Tag Archives: pasta de oca

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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Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part II

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The best preparation for living in Cuba is having known hard times. To paraphrase that paragon of faith and insight Frei Betto: “The rich can handle Cuba for a week, the middle class for two, but the poor can live there forever” (see note 1). Poor folks know what it means to have no lights or water or phone and just how costly a bounced check can become (see note 2). And most poor folk have known, if temporarily, what it means to go hungry.

Cubans know many things – salsa, art, history, sports, poetry, rum, rumors. Cubans also know hunger. In the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’ adult Cubans lost 15 pounds on average. During these lean times, kids would be fed and sent to bed while their parents laid awake, stomachs empty, fighting off painful pangs of hunger. These were those notorious times when flour “meatballs” were what was for dinner and ‘pasta de oca’ was a staple (see note 3). Thankfully, tales of banana peel hamburgers and shredded condoms standing in for pizza cheese seem to be apocryphal. Except for the condom cheese, I can attest to the veracity of these stories – I first came here in 1993 during the worst of the Special Period and witnessed the privation first hand.

Though some things have improved some, the Periodo Especial endures in ways. My brilliant friend Fernando summed it up like this: we don’t suffer from physical hunger so much anymore. What we suffer from is psychological hunger. That is, it’s the lingering scepter of hunger that haunts us. This explains a lot, from obesity rates in Miami to the savagery that possesses Cubans at buffets and Coppelia (see note 4). Bells started ringing with Fernando’s “psychological hunger” dictum – this is precisely the condition from which I suffer. Sown during the oatmeal years and now in full bloom, I get like a nervous flyer on a haul to Honolulu without my Xanax when food stores are low. Hunger may make the best sauce as the old saying goes, but take cover when it overtakes me.

Coppelia notwithstanding, Cuba’s not the best place for the psychologically hungry. It’s not Sub-Saharan style granted, but it has its moments. Mondays for instance, when all fruit, vegetable, and meat markets are closed. Run out of fresh stuff on a Monday? Tough luck. Need an egg? Go to Plan B (see note 5). I don’t need Bob Geldof to tell me why I don’t like Mondays. Though open daily, regular stores selling pasta, butter, cheese, and other staples close at 6pm and even if you catch them open, there’s zero guarantee they’ll have what you want or need.

Then there are the seasons. Cuba imports 80% of its food supply – none of it fresh fruit or vegetables. That means if it ain’t the season, you ain’t eating it. No chips and salsa in July or mango chutney in October. Guacamole? You’ve got a three month window. And so it goes with everything from lettuce and parsley to scallions and spinach. Some produce (pears, plums, berries of any sort, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms) is just a dream on that 90-mile-away horizon. This probably sounds like a nightmare to most, but is mostly bearable until one breezy evening when the mouth-watering image of a BLT pops into my head. Agony ensues. It’s too late for tomatoes and nowhere near lettuce time. Ironically, I’ve got the bacon but by the time I can lay my hands on the L and the T, the B will be long gone (see note 6). Needless to say, in almost eight years living here, I’ve never had a BLT.

The seasons, the supply chain, and the complete unavailability of some items (not to mention the occasional hurricane and blight) force a cook to get and stay creative here in Havana. Such creativity sometimes results in radishes in your pasta primavera or squash in your stir fry. When I first got here I was unsettled by the frequency with which cooked cucumbers appeared in casseroles, chop sueys, and other concoctions. But now I’m unfazed by hot cucumbers and other inventions like Tandoori spaghetti.

To be continued…

Notes

1. For those of you unfamiliar with Frei Betto, the man is an inspiration to which this wiki doesn’t do justice. He was imprisoned for four years helping people flee dictatorial Brazil and has written 50 (FIFTY) books. His most famous is Fidel & Religion based on umpteen hours of interviews with you-know-who. This book holds some kind of weird record for selling out faster in Cuba than any other title in the nation’s history. I could explain why but that would entail a long and not terribly interesting (for the general reading public) explanation of religious history in revolutionary Cuba. Unfortunately, few of Betto’s books are available in English.

2. Living here for so long, I am woefully out of touch. Do people in the real world even use checks anymore?

3. Literally ‘goose paste,’ this is about as close to pâté as Alpo is to ground chuck. Since the 90s and the worst of the Special Period, the government ration system has relied fairly heavily on “enriched” products to inject protein into the national diet. The most infamous of these is “picadillo de soya enriquecido” or enriched soy pellets. Pasta de oca was along these lines – a gooey, flour-based paste to which microscopic amounts of ground up goose was added. Sounds appetizing right? The point is, pasta de oca wasn’t something to savor, but something to keep 11.2 million from death’s door. Amazingly, it did.

4. Coppelia is Cuba’s world famous ice cream parlor and one of my favorite spots here in Havana. Sure, the lines are beyond what most people reading this blog would ever endure, but put in your 45 minutes and you’ll be sitting down to 5 cent scoops of delicious ice cream surrounded by (real! live!) Cubans. Sure, there’s usually only one flavor available – two in the summer – but the ice cream is wicked and the atmosphere charged. Did I mention the nice price?

What you’ll notice after the monumental mod architecture (inspired by the cathedral in Brasilia) is the ferocious appetite Cubans have for ice cream. Chicks so gorgeous they’d be modeling elsewhere order 4 “ensaladas” without a second thought and tack on a piece of cake while they wait. When the 20 (TWENTY) scoops of ice cream arrive, they set to work. These Cubanas lindas aren’t alone: people all around the place are digging into their own score of scoops and if you’ve ever sat elbow to elbow digging in with them, you know I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.

And if you’re ever find yourself stuck between a Cuban and a buffet, run the other way, fast!

5. In the up north world, an egg is something easily resolved – just head over to the neighbors and see if they’ve got one to spot. Not so here, where eggs are nicknamed “salvavidas” (lifesavers) since they’re a major source of protein. While neighbors reliably loan sugar, salt, rice and other ration book staples, it’s seriously bad form to ask for a protein float.

6. Ironic because Cuba is awash in pigs and pork products – lard, feet, ribs, ears, sausage, and more are all easy to come by – but bacon? No, my brother. I’m not sure why. Any butchers out there who can educate me on this finer point of pork?

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