I recall my trip to Cuba a decade ago and ruminate on what the new policy shift could mean for Cuba's food and agricultureEleven years ago on New Year's Day, I arrived in Cuba with a group of students from the University of Montana. We were there on a hard-to-get educational permit. Our goal was to get a handle on the state of Cuba's agriculture system, which, thanks to geopolitical circumstances, had been thrust in an aggressively organic direction. We also wanted to get our mouths around some Cuban food, and our minds around the enigma that is Cuba. Now, with President Barack Obama's recent steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba, it will be interesting to see how the Cuban food system, as well as the rest of the country, changes.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's agriculture system was characterized by monocultures of sugar and tobacco. These crops were sent to the USSR in exchange for gas, food, agrichemicals, and equipment. At the time, Cuba boasted the most tractors per capita of any nation. When the Soviet Union tanked, Cuba suddenly had to grow a lot more than sugar and tobacco but without the inputs and supplies on which it had grown dependent.
Politicians in the U.S. saw this as an opportunity to tighten the noose on Fidel Castro's regime, and made the embargo more severe by passing the 1993 Cuban Democracy Act, which made it illegal for U.S. companies to do business with foreign subsidiaries that did business with Cuba. This isolated the nation even more. The average Cuban's caloric intake dropped to as low as 1,000 calories per day. Fertility rates dropped and abortion rates climbed.
The Cuban government began breaking up the large state-owned plantations and putting them in the hands of the workers, who turned many of them into vegetable farms, orchards, and animal pasture. In cities, vacant lots, yards, and rooftops were converted to gardens. Agroecology, a powerful agricultural paradigm in which farms are treated as ecosystems, took firm root in Cuba. Farmers markets appeared, becoming one of the first signs of the emergence of a free market in Cuba.
The resourcefulness with which Cuba attacked its food issues was reflected in many other ways that Cuba dealt with scarcity. Cuba functioned as if the world was actually a finite place, with limited resources, and the mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle" went without saying. Broken tools and appliances that most Americans would toss were repaired. Anything with wheels was put on the road.
Despite long odds, the people were fed. Average caloric intake rose above 2,500 per day. Infant mortality dropped to lower levels than in the U.S. But these impressive metrics came with a hefty price tag in terms of civil liberties. It was a common occurrence for members of our group to be pulled aside and told, in hushed tones, about the government spies, the threat of prison, and lack of freedom and opportunity.
Along with sharing their dissatisfaction with their own government, many Cubans also vented frustration with ours. In addition to the material hardships caused by the embargo, there was a widespread pain at the loss of contact with their neighbors to the north. Cubans, by and large, love and respect Americans, and the embargo hurt their feelings.
We made a lot of friends in Cuba, smoked some fine cigars, heard some amazing music, and ate some surprisingly bland food.
Given the agricultural strides Cuba has made, the underwhelming food surprised me. One of the world's hottest peppers, the habanero, is named after residents of Havana, but the cuisine was devoid of spice.
At one point, touring a farm, I asked a farmer, "Donde estan los pepinos picantes?" (Where are the hot pepinos?)
She gave me a look of utter confusion.
One of my students pulled me aside and pointed out that pepinos means cucumber, which helped explain her reaction. But even when I adjusted my vocabulary, I still got shrugs. "We don't eat them here," I was told.
Not that I'm conflating piquancy with flavor. But the food was largely so boring that any spice surely would have helped. This isn't to say that Cuban food is inherently bland, but that the Cuban flavor has gone into hiding — holing up in some private homes, and offshore, but rarely found in restaurants. There were some very notable exceptions, like the El Romero vegan restaurant in Las Terrazas, a welcome and inspiring respite to the steady diet of pork we were fed. But more often, it seemed as if the years of repression had suffocated the culinary soul of Cuba, and most of the cooks that had grown up during the embargo didn't really know what to do with the newly emerging diversity of produce. Hopefully, along with increased freedom and opportunity, normalizations with Cuba will allow some flavor back into the lives of ordinary Cubans.
But at the same time, the advances made in Cuban agriculture may be threatened by the availability of fossil fuel-based farming practices, and diverse, agroecological systems might revert to monocultures. I hope not.
I'll leave you with a recipe for sopa de Ajo, or garlic soup. There aren't any hot peppers, but the paprika hints at the Spanish roots of Cuban cuisine. The recipe comes from the wonderful cookbook Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban (Gibbs Smith).
Sopa de Ajo
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 slices white bread, cubed
12 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1 bay leaf
4 cups chicken stock
¼ cup sherry
6 eggs, yolks and whites separated
Sauté cubes of bread in hot oil in a pot until they begin to brown. Stir in minced garlic and sauté for another minute — just long enough to cook the garlic slightly. Mash the garlic and the bread together with a spoon.
Add tomatoes, paprika, bay leaf, stock and sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour. Salt and pepper to taste.
Separate the eggs, add three tablespoons of the hot broth to the egg yolks, beating constantly, to temper them. Add egg yolks to the broth and whisk in rapidly until smooth.
Quickly whisk in the unbeaten egg whites until mixed completely. Bring the soup to a boil, remove from heat. Garnish with parsley and serve.