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Flash in the Pan

Postcard from Cuba con mucho amor



This is Chef Boy Ari, reporting from Cuba. Last week I explained how it came to be that a group of UM students and I tasted the forbidden fruits of America’s favorite enemy. I also discussed the geopolitical forces that led Cuba to the cusp of famine in 1990, and Cuba’s successful response, which can be neatly summarized by a bumper sticker cliché: “Don’t panic, go organic.”

While the diversification and intensification of Cuba’s organic agriculture system (a development that included the emergence of thousands of public neighborhood farms called organiponicos) has resulted in a plethora of vegetables, much of the time it seems that the Cuban cooks don’t know what to do with them. The food is often underwhelmingly bland. Which is surprising, considering the spice with which Cubans move their hips on the dance floor, and in light of the fact that the word habanero describes both the hottest pepper on Earth and an inhabitant of La Habana, Cuba’s capitol.

Unlike every other country south of the border that I know of, Cubans sadly seem not to have caught on to the hot pepper thang. If you’re lucky, some restaraunts will have a bottle of Tabasco sauce (pronounced tobbaco). If you’re smart, you’ll pack your own bottle. And that’s as hot as it gets. Every person I ask about this phenomenon simply shrugs and says, “We don’t eat hot peppers in Cuba.”

Maybe that’s because after the hardships of the Special Period (see last week’s Flash), Cubans are happy simply to be eating, and so aren’t overly concerned about taste. As for the lack of imagination with which Cuban vegetables are presented...well, fresh vegetables are a rather new development here, and Cubans seem resigned to the assumption that veggies will never taste as good as meat.

Indeed, as our guide Jesus (pronounced Hey Zoo) explained, “Cubans like to eat three things: pork, pork, and pork.”

But it seems that even with their beloved meat, Cuban restaurants could do better. And indeed I have been tortured many times by magnificent aromas wafting from private homes, some of which have recently been authorized by the government to function as private restaurants called paladares. Compelled by the profit motive, the paladares offer proof that flavor is not lost in Cuba, just partially forgotten beneath the institutionalized going-through-the-motions haze of the state-run kitchens.

It’s also worth remembering that before the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of Cuba’s food came from the Eastern Trading Bloc. Soviet food is comparable to Soviet architecture in its industrial-strength mediocrity, typified by the innumerable concrete block houses peppering the Cuban landscape. The Soviet supply of bland food and culture exerted a dampening effect on Cuba’s food scene. And this was followed by the Special Period, during which there was hardly any food at all. Taken as a whole, the evolution of post-revolution Cuban food has been punctuated with a series of setbacks, and has yet to find equilibrium.

While visiting an organiponico near the city of Santiago de Cuba, I took another stab at the mystery of the missing hot pepper. I approached a group of people bunching onions, tying them together with strips of palm leaf. “Hola,” I said. “Donde estan los pepinos picantes?” (Hello, where are the hot peppers?)

The farmers squatted there with their onions, looking puzzled. They asked me what pepinos picantes were. Since I knew they had sweet peppers in Cuba—I’ve eaten plenty—I explained that pepinos picantes were like regular pepinos, but mas picante. The farmers looked at me like I was retarded.

Walking back to the bus with Thurston, the team language scholar, I marvelled, “I just can’t believe it. They’ve never even heard of hot peppers.”

“Well, first of all,” Thurston pointed out, “pepino means cucumber.”

Back on the bus, I was reflecting upon the lack of hot cucumbers in Cuba when Hey Zoo stopped the bus and waved over a man by the side of the road. Hey Zoo proceeded to purchase a block of cheese and a cake of guava paste. When we stopped for lunch, Hey Zoo cut the cheese and guava into slices and made little sandwiches, cheese on the outside, guava on the inside.

The cheese was spongy and salty, with a tangy, full-bodied flavor. The guava paste was sweet and fruity. Together, these two components added up to a completely satisfying flavor combination. Complete flavor. Completely Cuban.

“What kind of cheese is this?” I asked Hey Zoo.

“Homemade,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I know. But what do you call it?”

“White cheese,” he said.

Indeed, Cuba does not yield her secrets easily, but the answers are there if you look for them. Socialism? Capitalism? There is no black and white here. It’s Cubanism. The privatization of food enterprise has opened the door to mom and pop entrepreneurs, where the food is cooked with mucho amor. And where there is mucho amor, there is mucho sabor. And Chef Boy Ari will find it.

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