’m not sure why. Any butchers out there who can educate me on this finer point of pork?