Tag Archives: ham

Withdrawing from the Quote Bank

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I don’t know if it’s a writer thing or a girl thing or a human thing, but I can’t resist collecting and savoring juicy quotes. Maybe it’s my hidden hope that someday I’ll say something so profoundly witty or wise, poignant or ironic that it motivates someone, somewhere to write it down. Or perhaps I just need to procrastinate. That must be it – otherwise why this mango bajito post (see note 1) instead of something thoughtful about Cuban wakes or ham-in-cakes?

Maybe you’re procrastinating too, and I applaud you for landing here to peruse of some of my all time favorite quotes – each one of them coming my way by serendipity over the years: I’d just be poking along reading or listening to the radio when a nugget would jump out and snap me to attention. Nothing Googled here…

Mil pardons to all you readers craving something salient from over here in Havana today – even I have to step out of the Cuban vortex once in a while. But not to worry: posts on The Heat; Being Bilingual; and Baseball are coming soon. If you need a fix, why don’t you click over to my short novel forever-in-progress?

On Travel:

“Love is the food of life. But traveling is the dessert.”
– Singaporean saying

“The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait ’til that other is ready and it may be a long time before they get off.”
– Henry David Thoreau

On Wealth:

“If I can get a watch for $15 that keeps perfect time, what am I doing messing around with a Rolex?”
– Chuck Feeney (see note 2)

“In a way we could half envy you such fat, wasteful, thing-filled times.”
– Marge Piercy

On the Human Condition:

“What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” (see note 3)
– Theodore Roethke

“If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.”
– Alvin Toffler

“Being dumb doesn’t kill you, but it sure makes you sweat a lot.”
– Haitian proverb

“Get your head out of your ass and take a look around.”
– Judge D’Italia (Ret.)

“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe and it has a longer shelf life.” – Frank Zappa

On Writing:

“Ronnie?! Ronnie is a dear friend and brilliant. You’re going to love him…He used to be exactly like you: all potential and no product.” (see note 4)
– Laura Kightlinger in Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman

“The chief glory of a nation is its authors.”
– Inscription, Andrew Carnegie Library (see note 5)

“I write everday to keep my neuroses in check. That’s why the novel will never die – it’s treating American mental illness.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
– William Faulkner on E. Hemingway

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
– Ernest Hemingway on W. Faulkner


1. Cogiendo el mango bajito is a Cuban saying meaning ‘going for the low-hanging fruit’ – in this case, the low-hanging mango.

2. If you need a new hero in your life, check out Chuck Feeney: The Billionaire Who Wasn’t. This guy made more money than Cuba has seen since 1959 (I don’t know that this is true, but it might be, he has made that much moola in his 70-something years) and started giving it away a few decades ago through his big-hearted philanthropy. Anonymously. Over time, he and his super smart co-conspirators decided to spend down the fortune which has converted him (unwittingly!) into the guru of giving-while-living.

All you m/billionaires reading Here is Havana: why don’t you start giving some to worthy causes? Start with 5% and work your way up from there. It won’t hurt, I promise, and might even feel good. The world could use ‘two, three, many Chuck Feeneys.’

3. Cuba, in a nutshell.

4. Have I mentioned my work forever-in-progess?!

5. I do think that quotable quotes can be useful tools for writers – as prompts or leaping off points for free writing, as motivation, and yes, for procrastinating – the monkey on every writer’s back. (Ironically, Andrew Carnegie’s essay Wealth was one of Chuck Feeney’s inspirations for his giving-while-living model. But Feeney has given even more than the venerable Carnegie: according to his biographer, Feeney’s philanthropy had granted $4 billion at the time of writing as compared to $3 billion – in 2000 terms – by Carnegie). Another quote inscribed in the Carnegie Library may have guided Feeney: “the highest form of worship is service to man.”


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad, Writerly stuff

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….


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.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad