Category Archives: cuban cooking

Blogging from Cuba: Keeping Connected

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Blogging is a funny business. For most of us it’s bad business – even when we learn to adapt, monetize, and optimize. These were some of the conclusions drawn at TBEX ’10, the Travel Bloggers Exchange hosted in NYC this summer. I couldn’t attend, unfortunately, but Here is Havana was (thrillingly!) featured in the keynote.

I’m a notoriously bad capitalist (see note 1), so it’s par for the course that I should be dedicating hours to an endeavor that costs me money instead of accruing it (see note 2). Not surprisingly, writing has always been a difficult means for me to make ends meet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a pretty tough negotiator when it comes to contracts and I don’t (usually) work for less than the market can bear, but somehow I never figured blogging into my revenue stream.

But after many conversations with friends up north and a spate of articles about the slow, but inevitable decline of traditional publishing – like some kind of chronic disease of the printed word that can be managed but not cured – I realize I must adapt or die.

I like to think that at least a few readers have felt motivated to buy my guidebooks or iapp after landing here, but truth be told, I’m not in this for the sales or to funnel traffic to my website. Here is Havana isn’t even about bagging a book deal (see note 3). I blog because it keeps me writing and because I harbor hopes that what I write here reveals a slice of life unimagined or a side of Cuba many folks don’t – or won’t – see.

Blogging also keeps me connected. Friends and family tell me they read HIH because it helps them stay abreast of my daily doings. Meanwhile, people I’ve never met have told me that HIH contains some of the best writing on Cuba they’ve come across. I don’t know about that, but I do know that for me, blogging is about writing as I see it and occasionally illuminating a dark corner or two.

A lot of you I know either personally or virtually. Some of you I work with, share blood with, or chat with on various travel sites and fora. But strangers wind up here too. And how they do is often odd, sometimes funny, and once in a while enlightening. Combing through the search terms people use to reach Here is Havana is brilliant procrastination of course, but it also helps me keep my finger on the pulse. What is it really, that people want to know about this enigmatic place? Sometimes what people search on to find me leaves me with a furrowed brow and comic book question mark above my head. (I’m quite sure, for instance, that I’ve never written on Cuban porn or heroin. Maybe they meant Cuban pork and heroines?)

What’s important, of course, is not how you found me but that you did. Sometimes sitting here in my stifling office with the neighbor cooking so close I can just about reach into her pots, I feel the sugarcane curtain descend. The isolation; the 56k dial up; the US chokehold which is as brutal and failed as a loveless marriage.

So I dedicate this post to you, dear readers. For finding me and keeping me connected and giving me lots of food for thought with search terms and phrases like these:

*Oatmeal Survival – Been there, done that. Decades later, I still can’t touch the stuff.

*Do you find nipples on chicharrones? – Indeed you do, I learned recently and it’s damn disconcerting.

*Pasta de oca – This is a surprisingly popular search term for a seriously unpopular foodstuff.

*Jesus, You Rock My World – Glad to see believers are lurking in our neck of the woods, although I’m quite sure they didn’t find whatever it was they were looking for here. (Punctuation points to this reader!)

*Cuban funerals – This is sad all the way around, but remains one of the all time top searches for random lands at HIH.

*Embalm in Cuba – Oh, the irony! The double entendre!

*Can I bring methadone through Cuban customs? – Did this reader find out the hard way, I wonder?

*Pizza cheese condom Cuba – Clearly that last word is superfluous…

*Garlic millionaires – Yup! We got them (and with the new economic changes afoot, we’ll soon have tomato and onion and rice millionaires too).

*Cuba iPhone porn – You wish.

*Drugs to make fisting easy – Ditto. (Just as an aside, I have never seen ‘fisting’ and ‘easy’ in the same sentence before or since, so mark a point for originality).

*Characteristics of a Cuban boyfriend – We should talk.

*Is August in Havana too hot? – That’s rhetorical, right?

*How do you avoid sand fleas in Cuba?The question is: how do you survive sand fleas in Cuba? Avoidance is clearly not an option.

*Honey is back and she’s in the streets – I, for one, would like to meet this street walking Honey. Sounds like a hooker with a heart of gold.

Notes

1. One of the reasons why I always felt Cuba would be a better fit for me. Little did I know that Cubans are some of the savviest, most savage capitalists around!

2. See Merriam Webster’s entry for ‘guidebook writer.’

3. OK, maybe just a little!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Living Abroad, Writerly stuff

Wild Camping in Cuba Part II

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I dared say it but the shocker was our Río Hondo campsite proved to be perfect. Or quite nearly so, which for Cuba (that land of many problems and the tendency to exaggerate the possibilities, +/o progress of the solutions), is close enough.

By day, we fished and snorkeled to the throwback sounds of horse carriages clip clopping across the bridge overhead. By night, we made Godzilla-sized shadow puppets to candlelight on the underside of that same bridge. It was especially marvelous at night, that beneath-the-bridge spot: as shiny cars sped turistas (see note 1) to Trinidad and pre-Cold War trucks rumbled towards Cienfuegos, their headlights picked out the arches of the cement span’s railing. Each individual arch illuminating and darkening in quick succession made it look like zippers of light revealing and concealing celestial secrets too fast for us mere mortals to grasp. It was a rapture of sorts.

Our food situation, on the other hand, was nothing short of dire. This area of Cuba, like others, is experiencing severe drought (see note 2). Even under the best of circumstances the only things that grow around here are mamoncillo, anon, and maribú (see note 3). What’s more, in spite of having all the right equipment and being the most enthusiastic fisherman to ever draw breath, my better half can’t fish for shit. Fit for bait was all he caught after days and nights of determined fishing. Pobrecito.

Luckily, we were saved by a combination of Cuban solidarity, which is de rigueur, and honesty, which is anything but. The first came in the form of chilindrón de chivo brought to us in a pint-sized ice cream container by our neighbors. The hubby had been fishing with them a couple of mornings already so they knew what we were up against. It wasn’t until we were licking the sauce from our fingers that my guy clued me in: we were eating that goat thanks to a bus that had brought the poor fella to its untimely (and hopefully swift) end earlier that day. A tip o’ the hat to the cook (and the driver) – that was hands down the most succulent goat I’ve had since Morocco and the tastiest road kill ever.

Cubans are, how shall I put it? Infamous for their honesty. It’s a complicated issue; way beyond the scope of this dashed off post about our little camping escapade, but let’s just say that my husband – he of the rough and tumble Pogolotti neighborhood – was skeptical at the prospect of abandoning camp in search of food.

‘The propane tank is going to get vicked. We have to camouflage it.’

I hated to point out that we could easily replace that standard tank on the underground market in Pogolotti or any number of Havana barrios just like it. Meanwhile, our killer Sierra Designs tent (over a decade old and still going strong) was quite another matter. Not to mention the ThermaRest mattresses, the snorkel sets, and Stew Leonard´s cooler which may be better traveled than you.

But hunger called, which was how we came to walk away from our temporary home, its entire contents free for the vicking.

We waited until the sun headed towards the horizon, when families 15-strong started carrying their giant iron pots crusty with chivo and congris, domino table and chairs, inflatable toys, and sleeping babies off the beach. Despite our growing anxiety at leaving camp, it was fun bearing witness to these end-of-day operations. I watched as one drunk grandpa had to be hefted onto to his son’s broad back from where he lay passed out on the sand. The old sot hung there slack as a grade school backpack as his son picked his way up the vertical rusted ladder that connected the bridge to the beach.

As the sky shot pink and purple through the fading blue, we made our move. Jumping in the car, we drove a handful of kilometers up the road, to the seaside hamlet of Yuagananbo. There, high above the road built into the side of a mountain of rock, is a casa particular with rooms for $6 a night and meals for two.

My husband was as nervous as a guajira touching down at MIA, her packet of ‘definitive exit’ papers in trembling hand, the farther we got from Río Hondo.

‘Should we go back?’ he asked.

And eat what?

‘Let’s get the food to go,’ he said.

We’re already here. If they’re gonna steal stuff, they’re probably already at it. Let’s enjoy ourselves.

Which is exactly what we did: gorging on pork chops and rice, salad and plantains, washed down with provincial tap water that would undoubtedly reacquaint me with my old friend giardia (see note 4). I didn’t care. We were gone about an hour and a half. Upon our return we peeked around the pylons. It reminded me of that feeling you get when you bound down the stairs and through the door in New York or San Francisco to find your bicycle no longer chained to the pole where you left it. We held our breath briefly, unconsciously before realizing not one tent pole or pot holder in our camp had been touched.

The next day, we took it a step further. We had to. This time we left early in the morning and made our way 20 kilometers down the road to Trinidad and the promise of a market. It was a dicey proposition not only for the length of time we’d be gone, but more so since it was Sunday. Markets close early on Sunday. Worse, every single Cuban that is able to get to the beach on any given summer Sunday does. Río Hondo would be mobbed. Already the ’56 Chevy’s and loaded down horse carts were disgorging baseball team-sized families near our camp. But we are, when all is said and done, people of faith (which can probably be said for the majority of people who choose to remain in Cuba -although they might not call it that). So we left.

Trinidad was good to us – which isn’t always the case. In spite of being a gorgeous colonial town and World Heritage Site with white sand beaches within easy cycling distance, it has a rep. Women hold infants begging for milk (in spite of state rations until age 7 and a nationwide breastfeeding program with WHO-certified hospitals for teaching same), children plead for pens and candy, and spousal-hunting is a recreational sport – in Trinidad, they’re on you like white on rice. T plates or no. But we laid in a slab of pork and some okra, a couple of avocadoes, onions, string beans, and limes with nary a ‘hey fren! Where you from?’ to be heard. A few stares gripped me as I wolfed down a paper cone of chicharrones, (my guilty pleasure), and a strapping dude offered my husband a private room as he sucked down a cold Bucanero, but that was it. We even visited my old friend who’s living large since I listed her house in the edition of the Lonely Planet guide I wrote.

But after four hours, it was time to head back to camp. When we got there the beach was in full summer swing with folks launching themselves off the bridge into ‘Deep River’ and couples necking in the shallows between pulls on a plastic bottle of cheap rum. Hubby’s foot was heavy on the pedal as we neared. I laid a hand on his thigh.

‘Don’t worry.’

Famous last words, which in this case turned out to be true: our camp, once again, was undisturbed though scores of people frolicked about. My guy prepared a tasty pork chop feast and as I dug in watching the lightening storm on the horizon, I was happy that the human race could surprise me like that and happy still, that I live in Cuba. Now had we been camped 20 kilometers from Havana…

Notes

1. In Cuba, rental cars brand tourists via telltale scarlet letter ‘T’ plates. There is no “passing” with one of these babies, though I often wonder what happens to Cuban Americans who roll up with T plates. Do they get the same hustle and show as the rest of us? The same offerings of lobster dinner, private rooms, and pretty young girls from ‘frens‘ trotting alongside the moving car in bad Ed Hardy knock offs? More interesting still, what happens to Cuban Cubans – those who live here – who pull up in a T job? It’s only fairly recently that these folks have been allowed to rent cars and I wonder whether it’s splintering the social hierarchy even further? And if so, is this is a move towards normalcy or away?

2. Ironically enough, three of the 10 (or 12 or 16, depending on your source) golf courses underpinning Cuba’s new tourism strategy are strung along the coastal stretch of which I write.

3. The last is a nasty, invasive, thorn-studded mess that reaches tree proportions and blankets huge swaths of the island’s arable land. Anón (which tempts me to make a writerly joke about unattributable fruits or nameless queers) is something you can find in your exotic fruit section but for which the name in English escapes me. Readers? Mamoncillo, on the other hand, I have only seen in Cuba. It’s a cherry-sized fruit encased in a thin green shell; its slimy texture and unremarkable flavor is reminiscent of a lychee nut. In the summer, Cubans of all sizes and stripe walk the beaches and streets clutching leafy branches heavy with the fruit; they peel and suck (mamoncillo literally means ‘little sucker’) the flesh around the pits which they spit out wherever.

4. I’ve had giardia twice already in eight years here. To be fair, once I caught it in a Pakistani tea shop while covering the Cuban docs working there post-quake so that doesn’t count, but this nasty microbe does like our water. Most Cubans I know have had it. So my traveling friends: don’t drink the water unless it’s treated, boiled or bottled.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, cuban cooking, environment, Travel to Cuba

Slowtown

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Occasionally people ask me how I do it – how I can afford to travel without having a “real job” (and I’m unsure if freelance writing, no matter how lucrative, will ever be considered “real”). Even more to the immediate point, people wonder how I can afford to live in Cuba given our hand-to-mouth subsistence existence. In my mind, there is no puzzle. The answer is obvious, simple even. Keep your overhead low. If you control expenses and practice thrift, there’s likely to be more left over to play with.

This strategy isn’t for everyone. It helps to not be attracted by things, I suppose, to not be predisposed to accumulating gadgets, jewelry, or art let’s say (see note 1). Not being a clothes horse helps, as does not drinking; the hooch can add up – just ask my husband or my good friend 007. In my case, it helps immeasurably that Cuba is a low overhead kind of place. Paradoxically however, so much obligatory, by-default low overhead has created an insatiable desire in Cubans to (over)consume. And it matters little what: life-sized plaster Dalmatians, karaoke systems, plastic flowers, gold chains, shoes, sugar.

To get by and get the stuff they want or need, Cubans are en la lucha. Technically this means to be ‘in the struggle’ or ‘fighting,’ but the short phrase contains a universe of problems and difficulties, entire galaxies of uncertainty, frustration, and doubt. But being en la lucha also implies a certain pro-active approach, an intrinsic motivation to ease those troubles and doubt. And not only yours, but those of your family, friends, and neighbors as well. It means you have to inventar, another concept which, coupled with la lucha, encapsulates modern Havana (see note 2). I suppose it’s what outsiders call resourceful. The bottom line is that having so few resources forces you to rely on what’s available.

Here in Havana, relying on what’s available means depending on local suppliers, talent, and ingenuity. The precise elements that have helped create Cuba’s biotech sector, software development capabilities, and organic agriculture model. We are, in short, a slow people, living in a slow town. It’s everywhere: keep your eyes peeled, your nose poised, and your ears open on your next visit and you’ll slip easily into this local world.

From yogurt to honey, bookshelves to shoes, industrious Habaneros provide. Eat locally? We do (and must). Support local businesses? Each and every day. Know your supplier? We invite her in for coffee and a chat. I love this about Havana. I love that it disproves all the neo-liberal vitriol about Cuba not having private industry and small businesses. The place is crawling with entrepreneurs and private concerns. You just have to know what to look for and where to listen for them.

A high pitched, not entirely unmelodious whistle announces the knife sharpener, reminding me of my childhood. Rolling up on his bike and parking in the chiffonade shade of a palm, he sharpens our knives, cleavers, and scissors. By peddling the whet stone around until it gains enough speed to throw off sparks, he deftly angles the blades this way and that until they’re so sharp you have to take care dicing onions and aji cachucha for the bean pot. While he sharpens, we chat. About baseball, the weather, and how’s business?

The same can be said for yogurt. Made fresh in small batches, we ring the doorbell of our yogurt connection whenever we need to re-up. Within moments he lowers a basket on a rope from his third floor balcony. We put 20 pesos (see note 3) and an empty 1-1/2 liter soda bottle in the basket and give the rope a little tug. Up goes the basket to the third floor. When it’s lowered once again, it holds 1-1/2 liters of the thick, rich, organic yogurt that has my chicken Marsala and cucumber raita fast gaining fame in these parts (see note 4).

Once my imported granola runs out, honey-laced yogurt is my go-to breakfast. Happily, our honey is also produced on a small scale by local beekeepers. Sold in recycled Havana Club bottles for 25 pesos, the amber liquid comes rimmed with a dark band of honeycomb flakes and other natural detritus like the odd bee’s wing. The best honey moves sluggishly when the bottle’s inverted, slowed by its viscosity. Marketing fuels sales; one guy sings of his honey’s Ciénaga origins, another’s bees are sustained solely on chamomile blossoms, supposedly giving the golden elixir subtle floral undertones, though I’ve yet to detect them. Organic, from-the-source food procurement happens daily here: I regularly fry fish caught by my neighbor and eat mangoes from my boss’s backyard tree. Five blocks from my house there’s a friendly old fella who sells homemade wine and vinegar while nearby a wrinkled veteran peddles roasted peanuts from a metal box with a brazier burning live coals on the bottom.

And it’s not only food. Without leaving my living room, I get offers (sang up from the street) to reupholster my sofa and restore my mattress. Need a coffee table or TV stand? No problem. Just dig out that business card the neighborhood carpenter slipped under the door the other day. A favorite sundress can be repaired or replicated by the seamstress two doors down and a pair of sexy, strappy sandals procured from the family of renowned cobblers who pass through every now and then.

And so it goes. Our coveted Bic lighters are refilled at the market in that ingenious Cuban way, our aprons are made by friends of friends, even car parts are fashioned by machinists pounding them out in their garage-cum-workshop down the street. I love living here and living slow.

It’s funny though. As the ‘developed’ world moves snail-like towards this model, Cuba is fast moving away from it. Inevitable? Probably. Lamentable? Definitely.

Notes

1. Art is a different ballgame, actually. I would buy pieces that really move me – and living in Cuba, believe me, I’ve been moved, repeatedly – if I could afford it.

2. I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating: what I know intimately is Havana, a reality which in many ways can’t be extrapolated to the rest of Cuba. Just like New York isn’t the United States and Port-au-Prince isn’t Haiti (especially these days), Havana can’t be considered representative of Cuba. Nevertheless, after hanging out with doctors from Holguín who own a cow or two to provide milk for their family and naweys from Guantánamo who earn their living initiating foreigners into Santería, I suspect that la lucha and inventing are fundamental in those far flung places too.

3. About 85 cents USD.

4. This is one of the six or so dishes on my private restaurant menu. Known as a paladar in Cuba, my husband and I fantasize about opening a low-key, high-standard private restaurant serving a selection of my top tried and true dishes. In addition to this Indian delight, other candidates include tea-smoked chicken, snapper Veracruz and veggie lasagne, plus desserts like dulce de leche cheesecake and blondies a la mode. We could even spin off the ex-pat cookbook! Interested in investing? Contact me.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, environment, Uncategorized

Chicharrones are a Drug

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Cracklings, lardons, chicharrones – I don’t care what you call them, fried pork rinds are a drug and should be regulated. At least over here in Havana where I’m double fisting my way to a quadruple bypass. I scare myself, so untamed is my gluttony for these nuggets of greasy bliss. They really are narcotic and I got hooked quick, which is what the best drugs do…

I’d lived quite a while in Cuba – years already – without thinking twice about chicharrones. I’d had them here, there, and elsewhere, but I wasn’t impressed. Like salty poofs with the carne flavor twice removed. What I didn’t know is that the chicharrones I had been eating all those years are known as chicharrones de viento. Loosely translated to mean salty poofs with the meat sabor twice removed.

Imagine my surprise to learn then, that a completely different category – an entirely different universe of chicharrones! – exists out there just waiting for me to discover it. And I have.

For the uninitiated, my new vice are chunks of pork rind and fat – ideally with a Chiclet of meat on top – fried in their own grease. I have an addictive personality, I admit (with the caveat that I’m convinced it’s genetic) but the ferocity with which I was/am hooked is frightening. There was no desire phase. Things went straight to I need it, now. Euphoria? None. In fact, I sicken myself with each sinful square and body and mind are conscious of it, complicit.

I know there are people out there who can relate.

I was in the Yucatan some months ago with the fried pork monkey riding my back like a freckle. In the supermercado they sell 25 different kinds of rinds – from the poofs to something approximating the junk I craved. The latter, while good, were just this side of mass produced. Tasty, but processed, if only a little. Counting my blessings (after all, even a cut drug controls the jones), I left the store, crossed the street and found myself facing a simple kiosk manned by a big, jolly Yucatecan mama carving up all things pig. Ears, entrails, loin and yes. Yes.

I waited my turn making the small talk you make while waiting on line in Latin America. When I was up, I told the jolly mama what I wanted. She looked at me knowingly. Knowingly I tell you! and started heaping the glistening squares onto a swath of newspaper with her bare hands. ‘How much do I owe you?’ I asked as she bundled up the goods. ‘Nothing, it’s on the house.’ Just like a dealer: the first taste is free so you’ll be back, hankering for more.

Not long after, we were at a family celebration here in Havana following the usual script: catching up, sharing stories and a big meal, wrapping up with smokes and singing if Octavio or Jorge feels like pulling out the guitar. On the day in question, we were at the smokes part when the neighbors invited us over for a round of dominoes. When we made our way to the back yard, there was rum and dominoes of course and a platter piled high with empella. Oh my.

Methadone is to heroin what chicharrones are to empella.

What’s so special? Not much – they’re simply super chiquito chicharrones. The stuff I craved cut up really small. Now that I think about it, now that I’m practically dry dreaming of empella, I realize it wasn’t just their diminutive size. It was that each morsel had the little Chiclet of meat on top, which when coupled with the deep fried fat on the bottom…dry dream turns wet.

So I’m just back from Haiti. And although I made three simple welcome home requests (‘salad, salad, salad’), my hubby surprised me with not only an ensalada gigante, but yucca with mojo and a bowl brimming with homemade chicharrones. What a guy (and that’s just the G-rated portion of our programming)!

A couple of days later, my sister-in-law was butchering a quarter pig when she sawed off a huge slab of rind and fat bejeweled with those key cling ons of meat. Now I get my fix right at home.

And home feels very, very good right now.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad

Slippery Okra & Sleeping Shrimp: Classic Cubanisms

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One thing I’ve learned my nearly eight years in Havana is that Cubans have a way with words. Many a lass for example (present company included) has been seduced by a poetry-reciting buck borrowing from the likes of Silvio Rodriguez and Cintio Vitier. And who isn’t hip to the oratory artfulness of Fidel, that hypnotist of crowds from New York to Durban?

In fact, Cuba is a country full of semantic artisans willing and able to sprout ‘flowers from their tongues’ as we say here. This oral aptitude is nothing new or novel. Since Martí and the Mambises, Cubans have honed their mesmerizing way with words. This extends to dichos, popular sayings that use metaphor, irony, and double entendre to encapsulate life’s promise, problems, and perversities. Learning a dicho or three in your armchair or actual travels is a simple way to peel away a layer of the Cuban psyche.

An all time classic that has particular relevance during the dog days of summer and other ‘special periods’ is “entre col y col, una lechuga.” Between all that cabbage, a little lettuce is akin to our ‘variety is the spice of life.’ It’s not surprising one of the most popular sayings uses a metaphor based on leafy greens and cruciferous veggies – Cuban psychological hunger runs deep.

Another food-related dicho that anyone who has been to Cuba has likely experienced is: “donde come uno, come dos (o tres),” which means to say: where there’s food for one, there’s food for two (or three). What can be likened to our ‘the more the merrier’ is in fact, the cornerstone of Cuban hospitality (see note 1).

But hands down, my favorite food-related saying here is “pasando gato por liebre.” While ‘passing off cat as rabbit’ may sound like a Chinatown food nightmare, this saying is applied to all sorts of Cuban chicanery, from serving $3 mojitos made with rock gut rum instead of Habana Club to selling Selectos as Cohibas (see note 2). Being agile to this kind of trickery is part and parcel of being Cuban, embodied in another of my preferred sayings: “camarón que se duerme, se la lleva la corriente.” Or ‘you snooze, you lose.’

But enough of all this food and fauna. Let’s talk about sex, another cornerstone of Cubanilla. While there are many dichos referencing carnal undertakings, (and I could dedicate an entire post to piropos, the ingenious and often hilarious come-ons Cubans invent for catching the ear and eye of the opposite sex), my favorite is “quimbombó que rebala, pa’la yuca seca.” Literally this translates as ‘for dry manioc, use slippery okra.’ Hardly the sensuous flowering phrase you’d expect from hot-blooded Cubanos y Cubanas itching to get their groove on. But anyone who’s familiar with okra knows how slippery, slimy it gets if prepared incorrectly. And yucca, from Havana to Asunción, is dry and unappetizing unless gussied up with mojito (see note 3). So while okra is slippery by nature and yucca is dry, get the two together (or more accurately, the body parts for which they serve metaphorically) for erotic results.

Gracias a dios I’ve got no problem where yucca and okra are concerned, but there is one dicho bien Cubano that I’ve yet to internalize. Maybe it’s because I’m a New Yorker or has something to do with being a Scorpio or perhaps it’s just the state of being Conner (god help us!), but I just haven’t been able to master ‘a mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Putting on a good face during bad times just doesn’t seem to be in my make up.

Seems I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Notes

1. According to the expert in everything (that would be my husband), this saying has roots in the Cuban countryside, where hospitality knows no bounds. But it can also be traced to the island’s Haitian community, which arrived on Cuban shores in the early 19th century. Seems Haitians of the time had the custom of setting an extra place at the table, Caribbean Elijah-style.

2. Selectos are the/my five cent cigar of choice, sold in bodegas (where Cubans procure their rations). Many a tourist has been duped into buying what are touted as Cohibas when really they’re just Selecto dirt sticks wearing the signature yellow and black bands of Cuba’s most famous cigar.

3. Visitors sometimes confuse mojito, the minty potent potable, with mojito the garlicky bitter orange-spiked sauce used to dress root vegetables that is as delicious as it is addictive. While plain old manioc yucca is pasty and not-so-tasty, yuca con mojo is irresistible.

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

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