No. One. Goes. To. Cuba. For. The. Food. Is what everyone said to me.
And yet, I had hope.Surely there would be decent rice and beans; fresh, if bland fish or seafood; surely it wasn’t as bad as they said.
Our hotel had a buffet: dauntingly huge, the variety impressive. Salad bar, soups, pasta bar, grills for meat and fish, and cafeteria-style offerings of pork, chicken, potatoes and rice. An enormous variety of desserts, and, to my mother’s great delight, an ice cream sundae station.
The problem wasn’t in the variety. It was in the taste. How could such a diverse array of foods could have such similar flavour? Perhaps this was due to the “sofrito”, main ingredient for almost every Cuban dish – a sauté of onions, green peppers, garlic, oregano and bay leaves. Possibly it was also an illusion of variety; most of the food offerings did not change from day to day. This could have as much to do with the US embargo as with lack of imagination or will.
I gave up on novelty, or nuances of flavour. I began to notice how fresh the food tasted. In fact, Cuba is a world leader in organic food production, born of necessity, since the embargo prevents the import of most pesticides and herbicides. Natural “bio-controls”, like cut banana stems baited with honey to attract ants, are produced co-operatively, and are proving to be more effective than chemical agents.
Eating simply was key. Crisp white rolls at breakfast, with butter, cheese, apricot jam. The exquisite coffee. At lunch, a salad with fresh lettuces, green beans, fish, capers, potatoes. I noticed that the vegetables did not have the metallic taste of North American salad bars. Success at dinner meant sticking to chicken or pork, pouncing on the fried plantain when available. Softening the whole affair with a mojito beforehand, and a glass of sparkling Cava wine throughout.
The best meal I had in Cuba was during our day tour of Havana. For lunch we were taken to an outdoor restaurant in the suburbs, a place for Canadian tourists disgorged from tour buses. Socially and gustatotorially, my expectations were low. We sat at long tables with couples from Regina and Surrey wearing beige Tilly wear, and, at our end, one gay male couple who barely spoke.
The Tilly couples enumerated trips to the Bahamas where the food had been much better; next year’s plan to go to Mexico, much more bang for your buck and no tax to pay at the airport. My mother nodded and smiled politely, but didn’t feel comfortable enough among these smug aficionados of package deals to vocalize in her guttural laryngectomy voice. I wished that our disavowed end of the table could unify, perhaps exchange raised eyebrows, display a sophisticated irony. But the gay men shrank back even further, gazing around desperately. My mother’s eyes glazed over. When the food arrived we all fell upon it as though we had not eaten for days.
Nothing spectacular: roasted pork with rice and beans. But the pork was so tender it was almost silken. The rice, freshly prepared (as opposed to that which had been languishing in a buffet) was fluffy, and piquant, somehow. The waitress took a shine to my ma; she was the only one to get ice cream. Who’s smug now? We relaxed into an almost primitive, bodily contentment as the mild, slightly prickly touristic conversation buzzed around us. The gay men smiled for the first time all day, and took pictures of each other.
The rest of the day was a blur of colonial architecture, monuments, and the watercolour wash of this gorgeous, crumbling, exquisitely beautiful city. The trip back was long, regretful. I wanted to stay, blend into the magic and sizzle of Havana.
When we got back to the hotel it was dinnertime; we headed to the buffet in a desultory fashion. There were cold langoustines available in the salad bar – really a kind of shrimp, but very much like lobster. I had several, delicious with the sparkling wine. We sweet-talked the waitress. She convinced the cook to prepare a bisque for my mother.
The best meals, as always, are unexpected, telling your tongue a story you hadn’t heard before.