Cuban Cuisine in the US
Rice and Beans
Eating like royalty in Cuba
Sharing the table
There is a joke that is told in Cuba. It goes like this:
Two sharks are swimming in the ocean. One shark says to the other, “you are looking strong & healthy.” The second responds, “I come from Europe where the oceans are full of fish. Life is good!” The second shark then says, “You too are looking very handsome & fit, where are you from?” The first shark responds, “I am from America. In America there is food everywhere!” Right then, a third shark swims up. He is thin & covered with cuts and scars. The two sharks look at him and ask, “Where are you from, friend?” The new shark responds, “I’ve just escaped from Cuba where they tried to EAT me!”
I love jokes and I love food, and generally, these two topics can open up doors when you find yourself in a new place and don’t know where to begin.
Here in the US, authentic Cuban cuisine has a reputation for being delicious and often expensive. In addition to congris or moros y cristianos (rice and beans), Cuban cuisine is famous for delicious meat dishes and the creative use of herbs and spices. Before heading off for Cuba, one of the topics we talked about in my orientation was food. Our conversations, however, didn’t focus on trying the new and exotic, they focused on the challenges of simply pulling together food to feed your family.
The Cuban system is based on a monthly ration booklet granted to each household which keeps track of the set amount of rice, beans, bread, etc. each family member should have access to at significantly subsidized prices. Children up to age 7 receive a milk credit. People with health conditions might get an extra pound of protein in their booklet each month. The ration book also designates which food distributor your family can shop at. Even though people spend hours each week in line waiting to buy their ration allowance at their designated store, and even though supplies do run out, it seems like an okay system: equal access for everyone.
The issue is in the quantity. It appears that the subsidized rations only provide what is needed for part of the month. For the remaining days creativity and resourcefulness are absolute necessities in order to “get by” in the unsubsidized market. Some products are available for unsubsidized prices at local produce markets. Selling or exchanging homegrown produce and products is not encouraged. Hunting and fishing licenses, which are required, are difficult to acquire. One visible sign of the struggle to get enough food is seen in the fact that much of the natural flora and fauna of this beautiful island has quite literally been consumed.
As visitors, we were sheltered from this part of Cuban daily life. While we didn’t eat what is served at upscale Cuban restaurants in the US, we always had more than enough. Our hosts purchased items like chicken, fish, and soda and we ate like royalty knowing that these items can be inaccessible for many Cuban families. As typical foreigners some of us complained loudly when butter wasn’t available at every breakfast. Others felt too guilty to eat what we were served.
As for me, my default failed. Most every place else I’ve traveled in Latin America, when you can’t find anything else to talk about, ask about food, favorite dishes, etc and you’ll find yourself engaged in a lively and tantalizing conversation. In Cuba, when I brought up the topic of food, I unintentionally opened the door for heart wrenching stories of trying to “get by”. Often, when the story had been told, and the only appropriate response I could think of was to listen mutely, we would sit quietly. And then, time after time, I would hear the words, “sister, I have a joke for you…”
At the end of the day, sometimes only humor and faith in God give us the hope we need to trust that tomorrow the miracle of the loaves and fishes will be repeated at our tables and in our lives.
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven,
and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.
And all ate and were filled.
What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.”