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Cuban Cuisine, or Where—and Why—Soviet-Style Communism Still Doesn’t Work

In mid-March of this year, I spent a week at a four star hotel/resort midway up the Veradero peninsula northeast of Havana. I admit this doesn’t give me the broad overview of life in Cuba I ought to have to be shooting off my mouth, but since I’m writing about the country’s cuisine, I was qualified within the first twelve hours. The only week-long period in my life when I’ve had worse food was when my parents packed me off to Bible camp after they caught me smoking cigarettes and swearing when I was fourteen years old. By my estimate, the only cuisine on the planet worse than Cuba’s is that of the hard-to-locate but ubiquitous Republic of Chef Boyardee. I’m sure there might be a few small towns in Utah or Northern Manitoba where the food is worse in the dead of winter, but I’m not planning to visit them, so I can’t verify that claim. For a few years before the Canadian dollar turned into the Mexican peso, I holidayed in St. Martins, an 37 square mile island a couple hundred miles southeast of Cuba on the outer edges of the Caribbean. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven there, because the island mates the paradisal climate of the Caribbean with Paris-class French cuisine in at least a half-dozen restaurants, has a Match supermarket in Marigot that features the best French wines, cheeses and jambon de Narbonne, and there’s a bakery next door that sells the best baguette I’ve ever encountered anywhere along with pastries to die for. Little wonder, two days into my Cuban adventure, I was in a state of culinary panic. Cuban cuisine in the year 2002 is a sorry humiliation of human taste buds, and there is no excuse for it. It features the absolute absence of garlic, jalepeno peppers and olive oil, far too much boiled cabbage, tasteless sausages, a tendency to boil every vegetable to oblivion that is beyond the worst excesses of the British working classes, and where possible, to freeze all foodstuffs for six months before boiling or otherwise desecrating it. The salad vegetables are tasteless despite the impossibility of freezing or boiling them, and were dressed in an oil & vinegar dressing that tasted like recycled crankcase droppings sugared with gasoline. Even the mushrooms came from cans. The fruits are a little better, but the fruit-of-choice in Castro’s Cuba is the breadfruit, cherished presumably because it has roughly the same flavour as WonderBread. The local wines are undrinkable—I’ve had better sitting on the hillsides of Northern British Columbia with my friends when I was a teenager—and the imported wines available, most of them Spanish, are musty and sour from improper storage and handling even in the one "serious" restaurant we located. The beer wasn’t bad, but since I wasn’t there to drink myself to death, I choose not to live on it. Now, in my mind, garlic is essential to any decent cuisine, and olive oil is essential to Italian and Spanish cuisine, the latter of which (logically at least) should have exerted a powerful influence on Cuban eating habits. I’ve heard, from people who know the island’s history, that the food wasn’t always this bad, but the aversion to hot peppers and other powerful flavours apparently precedes Castro, and it has never been a gourmand’s retreat. I’m also told that good food can be had in private homes, but the citizens of Veradero weren’t lining up for my business while I was there, and I’m half-convinced this was just friends pulling rank on me. It’s possible that this is just an island of people who happen to be uninterested in good food. Given their history, they have had more pressing things to worry about, and not just since 1957. But so have the French. After I’d been in Cuba a few days, I stopped whining and began to actively search for the reasons behind the lousy food. At first, I thought to lay responsibility on the corpse of the Soviet Union. Any foreign country that exerts as powerful an economic and political influence as the Soviets did on Cuba will inevitably begin to have an influence on culture. It also seems logical to suppose that the Soviets were sending cabbages and other communist happy-food back to the island in the holds of the sugar-boats, along with the advisors, Ladas, and guided missiles. Those thoughts had me cursing the memory of John Foster Dulles and Kruschev for a full day, until I realized that the truer culprit was another Soviet gift: the command economy and the centralized food distribution system that is part of it. I got confirmation of this the next day while I was waiting at the open kitchen of one of the resort’s four wretched restaurants for a takeout order of (pre-frozen) french fries that were the only foodstuff my 4 ½ year old daughter would touch at lunch-time. I saw the chefs taking soggy Caribbean lobster from a thawed-out box and slapping them on the grill next to the rock-hard slabs of pre-frozen red snapper. We’d tried the snapper there the first day, and it had been, along with the British-boiled frozen green beans served with it, truly awful; overcooked, rock-hard, and slathered with the weak mixture of sugared vinegar Cuban chefs try to soak all cooked food in during and after cooking. Someone later told me that all the food prepared at the restaurant came in the same truck from the central government market, and that the reason why all the seafood is so bad is that Fidel has a monopoly that forces fisherman to sell only to the Glorious Revolution. Every foodstuff evidently has to sit in a warehouse for two weeks before being distributed. That’s why the lobster is soggy, the snapper inedible, and the tomatoes tasteless: they’ve all been subjected to proctological exams by the Revolutionary Council to make them fit for consumption. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I think Castro ought to be overthrown simply because Cuban communism has done dirt to the island’s cuisine. The truth is that I’d go back to Cuba again, only this time I’ll bring a bottle of good olive oil with me and eat nothing but green salads. I liked the Cubans I met, most of whom were better educated than the average Canadian, and they have an odd dignity that won’t be hurried or bullied by others, even ones who are handing out American dollars. Cuba, it seems to me, is a lot better off than Guatemala and most other Central and South American countries, and much of their current misery is artificial. If the Americans would stop indulging the memory of John Foster Dulles and trying to impose the now-irrelevant Monroe Doctrine, Cuba would probably have the best quality of life in Central America. On the other hand, command economies don’t work, and Cuba’s is no different than the fully refrigerated ones that existed within the Soviet Bloc while it was still busy polluting Eastern Europe and Central and Northern Asia as part of its mission to make life miserable for its citizens. The Soviet Union failed because it wasn’t any fun. One of the chief means by which human beings have non-malicious fun is eating—and enjoying—good food. Castro’s Cuba needs to get its Revolution around that small but important political truth. There may be reasons for bad food, but there’s never any acceptable excuse for it. April 4, 2002: (1238 words)

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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