People have asked since I returned from Cuba if I brought back cigars.
Though they’re now legal, I didn’t bring back the country’s best-known agricultural export.
What I really wanted to bring back were the sweet potatoes. They were tender and sweet, needing no more adornment than a sprinkle of salt. I love the orange yam or sweet potato, particularly this time of year, but these yellow tubers were newfound friends.
Likewise, the coffee was dark, thick rocket fuel made in stove-top espresso makers.
It was often simple food, and even after a week, the lack of variety was evident. In Cuba, the story of feeding a nation of more than 11 million people is often one of making do, of getting by.
Cubans will tell you they have enough food. They just don’t have variety.
A group of us from six U.S. states traveled to Cuba for a week Nov. 9-16. The delegation to the country put together by the Mennonite Economic Development Association chapter in Sarasota, Florida, focused on food and the food chain in the socialist country that Americans have heard about our entire lives. The U.S. fascination with Cuba, its old cars and its way of life in the United States seems to have been instilled in all of us who grew up hearing about one of our closest neighbors.
You can learn a lot about a country in a week, but there’s always risk that your impressions don’t hold as much truth as you hope. At the very least, I can tell you about the flavors.
There was the hog grown, killed and roasted on the 20-acre farm we visited on the outskirts of Matanzas, two hours east of Havana. The mojo marinade of garlic, lime juice and salt made it magical.
There were the mini bananas that taste like apples and the fruit called noni that tastes like blue cheese. (I had to try it. I don’t need to again despite its lauded health properties.)
There was the red snapper that Cubans don’t favor but still understand how to grill and serve.
During our week of travel, we heard from farmers and those who eat their food. We visited places where food is grown and sold but also saw a lot of land that was untilled. While community gardens and even patio pots with tomato plants are part of how Americans think about food, in Cuba they’re rare.
“What is it people complain about?” Sandor Alvarez, our interpreter, said. “It’s a lack of variety. Chicken. Pork. At any moment I will grow feathers.”
Like the economics of food in the United States, the Cuban system is complicated and harder to fully comprehend because it’s based on communism/socialism rather than capitalism.
A system of ration cards to distribute basic staples to Cubans nearly free of charge was established after the country became Communist under Fidel Castro in the early 1960s. Rice, sugar, beans and powdered milk are still distributed this way.
Farmers markets feature fruits and vegetables, but there are no rations for them. Procuring them means spending money, and wages are often so low that it’s easier to rely on the food that comes from the ration cards. Those who can afford it can also use currency to buy pasta, or mayonnaise from the shelves at the “CUC store,” so called for the Cuban Convertible Peso.
Economics and food supply are often complicated in ways not accounted for in modern political discourse, yet the U.S. sanctions and embargo of the country are at the heart of many of the shortages. The Cuban government estimates that it lost $4.3 billion from April 2018 to March 2019 because of the Trump administration’s enforcement and tightening that prevents trade not just by the U.S., but its partners. Tourism is again more limited after relations between the two countries improved during the Obama administration, and it became easier for Americans to travel there.
Seeing a different approach to feeding a nation, one that often involves oxen because parts for tractors are rare, raised more questions than it answered. As with any trip to an exotic place, it was easy to be taken in by the flavors, as well as the generous hospitality of Cubans.
All over the world, we can gather around the table and learn a bit more about how others live. Whatever the economics, at least that’s universal.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.