How canned tomatoes and cassava cake became as authentically Cuban as ropa vieja.
“I make better Cuban food than anyone over there,” twenty-something Gaby told me as we waited in Miami for a flight to Havana. She was with her mother-in-law, who, like most of the other passengers, carried multiple plastic-covered packages of toys, gifts, and daily necessities that were unavailable or very expensive on the island. Gaby wasn’t going, nor had she ever been. Her abuela—who had raised Gaby and taught her to cook—had fled Cuba as Fidel Castro seized power. When I told the young woman that I was going to research the country’s food culture, she just laughed.
“No one knows how to cook there,” she said. “They’re just surviving.”
That was the first moment I began questioning my assumptions on what I might find on the island that many Americans think of as frozen in time. Having recently published a book on traditional, small-batch food around the United States, I hypothesized that similar traditions were revived in Cuba after the Soviet collapse almost 30 years before, and that modern Cuban food culture was a direct reflection of what was eaten by generations long past. Within hours of Gaby’s warning, however, I discovered how wrong I was.
I stayed with a family—Kety, her grown son, Oryel, and his abuela—renting an extra bedroom in a legal casa particular, or homestay. Tattoo-covered Oryel spoke English and showed me around my first evening, explaining my interest in food to Kety. She responded in rapid-fire Spanish, which Oryel translated: Tomorrow, if I wanted, she would take me to a culinary school where her boyfriend teaches.
The next morning we took a gypsy cab a few miles away to the residential neighborhood of Miramar. The school was in what might have once passed for a beachside country club, a crumbling, fortified concrete building abutting a rock-strewn beach. Inside, teenagers in toques and chef coats slouched in chairs, watching a Spanish food program on TV. On tables that edged the walls were two dozen dishes, meticulously plated, that would soon be judged on taste and presentation.
Kety and I walked around to inspect each one before the judges. Most neighborhoods, she explained, had a number of culinary programs—more trade schools than culinary ivory towers—that focused on various cuisines, such as Italian or French. This was a “Cuban” school, and students could take programs that ranged from less than a year to two or more to learn how to make their curriculum of Cuban dishes. The government ran the school, like nearly every institution in the country, and the typical graduate might cook at a tourist restaurant or hotel, or maybe open their own paladar, informal restaurants run from private residences that had recently become legal.
Kety and I walked by deep-fried fish cakes and a slice of meatloaf adorned with a single olive, a molded mound of ropa vieja over rice, and stuffed crab. At the hollowed-out pineapple filled with unidentifiable seafood, Kety finally stopped and laughed. None of these foods were what she ate, she said. Many she had never even seen. Each dish was plated with a smear of sauce and was heavy on the seafood and beef, two foods that were extremely expensive or completely unavailable to the average Cuban.
In my halting Spanish, I asked Kety what she ate at home. She had made me a feast that morning for breakfast: scrambled eggs with onions and slices of industrial-made white bread, slivers of tomato, and a plate with fruit salad alongside my requested coffee. I had eaten alone on the front patio watching the sun come up. I doubted this was what she or Oryel ate for breakfast. So what is Cuban food to her? But she didn’t seem to understand the question, or maybe she couldn’t understand why I’d want to know.
That night, I went to a paladar called El Idilio. It was only a ten-minute walk from Kety and Oryel’s apartment in Vedado, but sat in the fancier section of town, where there were cars in the driveway and well-tended lawns, a stark contrast to my hosts’ concrete apartment building across from grand but crumbling houses with laundry fluttering from the open arched windows. Many have stretched the definition of a paladar to encompass freestanding and seemingly professional businesses.
This place had clearly been built in the driveway of an upper-class home, and under the tent was an open grill. Tables of tourists and a few well-dressed Cubans were drinking wine and eating seafood and steak on starched white tablecloths. I ordered the seafood soup, filled with flaky hunks of fish and plump bites of sweet shrimp. My main dish was deep-purple, handmade squid ink pasta, rough cut and toothsome with a taste of the sea. With wine and tip, the bill came to around 20 CUCs (approximately 1:1 with the American dollar). It was quite reasonable by my standards, yet few Cubans could afford these prices in a country where the average government wage is around $20 USD a month.
AN AVERAGE OF 3,000 CALORIES WAS AVAILABLE FOR CUBANS BEFORE THE SOVIET COLLAPSE. THAT DROPPED TO 1,800 CALORIES
The next day, I had an appointment to meet with Vilda and Jose Figeroa, founders of the organization Proyecto Comunitario Conservacion de Alimentos, which was started during the “Special Period,” as the time of deprivation after the Soviet collapse was euphemistically called. The group’s charge is to teach mostly young Cubans to plant gardens and cook and preserve what they grow.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost four fifths of its imports and exports, slashing the country’s buying power and the availability of daily necessities—like fuel for transportation or reliable electricity—all but bringing the country to a halt. Likewise, there was a gaping void in food production and availability for its citizens, causing starvation and mass health issues; one stark statistic is that the average Cuban lost 20 pounds. Vilda explained that there was an average of 3,000 calories available for the typical Cuban before the Soviet collapse. But after 1989, that dropped to around 1,800 calories per citizen.
Seemingly overnight, Cubans were forced to return to farming using pre-industrial methods, despite that this approach had been all but abandoned during the previous generation, and much of the knowledge and resources had been lost. Cubans had to adapt quickly to the need to feed themselves using what little resources were available.
Vilda was a professor of nutrition at the University of Havana at the onset of the Special Period and had, prior to 1989, left Cuba on multiple occasions for her job, which gave her a unique perspective on how other countries dealt with food sovereignty. During the food crisis, she saw ways that she could help Cubans address this dire need for basic nutrition. So she and Jose taught themselves what food could be grown in the local climate that she describes as “fragile”: rainy and dry seasons with extreme heat. They also scoured what few books they could find to further develop methods for preserving the harvest through processes like canning (heat preservation in jars) and fermenting.
Vilda said that prior to their efforts, tomatoes were the only produce being preserved beyond the harvest, and that abundant items, like mangoes, could be found rotting on the trees. She and Jose officially founded their organization in 1994 and began finding ways to share their newfound knowledge of gardening, cooking, and preserving with as many people as they could.
At the same time as Vilda and Jose’s efforts, others were also working to create vast—mostly organic—urban gardens, many in the province of La Habana, which includes the city and some outlying smaller towns. According to some sources, 75 percent of the produce consumed in the province of Havana is grown there (and some put it as high as 90 percent). This is amazing, considering that La Habana is by far the smallest of the country’s 16 provinces—just under 300 square miles—but is home to more than 2 million of the country’s 11 million people. Almost 20 percent of the country’s population lives on less than one percent of its land, and yet does a decent job of feeding itself. Vilda and Jose’s efforts—they have been on national television and radio, given countless workshops, written more than 20 cookbooks and instruction manuals, and have produced and disseminated recipes and instructions to individuals and community groups—have done much to support that effort, and they have been visited by numerous NGOs and other groups like Slow Food International, who sought to learn from their practices.
Their work, and similar efforts by others, introduced many new foods to the Cuban diet while popularizing others: cassava has become much more widely grown, and they developed recipes that dried the root vegetable and turned it into flour, which could then be made into bread and cake. Sauerkraut, too, was a food not often consumed in the country, but has gained popularity because of its nutrition, low cost, and ability to be stored for long periods.
It was then that I began to see the larger picture of food culture in Cuba. I had assumed that when Cubans were faced with their food crisis at the fall of the Soviet Union that they simply resurrected gardening and preparation and preservation traditions from decades past. But many of these traditions had been systematically quashed for generations, in part from the culture of colonization by the United States—who provided cheap imports so rural Cubans could focus their efforts on sugar cane production—and then by the Communist culture during Castro’s reign prior to the Soviet collapse, which de-emphasized self-sufficiency and insisted that the government would provide for the people. These were not simply cultural influences, but political factors that determined what ingredients were even available for consumers to work with.
Certainly a number of Cubans had grown up with small gardens and had continued to make certain recipes or preserves from bequeathed recipes. But the number of those who had that knowledge had long been dwindling, and with the cultural changes, such as population migration from rural to urban centers, or vast changes in what raw ingredients were available as trading partners shifted or disappeared, it stands to reason that many of these traditions changed or disappeared. This is not unlike the shift away from small batch foods in the United States over the past 50-plus years in favor of cheaper, mass produced goods. While some of these traditions are now being revived in the U.S. due to increased interest in culinary heritage, the average American would face the same knowledge gap should the grocery store shelves suddenly go empty.
I thought back to what Gaby had said in the airport just a few days before, that she cooked better Cuban food than most Cubans. She probably learned recipes that were closer to the pre-Special Period foods than those cooked and eaten in Cuba now, and, depending on when her grandmother emigrated from Cuba, perhaps she had even kept alive traditions from before the Soviet era, when foods from the United States were widely available.
I began to imagine the learning curve for the many Cubans who were thrust into severe food insecurity long after many assumed they would no longer need these traditional methods or recipes. They needed people like Vilda and Jose to teach them the seasonality of produce, how to grow it, cook it, and preserve it. It didn’t matter if it was “authentic” to the country’s past, and what was authentic, anyway, in a land where multiple waves of colonial influence had long dictated what foods were produced domestically or available for purchase? Perhaps what people are growing and cooking and preserving themselves now is the most authentic Cuban food in generations. And it’s hard to place too much importance on such designations in a country where food security is still an issue.
The next day, I recruited Oryel to take me to a farmers market to see for myself the array of produce that was grown within the province and served as raw ingredients for the meals of Cubans around the city. The closest one to the apartment was vibrant in early afternoon: there were bins with dried beans of many colors and sizes, a stall with birds in wooden cages (pets, Oryel assured me), pig heads and hooves with hovering flies, baggies of spices, and a table with homemade sauces and jams. And there were tables and tables of fresh produce: red and green hot peppers, bunches of onions, heads of cabbage, and long locks of braided garlic. There was also produce that I hadn’t before seen. I learned about the pink-hued boniato, hairy malanga, and the rough-skinned cassava, all of which Oryel said his grandmother had cooked for him when he was young. I was intrigued.
I told Oryel I wished I could taste the meal he had described and offered to buy the ingredients so we could go home and make it. We filled three grocery bags of root vegetables: boniato and cassava, sweet potato and calabasa and carrot, a head of garlic and a few limes. Bags so full that Oryel had to carry them in his arms like a small child cost less than three dollars. We caught a gypsy cab, pressed into the back seat with a third passenger, and once home presented our bags to Kety. We offered to help, but she shooed us from the dim galley kitchen into the hallway as we watched her peel and chop the vegetables before placing them in her electric pressure cooker, a gift from her other son, who lived in Sydney with his Australian wife.
A half hour later, Oryel and I were sitting down to steaming bowls, slick with oil and dotted with shimmering puddles of lime juice. I took a bite. Each vegetable had its own subtle flavor and texture; the boniato was both starchy and sweet, the calabasa perfectly firm and earthy. Yet the garlic and lime helped elevate the flavor beyond its basic components. Pungent and tangy, each bite tasted both comforting and exciting at the same time. Part of me wanted to know how authentic this meal was: was this a dish that was representative of the Special Period, with its simplicity and cassava, or was this one that Oryel’s abuela had eaten when she was young, long before those lean years? But I realized that it didn’t matter. It was the first meal I had eaten with my host family, and one of the tastiest I had in Cuba. It may not have starred fresh seafood or been served with a long-simmered sauce, but it came with a story of a love and survival, imbued with the history of a complicated and beautiful and resilient land.