On Cuba’s ration book (from Repeating Islands)

Like many things is Cuba, food is a complicated subject. Variety is lacking, yet Cubans have an assured minimum food supply through the “libreta” – the Cuban ration book. The libreta was implemented after the 1959 Cuban Revolution as a way to equalize all citizens through food. In the beginning, the libreta covered most necessities. With time, items have been gradually eliminated from the libreta. Today, the libreta is used for bare necessities, prompting Cubans to supplement through the regular market. Moreover, there are ongoing conversations regarding phasing out the libreta, and replacing it with a more targeted safety net program. While the subject is not yet settled – changes will come sooner or later. This post from Repeating Islands provide an updated take on current debates on the faith of the libreta.

Repeating Islands

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A report by Hector Velasco for the Agence France Presse.

From one end of the island to the other, every Cuban can be sure of one thing: Their ration book, or “libreta,” will put at least the basics on their table at dinner time. When President Raul Castro tried several years back to do away with this enduring symbol of both equality and scarcity, he failed.

Next February, Castro, younger brother of the late revolutionary leader Fidel, will step down, and there is little sign that the ration book will go anywhere before he does.

Behind his failed effort was the major challenge facing whoever takes over running the Communist island once he steps down: how to open up the economy without a return to capitalism?

Is the ration book the greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution, or its most inefficient burden? The booklet encapsulates two very different views…

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Re-linking Nutrition and Gastronomy

In his book, The Physiology of Taste, published in 1895, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined gastronomy as

a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal. Its object is to watch over the preservation of man by means of the best possible food.

Nutrition, on the other hand, is defined as

the act or process of nourishing or being nourished; specifically:  the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances (from Merriam-Webster)

 

As these definitions show, both nutrition and gastronomy care about the  “preservation of men” (and women). Early cookbooks contained recipes that used food as medicine, and many other contain introductions teaching the readers about the nutritive qualities of foods and how to best combine them in daily menus. Today, in practice, the gastronomic and nutrition views of food seem to stand in parallel silos.  Broadly speaking, those in the culinary fields talk about foods in terms of aesthetics, texture and taste, while nutritionists tend to reduce food to nutrient and caloric values. Now, I add “broadly speaking”, as this statement is an over-generalization. The culinary and nutrition “silos” are starting to interact. There are more chefs who are also registered dietitians and dietitians who venture into culinary training.  Chefs are also engaging in food policy. Examples are found in the Plate of the Union campaign (an advocacy movement that views access to healthy, affordable foods and safe drinking water as a right, and the current food system as favoring “Big Ag”), celebrity chefs engaging in humanitarian projects, such as the work of Chef Jose Andres and Jamie Oliver’s crusade to improve school food (and his “food revolution”), among others.

One of my ongoing research projects seeks to uncover more linkages. In a 2016 journal article, comparing dietary guidelines in the Hispanic Caribbean, I highlighted the inclusion of the Federación de Asociaciones Culinarias de la República de Cuba (the Cuban national culinary association) in the drafting of the national dietary guidelines. Their influence is seen in the guidelines messages. For example, beyond just telling the population to consume less salt, practical culinary advice is provided to achieve this recommendation:

Flavor your food with natural condiments and aromatic herbs (cumin, oregano, onion, garlic, basil, celery, parsley, among others) and citric juices. (My translation)

Beyond just asking the consumer to eat less fat and fried foods, the guide provide some advise on how to accomplish this, while also still enjoying fried foods,

Lower the consumption of fried foods. When frying, you should cut foods in large portions, so that they absorb less fat. (My translation)

Neighboring Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic have similar culinary associations are also engaged in important food work in the country, although not readily connected with the public health nutrition sector in the country. For example, the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña (and other local chefs) are working to build and solidify farm to table links in a island with a weakened agricultural sector. The Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (highlighted in my previous post) is striving to document and highlight the regional dishes in Dominican Republic.

As these examples show, chefs have an important role to improve and preserve healthy food habits in the communities they serve. This role is increasingly important amid the continued influx of ultra-processed and other globalized foods that lead to the gradual displacement of traditional fresh foods. These global changes have an often deleterious effect for consumer’s health, local producer’s livelihood and the nation’s economy. In addition, a greater (re)connection between gastronomy and nutrition can also have the needed effect of  helping us move beyond the prevailing myth that delicious food is inherently unhealthy, and that nutritious, healthy food is synonymous with bland, and tasteless dishes.

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This post is part of an ongoing research project, recently presented at the OxyFood 17 Conference, “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture”, as part of the talk titled “Taste, Health and Ethnic Cuisines: Comparing nutrition and culinary experts’ perceptions of Hispanic Caribbean diets”. 

Living & Eating Comida Criolla in NYC: An invited talk

This past week I had the pleasure to return to one of my alma maters, Florida International University, to share my ongoing research with Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. I was hosted by Prof. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute and Professor of Anthropology at FIU. The talk, titled Living and Eating Comida Criolla in New York City, shared results from field interviews I conducted with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the city. The talk focused on the Cuban experience in NYC, as an opportunity to gather feedback from the Cuban perspective in Miami, FL:

The talk led to a fruitful conversation with the audience. Such conversation got started with a question on the distribution of Hispanic Caribbean restaurants in New York City, an interesting issue I have partly addressed in a previous post. This motivated questions about the cuisine authenticity, in light of the emergence of high-end restaurants, where these cocinas criollas are being reinvented with a higher price tag. Members of the audience also shared memories from their own migration histories, enriching my ongoing analysis of the Cuban American experience.

 

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

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Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting. 

 

Cookbooks in transitioning societies – a new publication

Close to three years ago I discovered the parallel stories of Carmen Aboy Valldejuli and Nitza Villapol, the Julia Child caribeñas. These women and their cookbooks left  a lasting impression in the culinary histories of Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively. This serendipitous discovery led me to many hours interacting with their work, both in the library and the kitchen. Their books provide a different way to analyze the important political and economic transitions happening in the two islands, spanning  across the later half of the twentieth century,

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It is my pleasure to share one of the final products of this journey – the article, Writing Cuisine in the Spanish Caribbean: A Comparative Analysis of Iconic Puerto Rican and Cuban cookbooks,  published in the latest edition of Food, Culture and Society, summarized as follows:

Puerto Rico and Cuba, linked by a common colonial history, culture, and tropical environments, have similar cuisines. The islands’ shared historical trajectories have been increasingly divergent in the last century, especially since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This paper analyzes the concurrent social changes since the 1950s in these two contexts, through the work of two iconic cookbook writers, Carmen Valldejuli (Puerto Rico) and Nitza Villapol (Cuba). Writing and publishing during the second half of the twentieth century, these women’s books became an important part of the culinary imagination in their respective islands and diaspora communities. This article analyzes how their work reflects their personal stories and changing social contexts by comparing the earliest and latest editions of their books. Differences between Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisines, as portrayed in the cookbooks, are assessed and contextualized in their respective sociopolitical contexts. This analysis of the production and transmission of culinary traditions offers a novel insight on local and transnational manifestations of these islands’ sociopolitical transformations during these decades.

Interested in reading more? Access to the article is available through this link.

Foodways in everyday phrases: the case of the “cajitas”

Cogiste cajita.” “Bregaste cajita de pollo.” These are colloquial expressions from Cuba and Puerto Rico, respectively. Both talk about a life event through a “cajita”, a small box. The two boxes have some commonalities. Both are small, made out of cardboard and used to hold food. Yet, more interesting are the differences…

I grew up listening to the phrase, “bregaste cajita ‘e pollo”. Luckily, the phrase was never directed at me, nor I’ve had to say that to anyone. To bregar, or deal with, a lo cajita de pollo refers to making a cheap move on someone, or to behave in a low and untrustworthy manner. The expression comes from the 99 cent box of fried chicken that used to be sold at local fast food establishment [1], or sometimes by Chinese restaurants. The meal was cheap at 0.99, but also of low quality, given the chicken’s low grade [1].

Cajita de Pollo

Not the actual cajita, but close. Photo source: https://yumfood.wordpress.com/tag/fried-chicken/

I learned about the Cuban cajitas recently, during a conversation with a research collaborator over and about Cuban food. He recalled these small cardboard boxes at family celebrations. Inside: croquetas, ensalada de coditos (macaroni salad) and a piece of cake. To “coger cajita”, or to get a cajita, is a symbol of reaching an opportunity or good fortune. 

The cajitas were used as a way to serve the buffet at birthdays, quinceañeros, and other celebrations. If you arrived early, you would usually get your cajita. Alas, if you were late, or not early enough, the cajitas would run out. Such unfortunate circumstance inspired another phrase, “llegaste tarde a la reparticion de cajitas” (you arrived late to the cajita distribution), symbolizing the loss of an opportunity. In the beginning, the cajitas would come with a plastic spoon taped to the lid. Later, the spoon disappeared and, instead, you would use a piece of cardboard. The cajitas, and later the cardboard “spoons”, were one of the many inventions that came with the Revolution [2,3]. I don’t think they are still used. Just like the also extinct 99 cent fried chicken box in Puerto Rico, the presence of the cajitas live in the collective memory and is expressed in the everyday lexicon of the population.

These two contrasting expressions, “Cojiste cajita” and “Bregaste cajita de pollo”, serve as an example of how quotidian phrases can say so much about people’s everyday relationship with food. Placing them side by side, a complete thesis can be written about the sharp differences in foodscapes that existed and continued to exists in these two sister islands. Like these phrases, there are many others that can be unpacked, analyzed and situated in the contexts of changing times, taste and foodways.

What is your favorite food-related expression? 

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[1] Source: http://www.wikiwalo.com/?p=88
[2] Source: http://cubamaterial.com/blog/sin-categoria/la-institucionalizacion-del-invento-las-cajitas/
[3] See more on the Cuban cajitas here: http://www.juventudrebelde.cu/columnas/lectura/2013-11-02/cogi-cajita/?page=2

Julie and Julia, a lo Caribeño

“When I read Julie and Julia, I remembered the unopened book, as well as the [copy of the] book my grandmother brought from Cuba. My grandmother sent her sons ahead to Miami with Pedro Pan and she still had to bring that book from Cuba.  So I had to see what was in that book.”
– Cristina Gomez Pina, interviewed for WLRN, Miami, FL.

Memories of my grandmother in her kitchen, peeling yucca in her flip-flops with her hair in rollers, came flooding back as I held the book in my hands, charmed by its ugly front cover with bad drawings of tropical fruit,
– Von Diaz, quoted by Newsweek, New York, NY

The Cuban in Miami, the Puerto Rican in New York. Like Julie, of Julie & Julia, they are set to cook their way through emblematic cookery books of a recent past: Cristina cooks from Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto, and Von cooks through Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla. Von and Cristina cook from these books, perhaps at the same time, more than 1,000 miles away. They are both far from their Caribbean homelands where the first editions of the books they hold in their hands were printed. They might or might not know each other for what I know. Yet they are joined by a yearning to revisit those kitchens of the past inspired by these “Julias caribeñas.” Like Von and Cristina, I have also been inspired by these Caribbean cookery icons, although not to jump into the kitchen.

Since moving to New York City almost a year ago, I have been spending more time researching cookbooks and (frankly) less time cooking. I have been fascinated by the lives and work of Valldejuli and Villapol, as contemporaries, and highly influential women in shaping kitchens (and palates) in their countries as well as their respective Diasporas. Their writing spans across almost five decades of great changes in Cuba and Puerto Rico. They lived parallel lives, both writing and publishing cookery books since the 1950s up until the end of their lives.

The social and personal lives of these Caribbean culinary icons reflect on the historical and cultural realities the islands from which they cooked and wrote. Through their books, you can read about idealized kitchens and tables of the times. Through this, you can also notice the social and economic changes in Cuban society, in contrast with the virtual immutability of the situation in Puerto Rico. While Valldejuli was a married woman of the elite society, Villapol remained single and endured the many scarcities of post-revolution Cuba. While Valldejuli’s side project was children’s books (one of which entitled Cucuyé en la Cocina), Villapol took on teacher’s role striving to improve the eating habits of the Cuban population, writing about Cuban food and collaborating with policy makers to address food and nutrition issues in the country. These and other differences in their life stories contrast sharply with the almost identical effect they have in our minds and our kitchens, beautifully exemplified by the analogous projects of Von and Cristina. The efforts of these home-based cooks underscore the importance of these books in our culinary imagination and (I also argue) in our histories. Cocina Criolla and Cocina al Minuto are still windows into a not so distant past. The authors take us by the hand to delicious moments, real or imagined, through a journey built by their recipes, sometimes leaving us hungry in a desk, or, as it is meant to be, enjoying a wonderful meal…

beans cooked

More on this soon…

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Related Posts: 

Thinking about Breakfast

A big part of what I do often is talk with others about food. Lately, these conversations have been related to my ongoing interest in how we distinguish our national cuisines in the Spanish Caribbean. On the surface, when diets are seen as just a collection of foods eaten throughout the day, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican diets are quite similar. However, when foods are organized by meals, differences start to emerge, especially when talking about breakfast…

Dominicans eat mangú for breakfast!
In Costa Rica, I ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

 Mangu breakfastRemarks like the ones above were made by fellow Puerto Ricans when talking about differences in national cuisines around Latin America and the Caribbean. A common comment was on mangú. This mashed plantain dish was seen as too heavy, or too much, for breakfast, compared with the common Puerto Rican breakfast of toast and coffee. And yes – this statement comes with the qualifier that breakfast varies by person and by day of the week. The toast in the Puerto Rican breakfast table is often slathered in butter and accompanied by fried eggs and ham – not exactly “light”. Yet, they are what we consider “breakfast foods”. Mangú, plantains, and beans are seen as lunch or dinner foods, not breakfast.

The distinction between “breakfast” and “lunch”/”dinner” foods may be something relatively new in Puerto Rico. Decades ago, viandas may have been a part of the Puerto Rican breakfast table, especially those in the country side, as part of a hearty early meal in preparation for a full day in the field.

This takes me to my second Cuban meal: breakfast at the Old Havana hotel a few weeks ago. The breakfast was served in a big, spacious room, surrounded by a rooftop terraza. Three walls with different buffet stations and an omelet station in the corner. In the center of the room, a table full of breads of all kinds, including decorative pieces. One such bread: a reptile like the one below. No pictures, but imagine this one, green.

cocodrile bread

Source: Pinterest

The offerings included various cold cuts, sausages, a few fruits…and pasta? Macarroni salad? Meatballs? This seemed odd. And I pondered on that every morning, as I cross the “lunch-breakfast” station (and no- I would not call this “brunch”). Was anybody eating this for breakfast? Not from what I saw. Yet – they were there every morning, for the four breakfasts we “enjoyed” there.

The last breakfast: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

The last breakfast in Havana: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, and perhaps the most interesting as well. How we talk about breakfast, more interestingly, about what “others” eat in the morning, manifests our own social norms surrounding food and eating. What we choose to eat may be affected by what we expect to do the rest of the day, and at the same time, what we eat first thing in the morning can have an effect on the rest of our day.

Interested in seeing breakfast tables around the world? Click below for a quick view:

Source: Huffington Post (Click on picture to watch)

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.

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…

Food, Prestige and the Breadfruit

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Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is a wonderful food. It is a staple in the Pacific and the Breadfruit Institute, part of Hawaii’s National Tropical Garden, highlights its potential in helping fight hunger and ameliorate environmental issues worldwide.

Agriculturally, breadfruit is a high yielding tree, producing 50-150 fruits a year. Its tree can be used for construction, medicine, and even its flower can serve as a mosquito-repellentNutritionally, breadfruit is low in saturated fat, full of fiber, and a good source of calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamin C. Gastronomically – it depends on who you ask.

If you ask me, Breadfruit is a delicacy, a wonderful treat. In Puerto Rico, we call this delicious green ball “pana” – a word we also use to refer to a dear friend. In the town of Humacao, on the east coast of the island, a weekend festival is dedicated to this fruit, El Festival de la Pana. There, a magnificent mountain view of the island’s east coast serves as a backdrop for the culinary and artistic creativity of the festival’s hosts who prepare varied iterations of this food, including flan, wine, sangria, chips, cake…along with music, crafts, and even food art.

Mostly, we eat pana fried (tostones, mofongo) or boiled – pretty much anything you can do with a plantain or a root crop, you can make with a pana. Below, a few images from the preparation of tostones de pana, from a recently picked Puerto Rican breadfruit this week (Gracias, Angel!):

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While our culinary appreciation for breadfruit is shared by some of our West Indian neighbors in the Caribbean, in our sister Spanish-speaking countries, Cuba and Dominican Republic, our pana, our friend, is seen with different eyes. From a desired, traditional food, breadfruit becomes fruta de pan, commonly used as pig or livestock feed. Anecdotal accounts describe how breadfruit was left to rot in Cuba, even during the difficult period of the 1990s known as the Special Period in Times of Peace. Less extreme (but similar) perceptions are found in other Latin American countries, where breadfruit is called pan de pobres (poor people’s bread), among other names, and eaten only in times when there is nothing else left.

Breadfruit is thought to be native of New Guinea. It was brought to the Caribbean to feed slaves, and, on occasions, it was rejected by them. Such past and current rejections, even in times of hunger, underscore the cultural specificity concerning which foods are good enough to eat. It also points to the necessity of understanding the different notions and experiences of food insecurity, scarcity and hunger, even in culturally and historically close contexts. In this case, how has breadfruit transitioned from a slave food to a beloved fruit in Puerto Rico and to a low prestige, non-human food in Cuba, Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries?