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Eating Cuban

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image Old Havana's residents buy their fruits and vegetables from wooden display counters in an open-air building. Melody Jameson Photo

Part four in a series as Melody Jameson visits Cuba.

By Melody Jameson

Of all the gastronomic delights Cubans cook up, one of, if not the most, iconic is the Cuban Sandwich.

As a Floridian, growing up in and around Tampa, I have for a lifetime looked forward to with mouthwatering anticipation, enjoyed with unspeakable relish and praised to the very skies the “Cubanos” that are a menu staple in authentic Cuban and Italian eateries. Oh, that crusty, flavorful bread sandwiching the layers of ham and roast pork and sometimes Genoa salami, with the cheese that adds a little bite, accented with juicy pickle and a slash of mustard! I have gone out of my way to find the real thing, have done them pressed and unpressed, have joyfully consumed literally thousands of ‘em, silently thanking the native Cubans who began concocting them at least a couple of centuries back.

And, I had to go to Cuba to get the worst Cubano I ever have bitten into in that lifetime. I ordered it at the bar in Nacional, Havana’s equally iconic hotel. It arrived old and cold. The bread, while looking like it was cut from a traditional Cuban “rope,” was neither crusty on the outside nor chewy on the inside, much less tasty. The roasted pork slices in the filling were so grisly they could not be chewed. The cheese was negligible. All hints of seasoning had evaporated. It was, in a word, horrendous. The best I can say for it is that what I ate of it did not make me ill.

Breakfast: another story

Happily, though, that eating experience was an anomaly. Nacional, in fact, lays out the most stupendous breakfast bar any traveler could desire. A large dining room on its “basement” level built against the bluff overlooking the Gulf is devoted daily to multiple cold and warming tables laden with arrays of fresh tropical fruits from the various melons to pineapples, papaya and peaches, to a range of egg dishes from hard boiled to scrambled to spicy casseroles, to baskets of muffins, breads, bagels, biscuits of many descriptions. One chef stands by to prepare on the grill any of the traditional breakfast meats as well as eggs, each order to taste. The juice bar offers not only orange and grapefruit and tomato but also squeezed mango and guava and pineapple, fresh and cold. Of course, there’s the selection of hot, rich, strong Cuban coffees.

Different languages mix with the Cuban Spanish, swirling through the room, as hundreds of hotel guests – most of them vacationing tourists clad in shorts, sneakers and sunhats – fuel up for a day of sightseeing in and around the old capital.

They may get directions from or questions answered by the generally solemn native wait staff who will clean their tables, change the linen, place fresh utensils for the next wave. They all recognize two different worlds.
A different world

For, just a few blocks away in Old Havana, Nacional is as foreign a territory to natives as Montreal or Istanbul or Honolulu. They may know someone who works there, they may pick-up or deliver hotel guests there if they work in transportation, they may even establish a temporary working service relationship with a group of guests. But, for many Habanans, the old hotel’s elaborate interior décor, its sparkling exterior pools, and most assuredly its abundant breakfast buffet, might as well be on another continent.

Those natives get their food stuffs in local “markets,” buildings designated for the purpose where butchered cuts of meats – lamb, pork, chicken – are stacked on wooden counters. There is no refrigeration. But then, too, there is no additional charge for the extra black fly protein provided by the swarms hovering over the meat.

In fact, smart flies can vary their diet by zipping into a neighboring building where fruits and vegetables are similarly arrayed, again without any cooling mechanisms.

Of course, for a thrifty American living in the old city, what this market arrangement lacks in environmental sanitation might be balanced by the economical budget. An entire leg of lamb, for instance, probably could be had for considerably less than the price of a three -pound beef sirloin at Publix. But, then the problem for the inner city dweller might be what to do with it at home without adequate refrigeration or cooking appliances.

Agriculture crippled

Cuba’s agricultural production under communism seems to have been strangled. The island nation now imports about 80 percent of its food, some of it from the U.S. under specific trade agreements. Rural roadways outside Havana disclose no herds of grazing cattle on the rolling grasslands. Few horses are seen outside the city. No hog pens are in sight. Only occasionally a few chickens are spotted. Ex-patriots complain that poor farming management under Castro’s communism depleted the vigor of the land, wearing it out for useful crop production.

Perhaps this is among the reasons tour groups of diners visiting restaurants both in and outside the city often are served the same meal repeatedly. Another may be that it is more economical in terms of time, money, ingredients and personnel to prepare large quantities of the same dishes in the government-owned and operated restaurant kitchens. Still another may be that the meal apparently is considered classically Cuban.

Eating Cuban

If meat is on the menu in the households of Old Havana's residents, they probably will have bought it from this open market building in the Old City.Regardless of the motivations, when part of a group taken to be tourists, I was served the very same four courses with little option for variation day after day, in both public dining rooms and private homes. The meal began with a glass of a soft red wine – a real Sangria in one instance – or, upon diner insistence, cerveza in a can (cold Cuban beer) or cold bottled water. This was followed by a small salad of shredded lettuce, possibly with a little shredded carrot added, and a piece or two of anemic tomato. The third course became substantial with mounds of fluffy white rice and thick black bean soup to the side of a roasted, fried or grilled meat entre – usually pork, sometimes chicken – and perhaps even a little fried plantain.

The meal then was finished with really sweet, creamy and cold ice creams in varied fruit flavors and, naturally, a cup of strong Cuban coffee.

Filling and not unpleasant, the meal essentially was the same whether at El Aljibe in Miramar or at Divina Pastora across the channel near Havana’s famed fort in the El Morro Castle or at La Ferminia in the upscale Flores neighborhood.

None of these, of course, are frequented by Habanans living in the old city. While Fidel Castro reportedly has dined with his party at La Ferminia situated in a restored colonial mansion, his countrymen by the thousands know the dining venues so popular on tour itineraries by name only. Nor, I suspect, do natives in the old city have any firsthand experience with most of the menu items.

My most delectable, more varied meals beyond Nacional’s breakfast, though, I enjoyed with native Cubans who steered me to their haunts in the old city, ordering for me from menus detailed solely in Cuban. I did not think about the open meat market although, ultimately, I may have eaten from its counters. I know I would have found none of it on my own.

Part One:  Fifty years and one embargo later, what did I miss?

Part Two:  Getting in touch with my inner Cuban

Part Three: Looking like home

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

Next: There’s more to Cuba than Havana

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