Tag 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

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

Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part 1

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To say I come from a long line of inept cooks is an understatement. My grandmother – a well-heeled dame from Philadelphia’s Main Line – was so artless at the stove she used to have Thanksgiving catered; our observations that she’d mistakedly put the gravy on the green beans and drenched the potatoes in vinaigrette were met with a call for a fresh gin and tonic. In her mind she was a martyr: her mother had live-in help, an entire staff to dress the vegetables and cook the bird. All this living large ended with my mother, the quintessential black sheep who was black balled from the family when she got knocked up at 19.

Four kids and a lousy divorce later, the wolf was at our proverbial door. We were headed for the skids and stories of these lean times endure. There was the time we survived on nothing but oatmeal, three times a day, every day (see note 1) and the Christmas when my mother somehow scored a ham. As we slept, she dog tired from trying to make a poor Christmas joyful and us kids tossing and turning in anticipation, our beloved beagle Barney pawed open the refrigerator door and wolfed that whole ham down. What we awoke to wasn’t carols and candy but Mom, furious as we’d rarely seen her, chasing that beagle with a rolled up newspaper. Needless to say, that was the end of Barney (see note 2).

Some years later, we’d volunteer one Saturday a month to cut mammoth slabs of tasteless cheese into manageable blocks that we received in kind from the Park Slope food co-op near where we lived. One time, when there was another windfall like the one that brought us Barney’s Christmas ham, Mom bought half a cow. It was cheaper that way. “Bessie” sat in our freezer for a year getting eaten little by little until a Cuban-style blackout forced us to cook all those cow parts in one fell swoop.

Except for the week or two of oatmeal (family accounts differ as to how long we actually had to survive on that slop), I didn’t realize how poor we were when it came to the dinner table. Sure, we knew our classmates were eating burgers and fried chicken while we sat down to ratatouille, jambalaya, and moussaka (see note 3), but we figured it was an insatiable interest in other cultures that brought these exotic dishes to our table and not precarious finances. But the fact is, most ethnic food is poor people’s food, made with whatever happens to be on hand.

In “food insecure households” such as ours, it pays to know how to cook and I’m convinced my mom learned her way around a kitchen out of necessity (see note 4). My brothers, sister, and I followed suit, habitually making stock from chicken bones; reviving old bread with a few sprinkles of water and some minutes in the oven; transforming stale crackers into breading as tasty as any herbed panko; and hacking mold from cheese and scraping surface scum from maple syrup and sauces (see note 5).

All of this is to say that this culture of waste not, want not is serving me well here in Cuba.

To be continued….

Notes

1. To this day, none of us can stomach the sight of it. To us, oatmeal is survival gruel.

2. Before you get all PETA on me, let me underscore the premise here: if an animal, any animal – pet, barnyard, or wild – is taking from your children’s mouths, the beast, in my opinion, has got to go (what my buddy Jack calls the “25 cent solution” – apparently this is what bullets cost in his stomping grounds).

3. This last was usually meatless – no lamb, no ground chuck – meaning it was pure eggplant. We dubbed it “moose kaka” a name that stuck.

4. Incidentally, my mom is not only a creative cook, she is also efficient (and somewhat diabolical: every year on Halloween, she’d make us sit down to big bowls of pea soup before we could go trick or treating. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!) When we were young, she used to cook a week’s worth of dinners each weekend and freeze them so she wouldn’t have to come home from several jobs and work some more cooking for us. Monday we’d extract a meatloaf, Tuesday a lasagne and so on. Sometimes however, her system had dramatic, unforeseen results…

I remember when I was 11 (a brutal age for girls then, now, and evermore), I was desperately trying to make friends. Being the poor daughter of a divorcee made me an easy outcast, plus I was generally considered just plain weird, so when someone had the bright idea for me to host a Valentine’s Day party with all my little prospective girl friends, I was game. There was a pretty successful scavenger hunt, plus candies of all sorts of course; all in all, everyone seemed to be having a helluva time. As the afternoon drew to a close, it was time for the party’s highlight: a beautiful heart-shaped chocolate cake made with all the love in the world by my mom during one of her marathon weekend cooking sessions. When Stephanie – the most popular girl in the 5th grade and the prime target of my fledgling attempts at friendship – cut into her cake, out tumbled a chunk of ham. Apparently the offending cube had straggled behind, escaping from being cooked into what would be Friday night’s quiche and slipping into the cake batter instead. That was the end of my attempt at pre-teen popularity; thereafter I was truly weird.

5. We have friends that didn’t grow up like we did, who aren’t down with reviving old food like we do. So when Mom recently hauled out a sack of year-old madeleines from the freezer to invent something, there were gasps. A year old! Frozen that whole time! No matter that the cookies were from Café Baloud. But mom knew better and whipped up that poster child of poor folk dessert: bread pudding. M’hija. That year-old-Baloud-madeleine bread pudding was so delicious even the naysayers couldn’t wait for dinnertime, spooning it up to wash it down with their morning coffee.

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