Cuban Thanksgiving Starring Pavo Butterball

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That Saturday we spent our customary three hours food shopping. Like multi-tasking, live streaming and other modern marvels, one-stop shopping doesn’t compute in Cuba. After years of it, I try to find the fun in shuttling between vegetable markets for the salad fixings and fruit we’ll need for the week, then on to the bakery, the honey man’s house, and the juice bar where they fill your liter-and-a-half bottles with fresh squeezed OJ or pineapple juice for 7 pesos (a whopping 35 or so cents). Then comes the dreaded dollar stores – dreaded because they’re absurdly expensive, they get mobbed on weekends, and they never have everything (and sometimes nearly nothing) you need.

While it may sound romantic in a Parisian/Manhattan, shopping-the-neighborhood kind of way, in reality it’s a crowded, expensive exercise in frustration where you stand on long lines to buy whatever’s available.

The Saturday in question, however, opened a new chapter in shopping distress: cruising the aisles of one of Havana’s biggest and best stocked grocery stores (see note 1), looking for two items we desperately needed (see note 2), we were brought up short in front of a freezer piled high with Butterball turkeys. My first reaction was ‘how many gringos work in that Interests Section anyway?’ (see note 3). Then I thought, ‘Cubans aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving and they definitely aren’t paying…Holy shit! $30 for a 10-pound turkey?!’ I know it has come a long way (figuratively speaking) and it looks plump and juicy wrapped seductively in it’s blue and yellow Butterball wrapper, but thirty bucks? Yowza. With that price tag, our idea of hosting a Thanksgiving feast for our Cuban and Yuma friends fizzled.

As we fielded calls from American strays wanting to know if our feast was on, my friend Angela – another of those lovely women-over-65 I’m so fond of here – called us to invite us to her house for Thanksgiving. An American who has lived here twice as long as me, Angela is a fabulous cook and great hostess. It looked like all was not lost for Cuban turkey day.

Angela lives in the heart of it. She can walk to half a dozen theaters and as many bars. She takes her dog down the block to the Malecón. She’s also steps from my favorite paladar (see note 4) and on Raul’s commute route. Her building is an architectural prize-winner and the two-bedroom apartments are highly livable. Which is why a bunch of notable intellectuals, poets, and athletes also reside there. It’s not quite Fama y Aplauso, but it’s close (see note 5).

Given the status of Angela’s neighbors, I shouldn’t have been surprised when we arrived at her building and encountered a young Cuban woman with a striking grey-eyed, caramel-coated Siberian Husky. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a dog quite like this, and certainly not here in Havana (if you ask me, such northern breeds should be outlawed in these tropical climes). We stopped to pet the dog and ask about him, which is obligatory when running into Cubans in the street with their kids or pets in tow.

“He’s 8 months old,” his owner told us.

“And a big mouth to feed, eh?” my husband averred with that food security subtext that laces many casual conversations here.

“The problem is, we can’t get him to eat anything. He’s so fussy he won’t even eat steak!” said the young woman who had fed her dog something 11 million Cubans only dream of.

After picking my jaw off the ground I thought: ‘Terry is living on rice and lentils and this woman is feeding beef to her pure bred.’ I smiled weakly. ‘I bet I could buy five Butterballs with what she paid for that pup on the black market.’ Cuban contradictions: they just keep on coming.

The aromas drifting from Angela’s kitchen, through the living room, to the balcony and Malecón beyond were pure home: golden crispy turkey, herby stuffing, fresh-baked pie, drippings, and gravy. As we took it all in, Angela presented us to the other guests: Inés, a very proper black woman who is an urban planner; César, her multi-lingual, globe-trotting husband who is an ecological agriculture expert and set off my Gaydar immediately (see note 6); and Moisés, an accomplished professor and set designer – no Gaydar required.

Everyone had brought something to the party and the sideboard was heavily laden. There was a green salad, an eggplant dish, a squash dish, stuffing (which is a hard concept to explain to Cubans, who, even as they’re eating it, can’t believe stale bread could taste so good), sweet potato pie, and gravy. But the jewel in the menu’s crown was the cranberry sauce.

I believe the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who eat “cranberry sauce” from a can and those who don’t (and won’t). You can imagine which camp the Cook’s Illustrated-subscribing, Epicurious-browsing Angela falls into. So rather than import a can of that…whatever it is, she made one of those clever culinary punts Havana requires: she re-hydrated her Trader Joe’s dried cranberries, chopped in some orange and zest and I don’t know what else and let it stew overnight. It was delicious, and a delicious first, for the majority of the guests.

Meanwhile, the perfectly plucked and tucked turkey sat in all its crispy, golden glory on the kitchen counter. Angela and I chatted as she finished the gravy. Her beloved next door neighbors (so beloved they share custody of her dog and recently surprised her after one of her off-island trips by painting her entire apartment) always partake in the feast, she told me, but never with the other guests. Instead, they take the casserole dishes and salad bowl, gravy boat, and platter of meat down the hall to eat in the comfort of their own home. I was glad Angela gave me the head’s up – otherwise I might have blurted out something off-the-wall inappropriate when a long-haired Cuban loped into the kitchen, scooped the turkey off the counter, and spirited it out the front door. For once, I kept my mouth shut and the turkey arrived 20 minutes later all carved and artfully arranged on two platters: one for light meat, one for dark. Mysteriously, there was no skin on those platters and for a second I wondered if Angela’s neighbors were part of the Husky lady’s clan. Perhaps they were saving the best part not for the dog, but for themselves, I reasoned, though that would go against what I know about (most) Cubans and these folks in particular (see note 7).

Finally it was time to dig in and the two Yuma and four Cubans did what millions around the United States and expats around the world were doing this fourth Thursday in November: we ate, drank, and made merry. And when we couldn’t pack in another bite, the longhaired neighbor with a junkie’s slope shuffled in and carried off the moveable feast. At least another six people were going to sup on that pavo Butterball and try cranberries for the first time.

Inés dozed in the rocker. Angela passed coffees around, while my husband and César swapped Poland travel stories. With the ¡buen provechos! still echoing around the apartment, I realized this was my first Thanksgiving in Cuba that really felt like it. And it had more to do with Angela and César, Inés, Moisés, and my husband than Butterball. For these old and new friends, I’m thankful.

Notes

1. These stores used to be called “diplotiendas” in the 90s because only diplomats and foreigners were allowed to shop there. This was back when dollars were illegal for Cubans to hold. I was surprised when I rocked up to one of these stores in 1993 (at Calle 70 & 3ra, the store in this post coincidentally) and I had to show my passport to gain entry. In another of those innumerable instances here where there’s a rule and 20 ways to break it, my Cuban friends followed close on my heels and we got all giddy and went weak in the knees ogling the bright, shiny products displayed aisle after aisle.

2. For weeks we’ve been trying to get dishwashing soap. Now, coffee has gone missing: we’ve been to 7 stores in the past 3 days searching for coffee. Needless to say, my jones has already kicked in. As I write this, our house has neither dishwashing soap nor coffee – a situation we’ll have to resolve somehow, fast.

3. Until 1977, the two countries had no diplomatic representatives in their respective capitals. That year, US and Cuba opened what are called Interests Sections instead of consulates or full blown embassies in Havana and Washington. Also, in the writing of this post, I learned there are just 51 US citizens employed at the US Interests Section in Havana. They can’t all be buying turkeys can they?!

4. Paladares are privately-owned and operated restaurants found in most cities across the island. You read right: privately owned and operated, and these, along with other legal private enterprises in Cuba (renting out rooms, taxis, cafeterias) are making some Cubans very rich. So when you read about everything in Cuba being owned and run by the state and all Cubans being poor, think again.

5. Fama y Aplauso is a 20-story high rise on the corner of Infanta & Manglar in a nondescript pocket of Havana near the Estadio Latinoamericano. Some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, athletes, and policy wonks live here, in lovely 2- or 3-bedroom apartments with expansive views over the city. The residents’ star power is why the building is nicknamed Fame and Applause.

6. In Cuba, homosexuals are one thing, while men who have sex with men (MSM) are in a category all their own. Machismo – that complex ingrained, learned, and replicated construct that has effects on everything here from household chores to condom use – means few men identify as homosexuals, even as they fiddle the flesh flute of their extramarital boy toys. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Cuban men to have a wife and kids and male lovers. I know several.

7. I’ve just learned from my husband that it’s a cultural thing: eating bird skin just doesn’t appeal (and it is weird if you think about it). Still, that doesn’t keep Cubans from sharpening their elbows when it comes to apportioning the glistening, saffron-hued skin of a freshly roasted pig.

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16 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Living Abroad, Raul Castro

16 responses to “Cuban Thanksgiving Starring Pavo Butterball

  1. Annie

    ha! We still have the canned version of jellied cranberry on the table every year and at Christmas as well; too many family members would be heartbroken if we didn’t. Our mothers and grandmothers always had it out for T-Day and it’s just tradition by this time. But my daughter makes a fabulous homemade cranberry dish with mint and oranges, really yummy, much better than the canned version.

    But everyone usually still has the canned type, too. Heh.

    Interesting about the skin. And the stuffing! Reminds me of the time I read a recipe for sausage gravy and biscuits and in the comments were several people from the UK. Because over there “biscuits” are cookies, they could not understand who on earth would ever pour gravy over cookies, ahaha! Even when it was explained that biscuits are roll-like, they still didn’t “get” it.

    Glad you had a great Cuban Thanksgiving.

  2. Pingback: Cuban Thanksgiving Starring Pavo Butterball « Here is Havana Eating

  3. singao

    Not sure if they were Siberian or Alaskian Husky pups. They sold for 40cuc on the corner of Obispo and Aguacate, earlier in the year. Near the new La Bodeguita de O’Reilly. New fav place to grab a few beers.

    Daily, I’ve noticed a Cubana walking her Husky through Centro and Vieja. With the Havana dog shows, many breeds have filtered their way into the streets.

    On the weekends in the park Fe del Valle, live turkeys were sold for 24cuc.

    Of I knew you, I could hook up with some black market coffee from Sagua de Tanamo. Such is Cuba, confia en nadie.

    • hola singao,

      thanks for all the insight. Not sure I would pay 24 CUC for a live turkey when I can pay (well, I can’t, Im speaking figuratively) the same for one that is all plucked and dressed already. although I bet those live jobbies are organic which is priceless really.

      Ya resolvimos el cafe. además, lo encontremos por la izquierda en MN.

      On not trusting anyone in Cuba: yeah, I know, but I think that’s a dangerous, slippery slope. There ARE trustworthy, non-gossiping Cubans out there and for me at least, it’s important not to stereotype (of which Im a target EVERY DAY) and generalize about an entire country, an entire people. Otherwise, we just become callous shits, eh?

      • singao

        After your comment about Dirty Ole Bastards y Jurassic Commies, I thought it was cool to kid about stereotypes.

        Anyway stereotypes are popular because they are usually correct. I have no problem being an exception, especially in Habana. It’s a blast throwing people for a loop.

        Good going on the coffee.

      • This is a very interesting comment – about not being bothered about being the exception, esp in Havana. When I complain about my diffiulties with “sticking out” here (basically, although I speak pure Cubano and am “en la lucha” here like everyone esle, I can never pass and am always being hit on and up/approached/engaged with the occassional trickery and shenaningans cubans try out on foreigners) Ive had people say to me “oh. but that must be fun/interesting/novel” (to be one of the lone voices in the wilderness so to speak)

        I ‘still havent been able to figure this out – that some people think this could be fun (singao here likes to throw people for a loop and I get that) but day in, day out, for 7 years running? Fun, it isnt. Im sure its tied it with the NYer in me who likes everything nice and anonymous and is not 100% comfortable with people getting in my face. And much less so getting in my faec jsut becasue Im from another place

        Im sure Ill post on this soon. Its been stewing

        Thanks for reading

  4. Spam! Gilette shaving cream! Tang and Nesquik strawberry! Tampax! look at all this shit you can buy online and they’ll deliver right to your door – whether you live in Cayo Hueso or Guanahacabibes.

    This online supermarket is simply amazing, incredibly expensive and is keeping some Cubans well-fed, powdered, and vitamined-up.

    http://www.caribbeantransfers.com/app/data/supermarket.aspx

    Download the catalog to take a gander

  5. I have included your blog in my list of Blogs Sobre Cuba
    Regards,
    Al Godar

  6. I am catching up with all ypur blogs, so maybe a little verbose, but you are singularly well informed about life in Cuba. Why anyone in Cuba would have a Husky is incomprehensible- must be for the Especulacion, fer sure. I think you are correct that these long haired dogs should be discouraged, poor suffering creatures. keep up the Good work. And approve me soon, if you would be so kind. I have plenty to say, and I will try my Best to be ever polite. A not too easy pledge to keep at times. Hasta Lumbago.

  7. Pingback: A Cuban Bedtime Story « Here is Havana

  8. johnabbotsford

    Once again a great read Conner. Mind you re the hassle of non-one stop shopping and paucity of supplies etc you are in clover in Havana compared to much of the rest of Cuba! I couldn’t believe the array of cheeses/cuts of meat etc in those 2 ‘delies’ circa the corner of Neptuno and Consulado(?) we first spied a couple of weeks ago . Albeit like your turkeys expensive – but to be able to regularly buy blue cheese or parmesan yum!

    • Thanks John. I haven’t yet hit those two delis (I think one is dedicated to meat and cheese and the other seafood?) but all the folks who can afford to go there have been raving about it.

      And you’re absolutely right: my POV is strictly Havana; I get to the provinces only when $$/work allows, which is not nearly as often as Id like. However, I am going to Tercer Frente in a few weeks and Im completely psyched!

  9. johnabbotsford

    BTW People back home are amazed when i explain how long it takes me (and how many locations I need to visit) to acquire the ingredients to make say something a simple as spagetti bolagnaise in Cuba.
    As for the increasingly prevalent long haired dogs (particularly in Havana) don’t start me. It just makes me so furious!
    ps the skin on poultry is DEFINATELY the best part!!!

  10. Pingback: The Gift of Aché Part I | Here is Havana

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