Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part II

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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?



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23 responses to “Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part II

  1. Normy

    Re: Note No. 2

    I think the only checks I have written for the last 2 – 3 years have been for rent or when lending someone money. Everything else I do online or use my debit card in person. I don’t even use cash or credit that much these days.

  2. Pasta de oca! I think that might be the mystery in the mystery-meat sandwiches we ate in 1996! Or it sounds enough like it to satisfy my curiosity. We encountered them twice: once on the street, when we saw a long line, and so joined it out of curiosity. And then on the train, and a guy was selling these sandwiches. Again with the curiosity. Why didn’t we learn? We couldn’t find anything much else to spend our Cuban money on, though.

    After that trip, I could always tell the fraudulent travel writers because they’d say how great Cuban food was. Either they were lying, or living in a bubble so huge I can’t imagine how much money it would’ve taken to sustain it…

  3. As for the bacon, I think it must just be an issue of time. You’ve got to smoke it and let it cure. And why would you do that, if food’s scarce, and you can turn a profit on plain old fresh pork belly?

    • Yes! now that you mention it this is very likely the reason. This is why we don’t produce jamon serrano here. Who’s gonna bury a side of pig for eight years or whatever it is when you can throw it on a spit and be licking your fingers within a matter of hours?! Thanks Zora!

  4. jems

    Wow! And I thought I had it bad! Not knowing a thing about cuba’s food supply, I can only hazard a guess about the bacon phenomenon. Bacon comes from the pork belly and is cured in salt first for a few weeks then either smoked or brined. My guess would be that in Cuba they use this cut for other things (as they do in Europe) like salt pork or pancetta. In America, the bacon industry has streamlined the process with technology enhancements as well as genetic modification, making the bacon supply consistent year around. The only time during the year that bacon comes down in America (the prices are artificially inflated by the industry) is when they increase the production of hams for the holidays and the resulting glut of excess ham products is dumped on the market.
    After reading the last couple of blog posts, I feel compelled to ask you if you’d like a care package!

    • Haha! My grand plan is working! In fact Jems, Part III is coming soon – where I talk about stuffing my suitcase with sundried tomatoes, tahini, and (exploding) olive oil. I close with a plea for all readers to bring me edible goodies when they come!

      which reminds me: Two weeks ago we were returning from a family outing and we picked up two hitchhikers (a daily occurence for us) – a foreign/cuban couple as it turned out. when they whipped out a clutch of clif bars and offered them to us I almost pissed myself with joy….it’s the small things in life I guess!

  5. John Nettleton

    Nice Cuba food article. I guess I must be rich as five days is about my max before I head off to the Nacional for some airconditioning, less noise, less can of sardines-like living etc. My wife’s little place is a mecca for the surrounding aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who continually drop in for gossip, TV/DVD/telephone, or just a greeting. Watching that is my personal telanovela until the fifth day and the ensuing sensory overload.
    Food in Cuba is one area people here at home don’t seem to understand. This trip I took soap and tp; surprisingly eggs were available, but we had to traipse around to several stores during my week to find cooking oil, coffee, bottled water, bread and more in Centro.
    She’ll like the “things” here in Oregon, but will she be able to live without close relatives and lifetime friends. The mystery soon commences.

    • Hi John and thanks for commenting – you touch on something so very cuban (and which your honey will probably miss more than anything; something you already intuit): the human contact (what is commonly known as “calor humano/cubano”), the “visitas”, the gossip and just passing time with friends, neighbors and family with no other aim than to drink some coffee and chat.

      Also, you can always boil the water – Ive been at it for nearly 8 years – and use the old “bidet” method in lieu of toilet paper. but you probably already know that!

      Here are a couple of other pieces you might enjoy:

      Greatest of luck on your evolving “mystery”. No es fácil – living in a foreign culture, in a multi-culti marriage – but it IS possible!

  6. jems

    Cuban Exile’s Plan for a Ferry From Miami to Havana Is Awaiting U.S. Approval havana ferry&st=cse

    This was a headline in the New York Time this morning. I tried to get the link ect.ect. but I’m impatient and sometime digitally challenged.
    Your thoughts?

    • This would be f-ing great. First things I would put on the ship: a new mattress; an inflatable kayak; a case of hearts of palm; a wheel of Parmesan the size of my dining room table; and my entire library (now mouldering in my mother’s basement).

      But back to reality: this will be a long, long time before we see this happening. change on cuba has been 50 years slow due to intransigence on both sides, but blame must be laid mostly at the door of the mega evil embargo. Considering the source of this business (and this IS a business idea – the guy doesn’t give a hoot about our privations here) Cuba won’t let it happen, not by this guy anyway.

      Lastly, and very importantly – the travel ban is BAD politics and violates rights. It separates families, creates paranoia and hurts regular Cubans and Americans. I wish folks up north would wake up one day and say hey! if we live in a democracy, why can’t we travel where we want?!

      Which brings me back to the beginning: the first thing I would put on the ship wouldn’t be that stuff, but rather my closest friends and family…only the way things work now, Id be violating US law doing so.

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  10. Monica

    I love this blog! My daughter, who’s been going to Cuba since 2004, married a Cuban last September through a fiance visa. We were able to go to Cuba for 10 days over the holidays to meet his family. Your stories help fill in the picture I’ve been putting together from my daughter’s stories, from getting to know and love my son-in-law, and from being able to spend a little time there. Thank you!

    • Hey Monica!! Thanks so much for reading and sharing a bit of your story. Best of luck to the newlyweds! (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: bi-cultural marriage: no es fácil!…pero sí se puede!)

      For monolingual readers: It ain’t easy, but you can do it!

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  15. I am going to Cuba from Toronto in a couple in about a week. Asides from a dogsitter which I have spent most my time looking for, do you think there is anything else on top of these that I need to bring?
    And when I bring sunscreen in a checked luggage do I need to fill a bunch of small bottles or is one big bottle ok? And do you think it will be a problem to bring salt and Siracha hot sauce??? I don’t know if I can live without them lol

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