People travel to Cuba today in search of times gone by. Its allure lies in its crumbling architecture, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cars and slow, hazy pace of life. Perhaps that’s why I chose to shoot in black and white, on a very unreliable Pentax K1000. Solidarity with the image.
I spent six weeks in the country, which is an absurd amount of time to spend in any place with no Coca-Cola, capitalism or Internet. But even if I did eventually get used to crying as I bled Instagram followers, I never quite adjusted to the food.
Imagine the cuisine of yesteryear, before colonialism, trade, greedy white people and everyone with a clean-eating agenda had destroyed our planet. Imagine only being able to consume the food that the land of your geographical proximity bore fruit to. Imagine if Britain still only had access to apples and lard. Except more tropical. That is Cuba today.
At the heart of Cuba’s disastrous cookery lies the issue of poverty, central planning and the US embargo. It’s only been two decades since the country suffered years of widespread famine and people today still live on ration cards. Cuba simply doesn’t have much and fluctuations in the food supply give rise to frustrating situations. The words ‘no hay’ (there isn’t any) are dictum on the island, drawled lazily and unapologetically by market sellers and waiters. Conversations would pan out as so:
– ¡Buenas dias! I would like to buy some tomates –
– ……… No hay –
– ¡OK! ¡Don’t you worry, señora! ¡Mangos it’ll be then, por favor! –
– ………………….. No haaaayyyyyy –
– ¡That’s no problema! ¿Potatoes? PA-TA-TAS –
– No… hay…. –
– ¿¿GARLIC?? ¿GARLEEK-O…? –
– …Noooo…….. haaaaayyyyyyy –
– ¿¿An egg?? Jesucristo ¿Literalmente a single egg? SOLO UN HUEVO –
– NO HA –
One of the most surreal adventures to be had, and one which I would highly recommend, is a trip to the supermarket. First of all, it is important to note that only the wealthiest Cubans can afford this luxury. Despite doctors earning the equivalent of $40 a month, a tin of tomatoes costs $2. If this sounds insane, it’s because it is. If you’ve had just a bit too much rice and beans and want to mix it up with, say, a tin of chopped tomatoes, you must spend five percent of your monthly salary on the privilege. Secondly, the lack of stock lends the place the air of a badly designed, low-budget film set. All the shelves are empty, bar the two in the middle that proudly display ten competing brands of mayonnaise. It is a frequent occurrence to be unable to buy water. However, this is probably apt punishment for us yellow-bellied Evian-guzzlers.
There are a few things Cubans never seem to run out of; lobster, avocados and rum. This is, clearly, a good thing. The rum also comes in handy juice cartons like Ribena, simultaneously reminding you of your childhood and potential for alcoholism.
Another strange phenomenon central to Cuban cuisine is the commitment to Italo-Americano culture. I can barely talk about this aberration; I was quite traumatised by the whole affair. The staple street food is pizza. Great!, you think. No, not great. There has been a terrible mix up and Cubans think that pizza dough is sweet, the tomato sauce is ketchup (spelt ‘catsup’) and the mozzarella is made from chemical polymers. They do put fun toppings on sometimes though. My favourite is ‘Pizza Perro’. This freaked me out for ages because it literally translates as Pizza of Dog but then I realised that it was just hot dogs. Another distressing national treasure was espaguetis (spaghetti). Espaguetis tend to taste pretty bad, further from al dente than you would have ever dreamed possible. But, if I’m being honest, I was largely afraid of the creepy spelling.
Yet, there was one thing that baffled me more than all the other idiosyncrasies and oddities of Cuban food. I’ve already mentioned that there was no shortage of avocados. They dangled from every tree. Majestic, round, soft, perfect. It was also quite uncommon for Cuba to run short of onions or lime. Yet no one, and I mean no one, had thought to unify these basic ingredients and make guacamole. How did this happen? How did anyone allow this to happen? Mexico is one hour away. Is communism to blame? Does providing equal education and healthcare for all regardless of gender or race render a nation incapable of mashing avocado?!
Ever since I left Cuba I’ve wanted to write about the food, mainly because it gave rise to such hilarious situations throughout my time there. However, I’ve been wary of coming across as ignorant and insensitive to Cuba’s economic situation. Cuban people are unequivocally resourceful, resilient, and capable of thriving in harsh economic conditions.
Yet, not the US embargo, nor communism, nor a dictatorship will ever explain why once, in a small town outside of Havana, a very enthusiastic man ceremoniously dumped an entire banana on top of my Espaguetis al Perro. Cuban food is horrendous. Here are some photos of the people instead.
Sophie Ruigrok has been a keen traveller ever since she was old enough to decide that staying in one place is far too boring. She loves to explore different cultures, mainly by eating their food. She also believes fervently in the power of storytelling, and does so through art, photography, writing and documentary. Her subjects of choice tend to be people, because, let’s face it, we’re weirdly fascinating beings. She is currently living in London, pining for anywhere tropical, and getting over-excited by things people say in podcasts.