Food in Contemporary Cuba
Summary and Keywords
Cuban cuisine brings together the island’s histories of colonial relations with Spain and the culinary traditions of Africans, Amerindians, Chinese laborers, and those who migrated from Haiti and Jamaica. This dynamic food draws from these traditions and the island’s tropical climate to create a rich and multidimensional cuisine. Cuba’s food system is also deeply tied to Cuban national politics and international trade. Under socialism Cuba has had a fifty-year-old food-rationing system, and the majority of Cuban foods are imported. Despite these changes, Cuban household cooks work diligently to create complete meals, and they bring together the ingredients for various special occasions throughout the year.
Visitors to Cuba are often struck by how much time Cubans spend talking about food. In living rooms, at bus stops, and on park benches, talking about food prices, food availability, and in recent years new restaurants and types of food is an extremely common Cuban pastime. Based only on the amount of time Cubans spend discussing food, we could conclude that it is important, but food in Cuba also has important historical links to sovereignty and the making of a Cuban national identity.
Cuba’s tropical climate and rich soil allow a wide variety of crops to grow on the island. Since colonization by the Spanish, sugar has been one of the most important crops for the Cuban economy. Sugar, tobacco, coffee, citrus fruits, and fish are among the top commodities exported from Cuba. Despite these rich resources, agriculture makes up less than 5 percent of the Cuban GDP. Currently, many of the foods eaten in Cuba are imported from countries such as Venezuela, China, and Spain.
Cuba’s 1959 socialist revolution has had profound effects on Cuban society and Cuban food. The establishment of a national food ration in 1962 has guaranteed every Cuban access to basic nutrition, and even though the Cuban state system suffered greatly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the food ration has remained in place and ensured basic access to food. In the early 2000s, the food ration was reduced, and it was announced that the rations would be slowly eliminated. Cubans must buy increasing amounts of their food at unsubsidized rates. This is causing a shift in the actual practices of household food consumption in Cuba, although the notion of what defines Cuban food remains relatively steady.
Contemporary Cuban food consumption and the socialist food-provisioning system are critically linked to histories of food as well as nationalism, gender, and the status of Cuban women, and the ebbs and flows of the politics of Cuba’s socialist economy. Scholarly attention to food in Cuba and greater Latin America has demonstrated the fundamental role of food in cultural identity and in political economy.1 For instance, Richard Wilk has demonstrated the ways in which the food that people in Belize consume has allowed them to socially construct their identities.2 Food is critically linked to a number of important social practices, including religion, racial identity, and national identity, as well as social indicators, such as obesity and malnutrition.3
The Cuban food system has been a central point of contention as economic approaches to socialism have shifted over time. At the inception of Cuba’s food-rationing system, Fidel Castro noted that a supply-and-demand price policy “would have been nothing short of ruthless sacrifice on the part of the poor population with the lowest income,” and according to Benjamin et al., “such a policy was accepted for luxury and nonessential goods but never for the necessities.”4 Workplace cafeterias and school lunch programs provided many Cubans with free meals during the day. During the 1970s Cuba relied heavily on material aid from the Soviet Union, and consumer goods including Soviet food products were imported and available at low cost in Cuban markets. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba plummeted into a period of economic hardship known as the “Special Period in Time of Peace.” During the Special Period, “caloric intake fell by 27% between 1990 and 1996.”5 Food products became scarce, and those that did exist were difficult for average Cubans to access because of their increased prices. Additionally school cafeterias, daycare centers, and government job sites provided fewer and lower-quality foods than they had before.
The role of women in household food preparation and the socialist state has critically shaped tensions in the contemporary food system. The “Family Code of 1975” established “the right of each spouse to get an education and pursue a profession.” This was a way of trying to encourage men to share in household responsibilities, where couples agreed to share in household duties and childcare as a part of their marriage contract. Social programs were implemented to support gender parity at all levels of the Cuban workforce, and ease the labor of childcare and maintaining a household. Through these programs, tasks thought of as “women’s work” were taken on by the paternal socialist state. For example, the 1971 Plan Jaba was a program that allowed working women to drop off grocery bags and shopping lists on their way to work, and store attendants would fill them with goods so that they could pick up and pay for the bags on the way home from work. This program also gave formally employed women priority access to certain material goods.
In contemporary Cuba, despite nearly fifty years of policy efforts toward women’s equality, women still undertake the vast majority of unpaid household labor and, often, work outside the home for pay either in full-time, state-based employment, or in part-time non–state-based work. Socialist programming encouraging women to work has had an impact; by the 2010s, just under half of state-sector employees were women in Cuba. Those who did work outside of the home they were still burdened with domestic responsibilities, and they often took service jobs that reified their roles as caretakers. This issue has been called the “double shift.” Due to social expectations of the gendered division of labor in the home, and despite socialist programs to aid women in their ability to move beyond the walls of the home, many women still remained outside of the formal workforce.
The work on food access in Cuba is part of a growing body of scholarship analyzing the links between Cuban history and everyday life on the island today. These works have illuminated the role of the changing health-care system,6 the role of hip hop in racial and economic justice,7 the status of LGBTQ Cubans,8 and the role of urban gardens and sustainable agriculture in Cuba today.9 This body of scholarship demonstrates the ways in which Cuban socialism is changing, the impact of the economy on the everyday lives of Cubans, and the ways in which Cubans struggle to overcome economic and political barriers in their daily lives.
Cuban Food History
The last indigenous group to settle in Cuba was the Taino, who also lived in other Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The Taino cultivated and consumed a wide variety of local vegetables. Cassava (yuca) was their dietary staple, along with fish. They commonly ate small animals like lizards, turtles, and a local species of rodent called a hutia.
The Spanish colonized the Caribbean and had a major influence on food culture in Cuba. Cuban land was used in a chattel-slavery–based export economy to grow sugar, tobacco, and coffee for export to Europe. The Spanish colonizers imported some of their food. Early Cuban cuisine was developed as a mixture of Amerindian, Spanish, African, and Chinese influence. Several ingredients central to Cuban cuisine are native to the Americans, which include black beans and kidney beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, avocadoes, yuca, potato, and sweet potato. Okra and yams were introduced to the New World by way of Africa. Chinese migrant laborers were influential in the use of leafy green vegetables in Cuban cooking. European migrants influenced the consumption of much of the meat common in Cuba today, including pork and beef. French migrants who came to the island from Haiti in the late 1700s after the Haitian revolution also influenced the cuisine.
The influence of the transatlantic slave trade was central to the development of Cuban cuisine. In the early years of chattel slavery, slaves grew some of their own food on small plots of land. African slaves were forced to both grow food, and to cook and serve food for themselves and slave-owning families. In these early years African slaves prepared much of the food consumed by people on the island; there were longstanding influences of African cooking styles on Cuban cuisine. While slaves had previously been given plots of land on which they were to grow their own food while enslaved, as sugar became more profitable, plantation owners put that land into producing cane and imported food for slaves. Later, during the gradual transition to freedom, under the patronage system, partially freed slaves were once again given small plots known as conucos to start cultivating their own food. In addition to providing subsistence foods, the yields from the conucos could be sold at market.10 Cuban slaves typically planted their conucos using slash-and-burn methods.11 Typical crops included maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, taro, squash, beans, fruits, spices, and sugarcane for making guarapo (fresh cane juice). Larger fruit trees, such as plantains, mangos, and avocados, were planted near the house for shade. Records of purchases show that animals, such as pigs, as well as maize, yuca (cassava), malanga (similar to taro), boniato (white sweet potato), and plantains, were commonly purchased from these plots.12
By the late 1800s, the United States had a strong commercial influence in Cuba, and many imported American products were commonly consumed in Cuban households. The height of the U.S. commercial influence was in the 1950s, but quickly came to an end after the 1959 socialist revolution and the U.S. trade embargo in 1960. In the 1960s Cuba established a food-rationing system and reformed the agricultural system. By the 1970s the Soviet Union supported Cuba through major bilateral trade agreements, which included food imports.
Contemporary Cuban Food
The archetypical Cuban meal includes several components: white rice, along with some type of bean, a meat dish, a starchy tuber, salad, and a drink, which is often fruit juice. Each of these components serves an important role in the ideal Cuban meal. Although this ideal meal is rarely achieved in practice, many Cuban families still strive to eat this meal at least once per day.
White rice is a very important part of Cuban cuisine. Cubans eat rice with lunch and dinner nearly every day. Rice is provided in the ration. Currently, Cuba imports most of its rice from Vietnam. Beans are also a very important dietary staple in Cuba. Different kinds of beans are provided in the food ration, black beans, red beans, chickpeas, and mung beans. Beans are almost always served with rice. In eastern Cuba, also known as Oriente, the most popular way of preparing beans and rice is called congri. To prepare congri, first a sofrito is prepared. A sofrito is a sauce made with finely chopped onions, garlic, tomato, and sometimes bell peppers. These ingredients are slowly sautéed in olive oil and added to the rice and beans, which are cooked together. In western Cuba, a very similar dish, referred to as Moros y Cristianos or Arroz Morro, is the preferred way to prepare rice and beans.
In addition to rice and beans, root crops known as viandas are an essential part of Cuban cuisine. The category of viandas includes yuca, sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, pumpkin, some squash, and plantains. Viandas are almost always served with lunch and dinner. Viandas can be prepared in many different ways. Although they are often boiled, many families prefer to slice and fry them. Others prefer to have mashed viandas with cream and sugar added then rolled into balls and deep fried. The mashed vianda cooking technique is thought to be an African technique introduce to Cuba by colonial-era African slaves. Tostones, sliced plaintains that are then deep fried, are a very common way of consuming viandas. Viandas are rich in many different important nutrients and amino acids, including potassium, magnesium, manganese, and vitamins A and C.
Meat is a central component of Cuban food. Pork is the most commonly eaten meat in Cuba, and a very important source of protein. Pork is prepared in many different ways, including filets and chops, but it is rarely cured or prepared into forms such as bacon, pepperoni, or sausages. Pork steaks are a popular way to consume meat during the week, and more complicated dishes like carne mechada, pernil, or pierna asada, which use an entire pork leg, are consumed on weekends or special occasions when more preparation time is available.
Chicken dishes are also popular in Cuba, although chicken is somewhat less available than pork in Cuban cities because pork is provided in the ration more often than chicken. Chicken is often prepared in the same manner as pork by marinating and cooking the meat in a mojo sauce. Beef is rarely eaten in Cuban homes. Although beef dishes were once an important part of Cuban cuisine, currently in Cuba beef is very difficult to access. Cattle farming uses a lot of resources, so beef is difficult to produce in Cuba. Cubans get beef in their diet through the ground beef provided in the food rations, which is often mixed with soy to help stretch the limited supply of beef on the island. Cubans in the diaspora are more likely to eat beef dishes, such as ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish.
Fish is another important part of the Cuban diet and is also a great source of protein. Mackerel or jurel is a type of fish often available in the food rations. Canned fish such as sardines is available for purchase at the state food stores. Recreational fishing is relatively uncommon in Cuba, compared to other island nations. Furthermore, many of the fish from commercial fishing are exported, so fresh fish are a less common source of protein in Cuba compared to other island nations.
Cuban food is often prepared using the same basic ingredients to flavor the dishes. Cuban food is not usually very spicy, but the flavors are rich and savory. Onion, garlic, salt, and oil or pork fat provides the basic flavoring for many Cuban dishes. Sugar is added to many dishes as flavoring and is a very important part of Cuban cooking. Sugar has been a central part of the Cuban economy and everyday Cuban life since colonization. Meats are sometimes prepared with a sauce called a mojo sauce or mojito (not to be confused with the drink). Mojo sauce is made of olive oil, garlic, lime or bitter orange juice, cumin, salt, and pepper. It is thought to have been brought to Cuba by slaves and slave traders who learned to make it in the Canary Islands.
Cuban meals are often accompanied by a salad of seasonal vegetables. A Cuban salad usually consists of one type of vegetable with a sprinkle of oil and salt. Sometimes salads are also served with sliced onions. Depending on the season, the vegetable may be cucumbers, beets, avocados, chard, lettuce, or other seasonal vegetables.
Tropical fruits grow very well in Cuba. Cubans have access to fruit throughout the year, eating different fruits as they are in season. Many urban and rural families have fruit trees in their patios and yards from which they get fruit for much of the year. Families will often have more fruit than they can eat on their own, and they will share or trade fruit with extended family and friends. Mangos are a very common fruit in Cuba; there are many different varieties of mangos on the island. Other common fruits include bananas, papaya, grapefruit, cherimoya, passionfruit, and pineapple. Fruit is eaten as a snack, as breakfast, or as a dessert after meals. These tropical fruits are also used to make fresh fruit juices.
Water is usually served with meals in Cuba. Sodas and packaged juices are only served on special occasions or in more affluent households. Malta is a Cuban favorite, a non-alcoholic carbonated malt beverage made from barley, hops, and water. Malta is often served mixed with condensed milk for an ultrasweet drink. Cubans often make smoothies as a snack or special drink. The smoothies will often use the milk or yogurt provided in the children’s ration, mixed with whichever fruits are in season.
Coffee is a very important beverage in Cuba. Coffee is consumed daily in most Cuban households, and it is common to grab a quick cup of coffee on the street, or to be served coffee when visiting a friend’s home. Cubans tend drink very small cups of coffee made with a lot of sugar. Tea is not usually consumed on a daily basis, rather herbal teas with honey are consumed to treat illnesses and ward off sickness.
Nitza Villapol: Cuba’s Celebrity Chef
Nitza Villapol is Cuba’s most famous chef; she has been an icon of Cuban cooking since the early 1950s. Her TV show, filmed in Havana, is the longest-airing program in the history of Cuban television. The show aired during periods of abundance and periods of economic hardship in Cuba. She was born in 1923 in New York to Cuban immigrants, named after a Russian river, by her deeply socialist parents13 (Ponte, 2012). When she was nine years old she moved with her family to Cuba14 (Santiago, 1998). Villapol graduated from “la Escuela del Hogar” in 1940 and received her doctorate in pedagogy from the University of Havana in 1948. After her schooling abroad, Villapol returned to Cuba and hosted the cooking show Cocina Al Minuto for forty-four years with her assistant, Margot Bacallao. Before her TV show, Villapol had a radio show in Cuba (Miller, 1992).15 Reruns of her TV show still air on Cuban state television, and her cookbooks are still consulted in Cuban kitchens today.
After Vilma Espín (1930–2007), who was late wife of Cuban president Raul Castro and the head of the Cuban Women’s Federation, Nitza Villapol is said to be the most well-known woman in Cuba (Miller, 1992).16 Villapol was among the foremost women to usher in the dual transformations of the Cuban woman and the Cuban kitchen as part of the socialist revolution of 1959. Villapol’s post-revolutionary role was to “educate people and get women to see the work of the kitchen no just as something routine, but as an activity on which the health of the people depends.”17
Cuba has had a food-rationing system since 1962. After the socialist revolution of 1959, the new revolutionary government struggled to transition to state control over the agriculture and food system. There were shortages in food and other supplies. The shortages of the early 1960s were further exacerbated by speculation and hoarding. In an effort to combat these issues, the resale of certain basic goods was made illegal in 1961.18 The National Board for the Distribution of Foodstuffs was created in March 1962, which established the rationing of rice, beans, cooking oil, and lard across Cuba. Soap, detergent, and toothpaste were rationed in twenty-six major cities and eventually across the entire island. Beef, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, and sweet potatoes were only rationed in Havana at first, and eventually were included in the ration across the country.19 Initially the food ration was expected to be a temporary solution to the problems with transitioning to socialism. At the inception of Cuba’s food-rationing system, Fidel Castro noted that a supply-and-demand price policy “would have been nothing short of ruthless sacrifice on the part of the poor population with the lowest income,” and according to Benjamin et al., “such a policy was accepted for luxury and nonessential goods but never for the necessities.”20 Although there were increases in production, the ration was never fully eliminated. The early ration booklet optimistically included ham, cheese, pepperoni, sausage, beef, pork, lamb, goat, fish, seafood, fruits, and vegetables; due to lack of state resources most of these items were never actually available.
Every Cuban citizen is eligible for a ration card, with which they can get their monthly allotment of food items. They do still have to pay for this food, but the prices are very heavily subsidized so it is only about 25 Cuban pesos, or one dollar. The food provided in the monthly ration varies; they try to provide people with the most scarce food items and do not include items that are readily available, such as bananas, mangos, and other tropical fruits. A typical month’s food ration would include five pounds of white rice, ten ounces of beans, three pounds refined sugar, one pound raw sugar, one kilogram of salt, four ounces of coffee, 250 milliliters of oil, and a roll of bread per day.21 Meat products consisted of six ounces of chicken, eleven ounces of fish, ten eggs, and eight ounces of ground meat mixed with soy.22 Though not its original purpose, today food rationing serves as the primary means to equitably distribute basic foods and avoid certain consequences of food scarcity.
Cuba has had a nationalized food-rationing system since 1962 and has been lauded for exemplary food-security innovations in the face of national financial hardship. The World Food Program (WFP) states that rates of hunger in Cuba are “extremely low.”23
The process of transforming raw ingredients into meals is a central part of everyday household life in Cuba, and although time consuming and difficult, it is critical to family and social life on the island. Cooking in Cuba can take several hours and is usually done by an older woman in the household. Younger women will often help with various cooking-related tasks. Some families have cooks or paid workers who help with food preparation.
In recent years, Cuban kitchens have changed drastically. Whereas before most people often cooked on kerosene-gas stoves with one burner or with charcoal over an open fire, today most Cuban households use many different kitchen appliances to cook their food. In an effort to save on fuel and electricity, the Cuban government distributed many of these appliances to Cuban households. The rice cooker is one of the most important appliances; it is used at least once a day to cook rice and also inventively used to boil water or steam foods, and is sometimes used as double boiler. Soups, stews, and meat dishes are often prepared in the “multipurpose cooker,” which is an energy-conserving electronic pressure cooker. Blenders are also distributed by the government and are very important for making smoothies and fresh juices. These kitchen appliances are central to making household meals, and they also produce a ubiquitous soundtrack to daily life in Cuba.
In addition to these electronic kitchen appliances, many Cuban dishes are prepared on the stovetop. Most Cuban households have old gas stoves from the 1950s or earlier, although some have newer imported gas stoves. Sautéing and deep frying are used to prepare many Cuban dishes. Pans are often made of aluminum or stainless steel. Because it requires a lot of gas and gas is expensive and difficult to access, baking is rarely done at home; usually baked goods are purchased from a neighbor who makes baked goods for extra cash or from small local bake shops. Bread is provided in the rations and delivered to each Cuban household daily.
In some households charcoal fires are the predominant cooking method. Charcoal is often cheaper than gas and will sometimes be used in situations where there is no electricity. Some families prefer the taste of foods cooked over charcoal to foods cooked over gas so they choose to make a charcoal fire. To cook with a charcoal fire, a big cast-iron pot is often used, and usually soups and stews are slow cooked over charcoal in a large outdoor area.
Typical Cuban Meals
Although there is a great deal of diversity in what Cubans eat in different regions of the island and in the diaspora, there are many elements of Cuban cuisine that are found in most, if not all, varieties of Cuban food. Most Cubans eat three meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—as well as a small snack in the afternoon. Cuban meals do not usually arrive in courses; everything is placed on the table and usually mixed together on each individual’s place and eaten together. The exception to this is dessert, which is served after the meal. Very few Cubans are vegetarian, since meat is a mainstay in the Cuban diet.
For most Cubans, breakfast is a relatively light meal, consisting of bread and coffee. Sometimes jam will be spread on the bread or the bread will be lightly toasted on the stovetop. Many enjoy dipping the pieces of bread into the coffee. Coffee in Cuba is made with a lot of sugar, and milk is only added when it is available. Sometimes fruit or eggs will be eaten at breakfast as well. In the countryside, breakfasts tend to be heartier than in Cuban cities, and rural families are more likely to enjoy eggs or meat with their breakfast as well as some rice for carbohydrates.
Some Cubans eat lunch at work, school, or on the go during their workday. In these cases, they will stop at their workplace cafeteria or stop into a government cafeteria for a subsidized meal. These meals might consist of a sandwich with ham or ham spread and mayonnaise on a bun, along with some fruit and a coffee. Other cafeterias will service rice and beans with a small piece of pork and plantains. Some Cubans are able to eat lunch at home. Lunch at home will often be a heartier meal eaten more slowly since it is enjoyed in the company of friends and family. Home lunches will include rice and a bean-based soup with some fruit or vegetables on the side
Cuban dinners consist of pork, chicken, or fish dishes with sauces, served with rice, beans, and viandas. Dinners are often served with popular Cuban salads, two of the most common salads being tomato salad, which consists of sliced tomatoes and sliced raw onions doused in olive oil, or avocado salad, made of sliced avocados and sliced raw onions doused in olive oil. Sometimes salt is sprinkled over the salads for extra flavoring. Cubans rarely eat leafy lettuce salads, but during the late summer months when lettuce is in season, lettuce salads may appear at the Cuban dinner table. Picadillo, or ground beef cooked in a sofrito sauce served over white rice, is another common Cuban dinner. The ground beef in the Cuban food ration often contains a mixture of soy products as well as beef.
Between meals Cuban snacks are popular ways to ward off hunger. Bocaditos are small bite-sized sandwiches with ham spread. Patelitos are small pastries filled with meat, cheese, guava, or guava and cheese. While street vendors sell bocaditos and pastelitos, many people also sell them out of the windows or the front door of their houses. Small personal pizzas are also a common snack food, sold out of government cafeterias, small businesses, and neighborhood houses. Croquettes, made of deep-fried minced pork, are very popular Cuban snacks, but they are more likely to be eaten at a street fair or festival than in everyday snacking.
Although most Cuban households are able to eat three meals a day along with a snack, some households may not have the adequate resources to do so. Hunger and malnutrition are rare in Cuba today. However, historically there have been cases of macronutrient deficiencies throughout the island.
While historically the cuisines in different regions of Cuba varied a lot, today with the nationalized food-rationing system much of the food eaten in Cuba is the same across the island. There are a few exceptions to this, however. It is also important to note that although people are eating the same thing, they may have different names for it in different parts of the island. For example, in western Cuba a banana is called a plátano, but in eastern Cuba it is called a guineo. In central Cuba, it is common to have flat bread made out of cassava served with meals, but this is very rare in other parts of the island.
In Cuba, there are many ways to eat outside of the home. In addition to foods and snacks from street vendors, Cubans also eat at government-owned restaurants, or at privately owned restaurants called paladares, and on rare occasions Cubans may eat at hotels where many foreigners and tourists are likely to eat. In some cities, such as Havana, there is a vibrant Chinatown area where Cubans can eat excellent foreign dishes, but for the most part Cuban restaurants serve only Cuban food.
There are many privately owned restaurants, or paladares, all over Cuba. The Cuban government started allowing private restaurant ownership in 1997. The paladares are essentially a way for Cuban families to open up their homes and sell food to foreign or Cuban guests. A paladar owner must purchase and apply for a permit, and they must pay a monthly fee to keep their business going. Paladar menus often consist of a wide range of traditional Cuba dishes, but most of the time only a few of the menu options are available. Some patrons find this frustrating about paladares, while others have simply grown accustomed to always asking which menu items are available that day. Many paladares are known for having very slow services, but a few stand out because of their polite waitstaff and relatively quick service. Paladar prices vary widely; some are quite affordable for most Cubans, while others have set prices that only foreign clientele can afford. Many paladares will have two different menus: one with affordable prices for Cubans, and another with the same menu items set at high prices for foreigners.
Cuban Chinese food is a popular type of cuisine that many Cubans eat outside of the home. Many Cuban cities have Chinese restaurants, and Havana has the largest Chinatown of any country in Latin America. Over 100,000 Chinese people immigrated to Cuba in the 1800s as migrant workers, and many of their ancestors still remain in Cuba. Chinese Cuban food is somewhat different from other Chinese foods since the ingredients are quite different due to Cuba’s food-rationing system and the types of foods that the Cuban government is able to import. Nonetheless many Cubans feel this is the best food to experience when eating outside the home since the dishes are not easy to make and are not common in Cuban home cooking. The prices at Chinese restaurants in Cuba tend to be very reasonable, making this an affordable option for the occasional dining-out experience in Cuba.
There are some government-owned fast-food restaurants in Cuba; El Rapido and Burgui are two of the most common state-owned chains. El Rapido sells hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, and sandwiches along with Cuban-made soft drinks. Palmares and its fast-food derivative Pan.com are also very popular state-owned restaurants. Most Cubans rarely eat fast food both because they do not find it to be a filling or satisfying meal, and because the prices are somewhat high.
Cubans celebrate many different occasions throughout the year; many Cubans follow the Christian calendar as well as celebrating some of the saints of Santeria or other Afro-Cuban religions. In every Cuban city, Carnaval and the anniversary of the 1959 Revolution are celebrated, as well as weddings, births, and deaths. Fasting is uncommon in Cuba; most celebrations involve feasting.
During Carnaval many Cubans will celebrate by attending and eating at the local festivals. During this time street vendors set up along the streets with whole roasted pigs from which they sell sandwiches. Croquettes and bocaditos are also for sale during this time. Others vendors sell sweets and desserts such as sugar-roasted peanuts, candies, or cotton candy. During this time state-subsidized beer is also sold from very large kegs placed along the streets. The beer is very cheap, but everyone must bring their own cup because these not provided.
Some Cubans celebrate Carnaval with a special dinner at home. It is common to share a roasted pork leg served with a tomato salad and boiled or fried viandas. After dinner, family members and guests might also share a few glasses of rum as they share stories and listen to Cuban music.
During Christmas and New Year, Cubans will also celebrate with a special meal. This meal might include croquettes or tostones as appetizers along with marinated olives. The main meal consists of black beans and rice, viandas, Cuban salad, and roasted pork un lechon. Desserts for these holidays are often much more elaborate than everyday desserts. Many families serve rice pudding or arroz con leche, Cuban flan, tres leches cake, or homemade jams and jellies with cheese. Rum is usually shared following a special-occasion meal, and smokers will enjoy a good Cuban cigar. For New Year’s Eve, some Cubans will eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight to celebrate the twelve months of the year.
Birthday and wedding celebrations are also very important in Cuba. Usually these are occasions that are celebrated at home with a special meal rather than going out to celebrate. At a typical birthday or wedding celebration, the host will serve a macaroni or potato salad with lots of mayonnaise, chunks of cheese, and ham. Smoothies or fruit juice will be served along with a cake bought from a local cake maker. At weddings and adult birthday parties, guests will drink Cuban beer or rum together throughout the celebration.
Diet and Health
Beginning in the early 2000s, the Cuban government has tried to encourage people to eat more vegetables and less fatty foods. Historically Cubans have grown accustomed to eating fried foods, including large amounts of pork, which can be very fatty meat. Vegetables are not commonly consumed in large quantities, but rather cooked into sauces or served as a simple side salad. However, fresh fruits have always been an important part of a healthy Cuban diet, and most Cubans eat several servings of fruit every day. Nearly all of the grains Cubans eat are refined grains. The white rice that is eaten daily has far fewer nutrients in it than brown rice would, but brown rice is nearly impossible to find in Cuba, and, even if it were, Cubans are not accustomed to eating it.
In addition to encouraging healthier eating, the Cuban government encourages Cubans to get plenty of exercise and take part in healthy physical activity. Eating more fresh vegetables and exercising daily are thought to help reduce chances of getting heart disease or acquiring other related-health problems.
Food is central to Cuban social life. Food is also inextricably linked to political economy. As Cuba’s political and economic relationships have changed over time, so has the food system. Under Cuban socialism a food-rationing system has functioned to provide households with basic food staples at very low costs for the past fifty years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, national-level economic struggles in Cuba have made food access difficult at times. Despite these difficulties, families still work diligently to consume traditional Cuban foods in their households.
Although Cuban cuisine is dynamic and not static, there are certain aspects of Cuban food that have remained relatively steady over at least the last century. Cuban food is a source of pride in history and a vehicle of pride and care within the household. Cuban household cooks strive to create home-cooked meals on a daily basis for their families. As part of Cuban traditions of hospitality, visitors are often offered coffee and a small snack when they arrive at someone’s house. Birthdays and celebrations are never complete without a spread of food and snacks for friends and family. On occasion Cubans enjoy eating meals at local restaurants or having snacks at nearby food stands, however the vast majority of Cuban food is still homemade and eaten at home.
The empirical foundation of this article draws upon fieldwork, observation, and interviews with Cubans living in Santiago de Cuba and Havana between 2008 and 2016. Information about historical and contemporary Cuban food-consumption practices were accessed through collections of Bohemia Magazine and Granma housed in the Casa del Caribe library archives. Recipes and news stories on markets and food prices can be accessed in collections of newspapers at the Elvira Cape Library in Santiago de Cuba. An extensive collection of Cuban and Cuban-American cookbooks can be found at the University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection.
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Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.Find this resource:
Perez, Elizabeth. Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. New York: New York University Press, 2016.Find this resource:
Premat, Adriana. Sowing Change: The Making of Havana’s Urban Agriculture. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012.Find this resource:
Wilson, Marisa. Everyday Moral Economies: Food, Politics, and Scale in Cuba. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.Find this resource:
Wright, Julia. Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Security: Lessons from Cuba. London: Earthscan, 2009.Find this resource:
(1.) See for instance the work of Jeffrey Pilcher and David Sutton: David Sutton, Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (Oxford: Berg, 2001); Jeffrey Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).
(2.) Richard Wilk, “Food and Nationalism: The Origins of ‘Belizean Food.’” In Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Bellasco and Philip Scranton, 67–89 (New York: Routledge, 2001).
(3.) For a more full explanation of the role of food in religious practices, see Elizabeth Perez, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
On food and racial identity, see Psyche Williams-Forson, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), and Christine Folch, “Fine Dining: Race in Prerevolutionary Cuban Cookbooks,” Latin American Research Review 43.2 (2008): 205–223.
The links between food and national identity can be found in Lauren Derby’s 1998 “Gringo Chickens with Worms: Food and Nationalism in the Dominican Republic,” in Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of US Latin American Relations, eds. Gilbert Michel Joseph, Catherine LeGrand, Ricardo Donato Salvatore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 451–479. See also Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Elisabeth Sifnon Books, Viking, 1985).
Emily Yates-Doerr’s 2015 The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala clearly demonstrates the links between food access and health in contemporary Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015). See also Hanna Garth, “Obesity in Cuba: Memories of the Special Period and Approaches to Weight Loss Today,” in Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings, eds. Megan B. McCullough and Jessica A. Hardin (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 89–106.
(4.) Medea Benjamin, Joseph Collins, and Michael Scott, No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today (New York: Grove, 1984), 15.
(5.) J. I. Dominguez, “Cuba’s Economic Transition: Successes, Deficiencies, and Challenges,” in Transforming Socialist Economies: Lessons for Cuba and Beyond, eds. Shahid Javed Burki and Daniel P. Erikson (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 14.
(6.) P. Sean Brotherton, Revolutionary Medicine: Health and the Body in Post-Soviet Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
(7.) See Marc D. Perry, Negro Soy Yo: Hip Hop and Raced Citizenship in Neoliberal Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Tanya Saunders, Cuban Underground Hip Hop: Black Thoughts, Black Revolution, Black Modernity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
(8.) See Noelle M. Stout, After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Jafari S. Allen, !Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
(9.) Adriana Premat, Sowing Change: The Making of Havana’s Urban Agriculture (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012).
(10.) The engine of the slave food system was the conuco, a name derived from the plots traditionally used by indigenous people in the region, referring to the small plots of land that slaves were allowed to use for their own food cultivation (Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, trans H. De Onis. Durham: Duke University Press, 1947). Because Tainos were the only agriculturalists on the island before conquest, it is believed that the cultivation of these plots began in eastern Cuba (Esquivel, Miguel, and Karl Hammer, The “conuco”–an important refuge of Cuban plant genetic resources. Kulturpflanz 3 (1988): 451–463.)
(11.) Miguel Esquivel and Karl Hammer, “The ‘Conuco’: An Important Refuge of Cuban Plant Genetic Resources,” Kulturpflanz 3 (1988): 451–463.
(12.) Rebecca Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985).
(13.) Ponte, Antonio Jose. ¿Quien Va a comerse lo que esa Mujer Cocina? Diario de Cuba, Mar 3, 2012. Online source http://www.diariodecuba.com/cultura/9890-quien-va-comerse-lo-que-esa-mujer-cocina.
(15.) . Miller, Tom. Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba (New York: Anthenum Books, 1992).
(16.) Miller, Trading with the Enemy.
(17.) “Entrevista” (Interview with Nitza Villapol), Mujeres (July 1969): 96, quoted in M. Fleites-Lear, “Mirrors in the Kitchen: The new Cuban Woman Cooks Revolutionarily,” Food Culture and Society 15.2 (2012): 241–260.
(18.) Medea Benjamin, Joseph Collins, and Michael Scott, No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today (New York: Grove, 1984).
(19.) Benjamin et al., No Free Lunch.
(20.) Benjamin et al., No Free Lunch, 15.
(21.) The ration quantities vary over time depending on Cuba’s national economic situation. For instance, due to a “rift between China and Cuba” in 1966, the rice ration was reduced from six to four pounds (Benjamin et al., No Free Lunch, 27). It was returned to six pounds in the early 1970s only to be reduced in the mid-1970s after a drought and rising costs of rice imports (Benjamin et al., No Free Lunch).
(22.) People with certain chronic health conditions, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, renal problems, and so on, are able to purchase additional or different food items.