A Lost Gastronomic Legacy / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 23 October 2019 —  The loss of Cuba’s gastronomic legacy began in 1959 when private companies, factories and businesses began to disappear after the so-called “triumph of the Revolution,” appropriated entirely by the totalitarian regime.

Back when Cuba had six million inhabitants, there were also six million head cattle along with many sheep, goats, horses and pigs. This was considered normal.

Family meals typically included beef. On any given day, Monday through Thursday, there would be ropa vieja, fried cow, beef tenderloin, ribeye or filet steak, roast beef, meat with potatoes, pot roast, beef-stuffed green peppers, meatballs and the famous picadillo, which was made with chopped beef, small fried potatoes, olives, capers and raisins.

Fish was often eaten on Friday because, at the time, most people were professed Christians. Meals featured roast snapper, bass soup, small fried porgy or bream, fish croquettes with parsley, and shellfish such as lobster and shrimp.

On Sundays there was chicken: arroz con pollo garnished with baby peas and roasted red peppers, roast or fried chicken and chicken croquettes.

Pork, turkey and Guinea hen were eaten mainly at Christmas. Cuban factories and private companies also produced many wonderful varieties of pork sausages and ham.

Cuban companies such as Nela, Guarina and Patagras produced high-quality butter and cream cheese as well as the so-called yellow cheese. White cheese was generally an artisanal product.

Every street in Havana had tiny spots, known as kiosks, which offered fresh oyster cocktails on a daily basis. Many others sold cold sugarcane juice. Some specialized in fried foods as well as hamburgers made with top quality beef.

Something else that has been lost is Cuban caracolillo coffee, which was one of the best in the world. You could buy it at almost every bus stop and at small shops for three cents a cup.

The wonderful tradition of Creole desserts has also been lost: grapefruit in syrup, poached orange peel, guayaba jam, grated coconut, sweet papaya, caramelized coquitos, white and tight coconut, mango kisses, mango jam, mango in syrup, flan, fruit pudding, milk and pumpkin custards, the typical sugarcane fritters and the famous rice pudding, made with Valencia rice and with two different kinds of milk.

Also gone from homes and restaurants are corn fritters, corn bread, sweet corn flour pudding and creamed corn soup with pork to name just a few of the most popular Cuban dishes.

With all of these dishes gone, Cuba’s culinary culture has been reduced to the here and now. I think any cookbook written today ought to be called “What Do I Have; What Can I Make.”