A “First” Cuban Meal

After many months of planning an educational trip to Cuba, there we were. Enjoying the warmth and sea breeze under a clear Habana sky, taking part of our first programmed activity in the land of Marti.

The tour guide built up the group’s enthusiasm about our “first encounter with Cuban food.” First, drinks. It started with a refreshing mojito, enjoyed over conversations about the evolving Cuban society under Raul. Next, a cold Bucanero.


The meal officially started with a bread basket and butter. This was followed by the appetizer, a sampling of different bite-sized foods: Taro croquetas, eggplant wrapped in smoked salmon, peppers stuffed with tuna, brie cheese with honey, shrimp over lentils, and chopped romaine lettuce.

Next, the main course, served family style. Out came the lobster, followed by ropa vieja, then boneless chicken pieces in a mushroom sauce. The quantity was enough for individual generous servings. The large side dishes: a creamy taro mash, white rice, black beans, and grilled vegetables.

We shared the meal with our travel companions, enjoying the stars and distant sounds of urban Habana on the rooftop terraza dining space of the restaurant overlooking a residential street in El Vedado neighborhood. No great meal goes without dessert. Three different kinds, and all crowd favorites. Flan, chocolate and cheesecake. This concluded the first of many meals we had in Cuba this past week.

Nine years after my first visit to the island, I was pleasantly surprised to find Habana revitalized by small, private food establishments (locally known as paladares). They range from high-end restaurants (mostly targeting tourists, but increasingly accessible by some Cubans as well), to home-based pizzerias in people’s front yards and garages.

The coming weeks will be an ongoing “digestion” of more than 400 pictures, field notes and recordings.

Stay tuned for more…


Memories of Acerola

Source: Morton, J. 1987. Barbados Cherry. p. 204–207. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.

My maternal grandmother Mamía had an acerola tree in her backyard. It was planted by my grandfather in the 1950s, along with a lemon tree and other plants.  I have a few memories of eating fruit from this tree and still after many years acerolas continue to be one of my favorite fruits.

Recently, Elisa Gonzalez, who is a fellow Puerto Rican scholar had her article, “Feeding the Colonial Subject: Nutrition and Public Health in Puerto Rico, 1926-1952”, published in El Centro journal. This wonderfully researched piece opens with the following quote,

“We believe there should be an extensive campaign promoting the cultivation of acerola trees and encouraging Puerto Rican families to consume the fruit frequently. This would be a low cost alternative to ameliorate the vitamin C deficiency suffered by most of our fellow citizens.”

Conrado Asenjo Standing Behind Bottles of Juice

Original caption (1954): The richest source of vitamin C known to man now can be added to the human diet on a mass scale and comes from a tree which has been, until recently, growing wild in Puerto Rico. It is the Acerola, somewhat like a wild cherry, which yields a juice that has measured to be 80 times more potent in vitamin C than orange juice. Discovery of the extraordinary vitamin C content was made by Dr. Conrado F. Asenjo, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition of Puerto Rico’s School of Medicine. Dr. Asenjo is shown holding a six ounce glass of acerola juice that is equal in vitamin C content to the fifteen quarts of orange juice on the table. The juice can be blended with many fruit juices as a natural protective food for infants and children.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

This quote is from Dr. Conrado Ansejo in 1947. Dr. Ansenjo, a Puerto Rican chemical engineer, is widely recognized for his role in discovering the high content of vitamin C in acerola. This among many other accomplishments resulted in the library of the University of Puerto Rico Medical Science Campus being named after him.

Scientifically known as Malpighia emarginata and also commonly known as West Indian Cherry, the fruit contains about 1000-3000 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams. This concentration is quite  high compared to oranges’  50mg per 100 grams. Why the emphasis on vitamin C? At the time, Puerto Rico was suffering from a high incidence of scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency causing overall weakness, skin hemorrhages, gum disease and anemia.  Scurvy along with other vitamin deficiencies has been eradicated in Puerto Rico thanks to advances in food science and technology along with public health campaigns.

Was the tree planted in Mamía’s backyard the result of a public health campaign? Still, having acerola trees is commonplace in Puerto Rico along with having lemon and avocado trees, among others. Additionally, my grandfather was an agricultural engineer who might even have known or worked with Dr. Asenjo at the time.

There are a few things I make an effort to take back with me during visits to Puerto Rico: A “six pack” (at least) of mallorcas from Pepín, a bottle of Ron Barrilito, and a jar of locally produced acerola jam. More than for its nutritional value, acerola is a source of childhood memories from my grandmother’s home who passed away more than a decade ago. It has been wonderful to be reminded of her home through a piece of scholarly work, which has led me to learn more about my own family history, through this remembrance of the acerola tree.

Acerola jam +  toast

Acerola jam + toast

The sugar that ails, the sugar that heals

Last week the Federal Drug Administration unveiled plans to revamp the nutritional label. Among the proposed changes, the label will now include “added sugars” differentiating from the sugar naturally occurring in foods. 

In recent years, the nutrition and public health community in the US and other developed countries have started to advocate against excessive sugar consumption. Added sugars have been linked to obesity, cancers and other health conditions as seen in this 60 Minutes report. As a result, attempts to regulate sugary drinks for example Bloombergs’ and possibly De Blasio’s big soda ban in New York City has gained public support, and Mexico succeeded in passing a soda tax that took effect this January.

The story is different further south. In countries like Guatemala and El Salvador sugar is a source of vitamins in particular Vitamin A. In Guatemala, sugar has been fortified with Vitamin A since 1975 successfully decreasing Vitamin A deficiencies (VAD) in the country. Similar results have been found in El Salvador since the fortification program started in 1994.

VAD is one of the most common global micro nutrient deficiencies. It leads to blindness, disability, and other health concerns. Fortification, or the addition of a nutrient or group of nutrients to a food that does not contain it naturally, has been an effective public health intervention to decrease micro nutrient deficiencies worldwide. One key aspect to the success of these interventions is the choice of the “food vehicle.” Such food has to be accessible and widely consumed by the population, the production has to be centralized, and its flavor and characteristics should not change when the micro nutrient is added.

Sugar definitely fits these characteristics in Central America as a vehicle for vitamin A, and the fortification program in the region is considered a success and a model for other developing countries. Yet, how can one food be a source of health in one context and a source of illness in another?

Like salt, sugar has had a changing role in our history. Thousands of years ago, sugar was a quick, coveted, pleasurable source of energy and cure for ailments. It then became a driving force for conquest and for the shameful historical period of slave trade, with repercussions still felt today, bringing prosperity to some and tragedy to others. Sugar keeps bringing contradictions nowadays: providing vitamins and health to some, and obesity and illness to others. Are these truly two different groups of people? How long can sugar fortification go on in light of worldwide increases in obesity and its related health conditions, especially among the poor?