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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.
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.