Eating Well in Cuba

It’s funny how seemingly unrelated events over many years time can somehow coalesce into one experience. Several years ago I saw a play at the Seattle Repertory Theatre called “The Cook” by Eduardo Machado. More recently, my book group read Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire. I never connected those two literary experiences to each other until the first time I went to a restaurant in Havana.

Machado’s play had three scenes, all set in the same kitchen. In the first, an affluent, pregnant, young woman is preparing to flee Cuba during the revolution of the early 1950’s.  She begs her cook to help her get away and to take care of the house until she returns. She pledges undying devotion to her servant. In the second scene, years have passed since the revolution. The Cuban people have faced great austerity, and the kitchen is showing signs of deterioration. In the third scene, even more years later, the kitchen is even shabbier. The cook has opened a restaurant in the house. The grown daughter of the woman who fled (who looks just like her mother, and of course is played by the same actress) returns to claim the house and berate the cook for not having taken better care of her property, and for having opened the restaurant. She has no knowledge of any special relationship between her mother and the cook.

In Carlos Eire’s memoir there are frequent images of the valuable objects he remembers in his parents’ art and antique-filled  home in the wealthy district of Miramar, and in the even more beautiful mansions of even wealthier Cubans, pre-revolution. There are paintings on the walls and objets d’art in cases and on stands throughout the tall-ceilinged rooms, where the windows are covered with louvered blinds and heavy draperies.

On our first night in Havana, we were taken to the Havana Club, a famous (we were told) restaurant in the Miramar District. Driving through the residential neighborhood, I caught glimpses in the dimly lighted streets of big houses behind high walls. I wondered if one of the houses we passed could have been the childhood home of Carlos Eire. Ilen, our Cuban guide, told us that the government permits families to set up restaurants in their own homes–called paladars. Permit is the operative word. The family-owned restaurants compete with government-run hotels to provide tourists with a different dining experience. The high-ceilinged rooms in this restaurant could have been part of a grand home. This dinner wasn’t memorable–all I wrote in my journal is  that it was served family style, that I drank watermelon juice, and that “The ice cream was the best part.”

We ate in several paladars in the course of our trip. On our third night in Havana, when we were on our own, we went to San Cristobal, a paladar highly recommended by Ilen. No question that this had been and still was a family’s home. In the banjos I peeked behind a curtain across one end of the room and found a bathtub. The walls of the high-ceilinged rooms were covered with paintings, the tall windows decorated with blinds and draperies, several old clocks stood on shelves or hung on the walls.  We ordered from a menu here–it was nice to be able to order individually after many buffet meals–and the grilled shrimp on a skewer were delicious. When we left the proprietor gave each woman at our table a little gift, an old brooch, no two alike. Mine is a little cluster of enamel flowers with rhinestone centers, one little stone missing.

In Trinidad we ate in two paladars in one day. Where we had lunch near the square, there were tables set up in the bedrooms, or perhaps I should say there were beds in some of the dining rooms. These rooms too were lavishly furnished. That night we ate at Davimart, another well-known paladar; he encouraged us to visit his website! We had lobster which I thought was very good, my journal says best meal so far  (it was our seventh evening), but Don was sick that night.

I also wrote that the band at Davimart was the best so far. Every restaurant had a band of its own, even at lunch, usually no more than four or five pieces, sometimes with a singer. We got so tired of Guantanamera!  Even the kids at the nursery school sang it to us.

Every restaurant, and hotel too, always greeted us with a welcome drink, most often  a mojito. Sometimes we were handed a glass with mint, ice, soda and lime juice, and the rum was poured on later. At Davimart we had a rum and honey drink served in special earthenware cups, and at Casa Verde in Cienfuegos the welcome drink was a Cuba libre, rum and Coke. At Las Brisas Resort outside of Trinidad, where we stayed for two nights, there was a list of rum drinks painted on the wall next to the bar. The purple wrist band clamped onto each of us as we checked allowed us unlimited drinks, and so I tried as many on the list as I was able to. Not the best but the most beautiful was unlisted but available at the beach bar. It was called a Blue Lagoon, rum with blue Curacao. Imagine yourself lying back on a terrycloth covered lounge under an umbrella on a sandy beach with a bright blue drink at your side….

As a reviewer of food in Cuba I have to say that the best meals were seafood, but nowhere was the food great. Lots of black beans and rice, lamb that was closer to mutton, lots of chicken. Sandwiches bought outside of the hotel were dry. There was not as much fresh fruit as one would expect, mostly bananas and oranges; on our bicycle-rickshaw ride through the old town, our peddler stopped at a market and brought us an orange. It was juicy and tasty, and it had been peeled on a gadget like the one Don uses to make dried apples. However, the oranges in our sack lunches from the hotels were so dry we couldn’t peel them. Still, the foods we were served were far better than what the Cubans ate. We went into a food store in Trinidad where Cubans lined up to receive their monthly allotments of flour, rice, beans, meat, oil and eggs. All these commodities were not available every day; a blackboard on the wall showed what could be bought that day. Ilen had her family’s ration book with her, so we could see what she was able to buy for her family of three. Reminded me of the ration books during World War II, when I was a little girl. Nobody starves in Cuba, at this time. In the past, it was not so good. Nobody is homeless either, but some of the occupied buildings we saw would have been condemned in Seattle. I hope that conditions continue to improve for Cubans–go there, spend money, write to Congress to lift the embargo!


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