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Piropos Cubanos: Sí or No?

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Cubans are famous for many things: cigars, salsa, and rum jump to mind, with world class athletes not far behind. But that’s amateur hour; after a little more experience and exposure, outsiders (and all non-Cubans are considered so at some time, to some degree) will appreciate less commercial, but equally celebrated traits like Cubans’ sense of humor and solidarity and their art for artifice.

Those who walk the walk and talk the talk know there’s another especially Cuban art and craft – that of come-on lines, known in local lingo as piropos. Whispered your way as you walk by or shouted from a bustling corner, every pretty, average, and ‘butter face’ Cubana has received her share of flowers from the mouths of appreciative men.

If you cook like you walk, I’ll scrape the bottom of your pan,” (note 1) is probably the country’s most popular piropo and anyone with a little swing to their hips has heard it. And while the sentiment sets the imagination awhirl, not a few foreign women have complained to me about how this and other come-on lines tossed their way. In short, they find them offensive.

My friend Juan Carlos argued famously on this precise point with a US feminist poet of note while she was living in Cuba. At that time, she was (and probably still is) vehement in her position that piropos are an affront to women. She’s not alone: similar views were shared here when I mentioned the piropos I receive as I ride this city’s streets on my beloved new bike (see note 2).

To be clear, I’m not talking about groseros – rude, crude lines reinforcing a patriarchal power structure. These are something else entirely and should be rebuked as so. Nor am I referring to the ubiquitous tssssss, tssssss, tssssss that’s used to catch the attention of women countrywide (and which I’m terrified I’ll let slip while beckoning a New York City waitress resulting in bodily harm). No, what I’m concerned with here are those delightfully cunning lines which show appreciation for the female form; I, like my friend Juan Carlos, don’t see the problem.

By way of disclaimer: I was raised by a feminist (by nature, not indoctrination) and I pride myself on being a non-biased, all-inclusive kind of gal who doesn’t give a damn about the color of your skin, to what gender you ascribe, before which god you kneel, or who you choose to screw. Everyone is equal in my heart and mind (until they prove otherwise through moral/ethical digressions). But since so many foreign women have complained to me about piropos, I have to wonder: am I missing something?

And further: what of my impulse to toss out my own piropos to some delicious specimen – a mangón of such magnitude I can’t let him pass without voicing appreciation? Does that make me a failed feminist or a femachista – a term coined by my friend Rigo for those women who talk a good feminist game but reinforce the machismo that is so rampant and damaging here?

After ten years living and working in this wild, incomparable place, I think not. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that the well-crafted come-on line does no harm. In essence, good piropos are funny, imaginative fare designed to make the recipient pause long enough to laugh; and laughter, along with a sharp mind, is the best aphrodisiac I’ve found – two characteristics which the best piropos embody. This struck me squarely the other day when a guy said to me: “your name must be Alice because looking at you sends me to Wonderland.” I laughed out loud and responded: “good one, brother!” And he laughed too.

I have to ask, then: two strangers laughing out loud at a line cleverly crafted. What’s so wrong with that?

Many foreigners don’t always get this. Furthermore, their attempts at piropos usually pale in comparison. To wit, my old friend Mountain was infamous for cooing “oh to be a bicycle seat” to any pretty girl who rode by.

But to every rule, there’s an exception, like the handsome Swiss stranger who leaned in to tell me: “you must be from heaven, because you have the scapula of an angel.”

Personally, I say ¡! to piropos cubanos.

Notes

1. “Si cocinas como caminas, me comiera hasta la raspa’ sounds a lot better in Spanish.

2. Curiously, the quantity and quality of piropos I get while on two wheels differ considerably from those I get on two feet.

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In the Mix: Café Cubano

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Alicia Alonso. Santería offerings. Sunday supper. There are some people and things you just don’t mess with in Cuba. This includes coffee. More than a simple stimulant or mere morning habit, coffee here is history, tradition, and ritual rolled into one.

All manner of human affairs are conducted over teeny cups of the black, sweet elixir: friendships are forged, pacts made, and lovers wooed (or booted or double crossed) while sipping the stereotypically strong brew. Indeed, every proper visita to a neighbor or friend’s begins with coffee and even meetings – from the most ad hoc to high level ministerial pow wows – include café. No matter how powerful or poor, behind schedule or the eight ball, in Cuba, coffee is an ice breaker and friend maker. As iconic as rum, as ubiquitous as cigars.

But as I’ve said before, changes are afoot. Whereas any move by Cuba in the past 50-plus years had to be analyzed through a kaleidoscopic prism of political cause and effect, changes today are undertaken and evaluated according to economic cost and benefit (see note 1). The recent announcement of the resurrection of café mezclado is an illustrative example of this ‘new normal.’ And it’s got Cuba’s collective panties in a twist.

On May 3, it was announced that coffee distributed to all Cubans on the ration card would once again be “blended.” This is an old concept known to poor java junkies the world over: by mixing ground coffee with something else (e.g. chicory), you stretch your resources and enjoy more, albeit weaker, coffee. Cuban campesinos have long had a tradition of blending coffee with chícharo (see note 2) and the state adopted this approach throughout all these lean economic years.

There was the euphoric, dare-to-dream moment during Chavez’ halcyon days when oil money flowed throughout the Global South and Cuba was able to upgrade from café mezclado to café puro. This meant that 11 million Cubans were receiving near-free, pure coffee via state-provided rations guaranteed to all citizens (see note 3).

But reality is upon us anew and our cupboards once again harbor coffee blended with chícharo. But this time is different. Tolerance for ‘suck it up just a little longer’ is ebbing and indeed may be at an all time low (except among those reaping the rewards of the new economic regulations, of course). This is compounded by the fact that Fidel isn’t at the helm, which has had various ripple effects – not monolithically good or bad, not all visible – which are felt acutely when it comes to morale boosting during such ‘suck it up’ special periods.

Then there’s the blend itself.

Pre-petrol dollars gracias a Chavez, the blend distributed on the ration card (see note 4) was 40% coffee and 60% chícharo. It had a particular, not bad flavor and I enjoyed plenty of it with my little old lady cabal. Today’s blend, however, splits the difference right down the middle – 50% coffee and 50% chícharo.

More coffee, less chícharo. An improvement one would think.

But this is Cuba, where digging deeper, reading between the lines, and parsing the details are essential for truth finding. And so it is with café mezclado. Whereas the old 40/60 blend contained less actual coffee, it was superior Arabica, recognized worldwide as the best tasting, today’s mix uses hardier and more caffeinated but less toothsome, Robusta. And therein lies the rub.

“It’s bitter, acidic and muy fuerte.”

“If you ask me there’s more than 50% chícharo in there.”

This is what folks around here are saying about the new blend. And even as analysts and quality-control specialists go on TV to explain in excruciating detail the cost, taste, and agronomic differences between Robusta and Arabica, people remain skeptical and critical.

And scared. Fear isn’t a trait I typically associate with Cubans, who are amongst the most courageous people you’ll ever meet. However, this café mezclado is rocking our world and not just for its shitty flavor, but rather something much more sinister: the blend makes coffee pots blow up.

According to those aforementioned analysts and quality-control gurus, instances of exploding cafeteras (the stovetop espresso pots used by 99% of us) have been documented. The new blend is to blame. They assure us that all should be fine if we follow the brewing instructions on the package – necessary no doubt, thanks to the coffee bombs created by café mezclado. I mean: what Cuban needs a lesson in how to brew coffee?!

So we suck it up, follow the instructions on the package, and trust Them when They say the blending strategy will be evaluated and tweaked over time – dependent on economic feasibility, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more episodes of exploding cafeteras and a limp economy conspire to strike coffee from the ration card altogether.

Buckle up babies: it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Notes

1. The complete absence of political discourse/orientation in the new and revolutionary lineamientos is of great concern and wide comment on this side of the Straits. The other issue which people are anxious about – and the single most debated point in the lineamientos – is the eventual reduction or elimination of rations. Stay tuned.

2. The international press – which jumped on this story like an old Italian on a lithe mulatta – translates chícharo as pea. While you may be thinking ‘sugar snap’ or Jolly Green Giant style, this is the dried legume and looks more like a small garbanzo.

3. Currently the coffee ration is 115 grams and costs 15 cents. The other change is that Cubans aged 0-6 no longer receive this ration.

4. In hard currency stores you can buy 100% pure café cubano, whole bean or ground. The most popular brands are Cubita or (in my opinion), superior Serrano. This is the coffee served in bars and restaurants, hotels and clubs and what the overwhelming majority of visitors are drinking. Only in someone’s home (not a casa particular – there’s a world of difference) or in a private peso cubano cafeteria are you likely to get a taste of café mezclado.

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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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