Sylvia MvKeown Cuba
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Let Them Eat Ice Cream

It almost seems fitting that the last note ever to be written by Marie Antoinette as she headed for the gallows hangs framed in a country where the state still has a say over what its citizens eat. Although the Cubans of Havana have more of a penchant for ice cream than cake, there are still more than enough baked goods and sweet treats to perhaps have sated the famously last French royal.

“This is the slave bakery,” says Yaz, a local food expert, as she points to a blue building in the close-knit streets of downtown. “The slaves worked here and baked all the bread, you can still see murals of the slaves working on the walls. They have been open ever since but slaves don’t work there anymore, obviously.”


But in modern day Cuba who works for whom in food is still a curious balancing act that is fixed within its famously revolutionist history, its ties with Russia and its precarious history with the United States.

A theory or system of social organisation in which all property is owned by the community
and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.

A theory put into practice by Cuban leader Fidel Castro after leading a revolt against the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. A theory still somewhat put into practice today – but with a lot more spiritual freedom – by Fidel’s younger brother Raúl who took over leadership in 2008. What this largely means is that as you walk the streets downtown you will more likely than not see people working to fix the ever-dilapidated infrastructure of committee-approved historical buildings but not so much in areas where you find less tourists. It means that no one goes hungry as they get state rations to cover their basic food needs but people have to spend an entire day standing in lines to receive enough food for the week.

It also means that churro cart that sells to passersby is owned by the government as well as a large chunk of the restaurants scattered around the city all of whom make use of a lot of the same sanctioned ingredients. As one would imagine, variety is not quite the spice of life in communism, especially when you are not really given any spices to begin with.

Slave bakery, Havana, Cuba
Slave bakery, Havana, Cuba

But then change came two years ago when Obama somewhat lifted the heavy handed commercial, economic, and financial embargo that plagued the small island since Batista’s regime. This allowed Cuba to trade and import goods and what the people wanted was ingredients – and fast food but I doubt young Fidel is a fan of the capitalist big Mac.

And so the newest revolution to hit the streets was that of paladares, privately owned restaurants run out of back alleys and built in people’s garages. Although the state ban of privately owned restaurants was lifted in 1993, the establishments – which derived their name from a 90s Brazilian soap opera called Vale Tudo where protagonist Rachel Accioli ran a chain of restaurants named after the Spanish and Portuguese word for palate – blossomed with the introduction of American imported ingredients and spices. Their elevated offerings allowed for differentiation and bustling competition. So much competition in fact that the government finally decided to stop giving out licenses at the end of 2016, except for private ice creams shops, which apparently everyone agrees there can never be too much of.

The importation of goods means that paladares are more expensive than the state run facilities so you land up paying European prices for food that is still best described as homely.

But curiously the thing that stands out most is how incredibly well-seasoned the food is. For people with so little access to “condimentos” it is surprising that when they do use them that neither restraint nor over indulgence is in place and you land up with a variety of traditional Cuban dishes, Mediterranean fare and many, many pizzas that are perfectly spiced and flavoursome. Traditional Cuban dishes such as “Ropa vieja” or “Old Man’s Clothes”, a shredded beef dish named after a folklore tale whereby a poor man boiled his shredded wares to feed his hungry children, or that of Lobster enchailo with “moros e christiandos” (moors and Christians), a dish of rice and black beans with more fun references to slaves.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s the first communist state in the west had to put drastic measures in place to support its economy such as having two separate currencies, the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) the former being worth 24 of the latter. Thus allowing for the locals to still afford a basic standard of living and for tourists to pay for the upkeep of the society. In other words you can pay 4 CUP for two popsicles on a local hidden beach and 2.50 CUC for one in the city (and, yes, it always does come back to ice cream.)

Paladare, Havana, Cuba
Paladare, Havana, Cuba
Sylvia McKeown Cuba

The irony that American tourists partially pay for the upkeep of communist practices unfortunately is still a bitter pill for some, which is why on the 16th of June 2017, President Donald Trump elected to once again put the sanctions in place that Obama’s presidency worked so hard to ease. Soon American tourists may once again not freely frequent the island at their own discretion and stay in any of the new hotels that have just finished being built at great cost to the people. They may not travel unless in a government approved tourist group, which means smaller new tour companies like the one Yaz works for may be in for a tough time.

And finally, it also means that the food industry which has blossomed from legal imports and money from the tourist trade (the only people who can regularly afford their prices in CUC) may be in danger after only just having found itself in the first place.

My God! Have mercy on me! My eyes could not bend tears to weep for you, poor children; farewell, farewell! – Marie Antoinette

Sylvia McKeown Cuba

Sylvia McKeown is possibly the most awkward lifestyle journalist and illustrator in Joburg. You will most likely find her eating some form of breakfast food (at any given time of day) while staring at the closest plant available.

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