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Flash in the Pan

Championing Cuban cuisine


With most of the public’s attention focused on the massive economic stimulus plan, Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., quietly introduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act. This bill would allow American citizens unrestricted travel to Cuba for the first time since 1963, and would lift limits on travel by Cuban exiles living in the United States.

I traveled to Cuba in 2003 on a special permit, as the leader of a University of Montana study abroad program. We examined how Cuba’s agriculture system responded to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Back in the 1960s, Cuba had more tractors per capita than any country in the world, and a highly chemical-intensive agriculture system that grew mostly sugarcane, which they traded to the U.S.S.R. in exchange for fertilizer, fuel, wheat and other commodities. When the Soviet Union tanked, Cuba’s tractors ran out of gas, and the nation had to convert to a diversified and largely organic agriculture system—and do so in a hurry.

Our permit was valid for two years. But after our first trip President George W. Bush cancelled the permit with tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba. Congress introduced a bill to ease these restrictions, but Bush vetoed it.

I hope President Barack Obama follows through with his campaign promise to do what Congress attempted—ease the restrictions. They have made life unnecessarily difficult for Cubans, and haven’t succeeded in weakening Fidel Castro’s regime. In fact, the restrictions have arguably strengthened the Cuban government, forcing the regime to impose measures of great austerity in order to survive.

Myth and hyperbole seem to outweigh facts when people talk about Cuba. For example, one common criticism against allowing Americans to travel to Cuba is that many Cuban resorts cater to wealthy foreigners while barring Cuban citizens from visiting. That seems unfair, but might be a direct result of the travel restrictions—the government has created these resorts as economic engines in order to raise enough capital to survive the economic embargo. This income has helped Cuba beat the United States in key statistics like infant mortality, literacy, doctors per capita and life expectancy.

While the exclusivity of Cuban resorts is a moral paradox to some, for others, like the aptly named James Suckling, European editor of Cigar Aficionado, it doesn’t appear to be a concern.

“‘Just think of it,’ I said, as we were having a lunch of lobster and shrimp while drinking delicious chilled whites from Marques de Murrieta, the excellent Spanish winery, on a gorgeous beach about 30 minutes from the marina. ‘You could leave from Miami in your cigarette boat in the morning, be here in two hours for lunch, smoke a cigar, and then drive back,’” he wrote. “That sounds like paradise to me.”

Cuban cuisine has suffered big-time from the embargo, and was hardly a highlight of our trip. We were able to travel in un-touristy areas, where the fare was geared more toward survival than luxury. Shrimp and lobster were not on the menu. But in an interesting example of Cuba’s success at egalitarianism, everyone had plenty of cigars. I’ll never forget seeing a street sweeper do his work while puffing on a fat stogie.

The Spanish wines sipped upon by Mr. Suckling while he suckled his stogies are a reminder of the close links between Spain and Cuba. And while most Cubans can’t dine on lobster, they can enjoy a fabulous Spanish-influenced garlic soup I learned how to make from a book called Cook Cuban, written by three brothers-in-law who go by “Three Guys from Miami.” This soup can be cooked with simple ingredients available even when times are tough.

Break 6 slices of white bread, or the equivalent amount from a baguette, and sauté the bread chunks in olive oil until they begin to brown. Stir in 12 cloves of garlic, minced, and sauté for another minute—just long enough to cook the garlic slightly. Mash the garlic and the bread together with a spoon.

Add one 28-ounce can of tomatoes, chopped (or the equivalent amount frozen from last year’s garden), 1 teaspoon paprika, 1 bay leaf, 4 cups chicken stock, and a half cup sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Separate 6 eggs. Add 3 tablespoons of the hot broth to the egg yolks, beating constantly, to temper them. Add egg yolks to the broth and whisk in rapidly until smooth.

Quickly whisk in the unbeaten egg whites until mixed completely. Bring the soup to a boil and then remove from heat. Garnish with parsley and serve.

This soup is so buoyant it practically floats off the spoon. It’s so tasty you better not serve it too hot or your guests will burn their mouths, helpless to slow down their savory slurps.

There’s a lot we could learn from Cubans, if we were allowed to intermingle. And if we were, I think it’s likely that American ideals like freedom to speak, organize and protest might gain traction there. In the meantime, while we may disagree with Cuba’s form of government, it really isn’t any of our business.

Ask Ari: The most mysterious meat of all

Q: Dear Flash,

Thanks for exploring the wonderful world of “mystery meat” (see Jan. 15, 2009). Maybe you could look into the most mysterious meat of all—the stuff we serve our children in school. It was sketchy way back before the days of mad cow disease. Now, with downer cows entering the food stream (remember the 143,000,000 pound “commodity” beef recall last year?), we have every reason to be concerned. And to get active.

We should probably all contact our school food service directors and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, and let them know they should be supplying high quality whole foods and meats to schools, and not food-like substances originating on the slaughterhouse floor. “Commodity” products from the USDA funneled to schools via the Office of Public Instruction include several mystery meat products, most of extremely poor quality. They should be avoided. We should demand a serious upgrade of school lunch meats. Sorry, this isn’t much of a question. Or is it?

—Mad Mom

A: Actually, no, Mad Mom, it isn’t really much of a question. But it is an important issue, and thanks for giving me most of the week off. If one were able to be a fly on the wall and observe the goings on at feedlots, slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities, one would probably notice a lot of other flies on the wall, as well as many other gross sights and vile acts of unhygienic cruelty. Sick and downer cattle herded to slaughter pee and crap everywhere. Even workers pee in the facilities within splattershot of the assembly line, at least according to one video shot by a PETA spy. There are also rats and roaches scurrying around, feathers and beaks in the chicken patties and gray ooze in the burgers. Don’t our kids deserve better than this?

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