Food after Cuba

At Newark on the way to La Migra, the scent of fatty food from United’s terminal of iPad restaurants wafts through the air. “It smells so good,” moans a Southern-born Brooklynite who sat next to me on the plane from Havana. All of us returnees have food–spicy, fatty, seasoned, Guy Fieri-approved food–on our minds.

But also: “I need to eat a salad,” says a returning Jewish girl. She is probably well-versed in the ways of Sweetgreen, but in Cuba you’d be lucky to get iceberg shreds and a tomato slice with your plato of pork, rice and beans.

We’ve come from a land of austerity and rationing. The government controls the food supply, and it’s been strapped for cash since losing access to the Soviet gravy train in 1991 (Soviet aid comprised 90% of state revenue).

As a result, each family gets a limited allocation of victuals. Grocery stores are nonexistent; Cubanos pick up their food supplies from a local depot and their tab goes in a register. They max out at five eggs per month. (Sorry, no brunch culture.)

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Local butcher in Centro, Habana

I did see men coming ‘round the neighborhood with garlic, onions and shallots, singing their song of “cebollas, cebollas”. Havana had small farmer’s markets as well. But despite the budding markets, the economy is still broadly planned. Planning is hard, and shortages are common. It doesn’t help that a large amount of the food is directed to the tourist trade.

The austerity extends not only to the quantity of food but also the quality. Anyone in a sunny clime can grow herbs and chilis on her windowsill, but Cuban food suffers from a mysterious lack of seasoning. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s the communist favor for drab, for an almost Buddhist monk-like asceticism. I had some decent dishes, like arroz marinero (rice with mixed seafood), that would have vastly improved with a little chili. If I have a single recommendation for visitors to Cuba, it would be: “Bring your own bottle of hot sauce.”

With a dearth of cooking oil, you can forget about caloric comforts like fries. And going to the local store to purchase local snacks, one of my favorite travel activities, is surprisingly hard to do. The place barely even has stores. A Mexican from Veracruz whom I met at a bus station offered me some chocolate Oreo-style cookies once. I examined the label to discover they came from Brazil. I work at tech companies with baskets of free snacks. In Cuba, they live in a world without snacks.

For my first couple days in Cuba, I sorely missed Mexico with its everything picante and ancient indigenous food so delicious that it has buoyed the country to the status of “only non-Anglo nation in the Obesity Top 5”. I will say the Cubans, despite possible lung disease from a years of smoking and choking on Lada exhaust, looked pretty healthy, as they were mostly very physically fit.

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Not from Cuba. Carnitas, cochinita pibil tacos and duck in mole negro from Restaurante El Bajio in Polanco, Mexico D.F.

In fact, I lost three or four pounds there. It was not only from my diet of ham and cheese sandwiches; it was also because I had to ration money. American ATM or credit cards do not work there, so I was limited to the $450 I brought for nine days (I had already prepaid all my stays at casas particulares). This turned out to be plenty of money, even enough to buy a $50 bottle of Santiago rum aged 12 Years on my way out. But I was constantly paranoid that I would run out of money and end up in a jam.

As a result, 50 cent ham sandwiches, skipping meals and walking 30-60 blocks at a time to avoid cab fare was my Cuba M.O. This was a big lifestyle change for someone who considers herself a “foodie” and eats $50 meals a couple times per month. Actually, I think it would be a struggle for anyone from the USA, where obesity not starvation is the killer; hence our collective airport salivation. At one point, I drank a national brand Cuban cola instead of water mainly for the calories.

p1140559Menu at a kiosk favored by taxi drivers by the Hotel Nacional. The exchange rate is 24 pesos to a $1. However, these Havana prices would be considered expensive elsewhere.

What an effect just nine days of pauperism will do to you. (And I recommend it to any rich American, so they can learn what it’s like to be poor and check their privilege so hard.) On the plane home, I dreamed mainly of my first meal back in America.

I was with Salad Girl. My diet in Cuba felt lacking in plant fiber and I craved vegetables more than I craved picante or pizza. I ended up hitting three birds with one stone. My first night back in New York, I ate brussel sprouts with anchovy, chili and lemon, heirloom carrots with dill, capers and shallots and a Neapolitan-style pizza topped with rapini, crescenza, fresno chili and lemon. I actually felt sick eating that much flavor after my week when food was fodder.

The next morning I also ate Saturday brunch, having not consumed an egg in ten days. Yet, still craving fiber and actually fearing a large egg-based meal, I ordered a dish of yogurt, granola, quinoa, sweet potato and pomegranate seeds. This didn’t taste “healthy” in a bad way; it tasted delicious. Meanwhile, home fries bummed off my husband’s plate tasted like an explosion of flavor in my mouth.

In my apartment, I still had treats leftover from Christmas: chocolates from New Zealand, Ohio and San Francisco, Chinese black sesame cookies, cheesy potato snacks from Japan. Between that and a trip to Whole Foods and my closet full of winter clothes and the fact that I could play anything I wanted from Spotify on my phone, I kept exclaiming, “This is the land of riches!”

I can totally see why brown bears keep stealing our food instead of hunting, and why Cubans would gamble to cross the 90 miles to Florida in rickety rafts.

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