23 May 2011

Consuming in Cuba

Tess, this entry is dedicated entirely to you.

Over the course of the last year, Edie and Andy has evolved into a very food-oriented blog, so it should come as no surprise that I would feature some highlights of Cuban cuisine on my most recent adventure. I left for Cuba thinking, Cuban sandwiches, black beans and rice, plantains - BRING IT ON! But left with a completely different taste in my mouth regarding the way in which the selling, buying, and consuming of food is treated in Cuba compared to the United States.

Cuban black beans, rice, chicken, gravy
The welcome dinner at an open-air thatch roof restaurant in Havana

First let me explain the currency - then I will try my best to explain the way in which food is purchased. There are two types of currency in Cuba. The Cuban Peso and the CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso, pronounced cook). As a visiting tourist, the only currency I touched was the CUC, which right now is trading at .87 CUCs to $1 USD. There are roughly 25 Cuban Pesos in a CUC - but don't worry, it's not as confusing as it sounds, since the only converting I did was from USD to CUC. In addition to figuring out the currency, let me include that there are no ATMs and no credit card machines in Cuba. I repeat - NO ATMS, NO CREDIT CARDS. Which meant that we had to take out a lot of cash, and conserve as well as convert all of the money we brought. Once you run out, you're out, so if you're really good at Monopoly, Cuba might be a fun place to visit.

The average Cuban makes about 30 CUCs a month - about  $34 USD. But they are paid in Cuban Pesos - so in order to spend their paycheck, they have to convert their money, and in doing so, they lose a fraction of their earnings. This money is expected to cover their living expenses. A lot of the appliances and clothes they own are brought over from the US by family and friends that come to visit Cuba. I once heard an anecdote that a taxi driver and a cigar roller both make more than a doctor in Cuba, and based on the tips that a taxi driver makes, as well as the highest ranking cigar worker - this anecdote is actually true.

In Cuba, there are different kinds of stores. There are ration stores, which accept Cuban Pesos and ration cards. They sell products like sugar, tobacco, cooking oil, feminine products, rice, beans, etc. As a single family unit, you have a neighborhood ration store and a ration book that documents how much you are buying and how much you are allowed to buy. In Cuba, resources can be scarce, so this keeps everyone's buying in check. I don't have a photograph of the actual ration store we visited (because it was forbidden), but it was pretty much just a walk up window with some jars of the product they were selling, and the rest of the goods stored in back.

There are also Cuban Peso stores, which sell odds and ends. We stopped in one of these stores for a moment in Cienfuegos, and it felt kind of like a dollar store. It's a mish mosh of goods, some of it handmade, a lot of it cheaply produced. I remember feeling like there was nothing in the store that I would really want. Plus I couldn't shop there because they only take Cuban Pesos.

Another store we visited was one of the markets. CUCs are the main currency at the markets - so if you are a Cuban and you are shopping here, you have to convert your Cuban Pesos (the currency you are paid in) to CUCs in order to go shopping. The markets carry fresh produce, a lot of which is local, including mango, plantains, and other tropical fruits.

There are also local bakeries and butcher shops. The ration on bread is one roll of bread per person per day, or one loaf of bread for a family per day.

Outside of a local bakery

As I've mentioned previously, Cuba has less resources. It's an island the size of Pennsylvania with a single short rainy season and roughly 300 days of sunshine. Understandably, sustainable agriculture is extremely difficult to maintain. The tomatoes we ate everyday came from South America. All the eggs and chicken, as well as a lot of the grain was imported from the United States through subsidized humanitarian aid (they get our grain surplus). In fact, eggs and chicken are rare enough, that they are rationed. About 10 eggs per person per month, and about 1 pound of chicken per person per month. Beef is a whole other story as well. There simply isn't room or funding to support beef, so beef is completely controlled by the government. You can only buy it at government run restaurants and stores. Milk as a product of cattle is also highly controlled - Cubans only drink cows milk until the age of 5, and then they drink powdered and soy milk. If you are caught poaching or selling beef on the black market, you could face up to 10 years in a Cuban prison. So in short, they eat a lot of pork, a lot of seafood, and a lot of rice and beans.

There are several different types of restaurants we ate at. Hotel buffets - stocked with absurd amounts of food for the European and American visitors. We drank cafe con leche every morning, and I just found out that the milk we were drinking in our coffee our servers were not allowed to drink due to the laws on milk. Government run restaurants - we ate at some restaurants on the side of the highway on our day trips that I'm assuming were government run. The hotels were also most likely run by the government. We at a fair amount of Cubano sandwiches at these places. Palodars - palodars are privately run restaurants in peoples' homes. The word palodar comes from the word "palette", and the food at the palodar we ate at was lights out. We had to walk up an old flight of stairs in this funky old structure and ended up in a converted apartment. These restaurants are run by entrepreneurs and they are heavily taxed by the government.

There aren't as many choices. I know it should have been obvious before I got there - but wow, there aren't really any choices. Beer: you have dark (Bucanero) or light (Crystal). Soda: regular (Tu Kola) or diet (Diet Tu Kola). Forget about McDonald's and don't bother asking for Coca Cola, because they simply don't have it. I'm pretty sure Cuba is the only place I've ever been that doesn't have fast food and hasn't been touched by Coke or McDonald's.

I left Cuba feeling extremely conflicted about my overall relationship with food, as well as my existence as a consumer. I felt a wave of relief when I realized after my first day there that I wasn't being advertised or marketed to 24/7. How refreshing to be in a place where one buys what they can, buys what they need - and by golly finishes everything on their plate. I came to Cuba looking for delicious food, for flavors to match my experiences - but I left realizing just how much food I throw away in my house. I left wondering why I eat as much meat and dairy as I do, when there are other nutritious ways to feed oneself that leave less of a negative impact on the environment.

Material Goods
I felt really foolish having gone shopping for a "vacation wardrobe" to visit a place where new clothes are sold in overpriced government run stores, on the black market, or brought over from the US by friends and family. Living out of a suitcase does wonders for one's relationship to their clothes - I for one felt inspired by having less, wanting to figure out as many permutations for my pieces as possible. I also returned home feeling excited to attack my closet to figure out how to trim it down, because it's not the things in our lives that matter. It's the way we spend our time and who we spend our time with.

In conclusion, I'm making an honest effort to consume less. As for food, I'm going to try to eat less meat - to go out of my way to not buy it. If it's local, if it's organic, if it's raised humanely, or if it's simply in front of me cooked at a bbq, I'll eat it. But I don't really need it. Same goes with clothes. If it's local, if it's handmade, if it's used, if it's absolutely necessary, if I have room for it in my life. But right now, I'm finding that simplicity is the key to happiness.

And now for the food photographs!
Plantains - good fried and in chip form!
Walking through the market

1 comment :

  1. When this post first loaded for me and all the photos of food popped up I thought to myself, "She must've had me in mind!" and then I read your disclaimer haha thank you so much!

    However, after looking at the delicious photos of rice and beans, I learned a lot from this post. I feel very ignorant now for once treating Cuban food as just another ethnic food like the weekly run to the Chinese takeout. I never realized the socio-econonmic problems behind the cuisine of a country especially that of Cuba's. I love Cafe con leche (it may have been the best part of going to Spain for me), but I was shocked and a little disgusted to hear how tourists get all the milk they want while actual Cubans have it rationed. It's good you were able to see through the "happy tourist" act the government was giving you and notice how people really live.Now I understand why this trip was so life changing for you. Thank you for sharing.