The Creative Cuisine of Cuban Grandmothers in the Face of General Scarcity

Cuban cuisine, opulent in other times, now functions with scarce food and improvised recipes. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Izquierdo, Havana, 29 August 2023 — The walls of Havana creak with the rain and Idalia’s breeze.  While the radio predicts that everything is in order, jets of water slip between the tiles and drip, relentless, coating the walls. However, what most worries Aurelia, 61 years old and fond of cooking, is what she is going to eat at home while the storm lasts.

In her building in Centro Habana, several retirees like her tried to equip themselves — with very little luck — so they wouldn’t have to go outside in the rain. The result of the hunt is lean: a pound of ground chicken, a bottle of El Cocinero oil, and rice.

 Neighbors trade small amounts of rice, flour or eggs to contribute to the completion of a whole meal

Pedro, one of Aurelia’s old friends, recalled that Cubadebate had a gastronomy section and that it might give them an idea to bite the bullet and invent a banquet. Sabor y Tradición, the column by gourmet cook Silvia Gómez Fariñas, has everyone taking offense against the “official Cuban recipe book”: sausage, guava jelly, beef burger, mango chutney, breaded chicken with peanuts, fried vegetables, etc., not to mention the wacky instructions for the hacked shark, the fish in green sauce and malarrabia.*

“We will have to make do with the creative cuisine of the revolutionary grandmothers,” Aurelia proposes ironically, among the insults of the others to the opulent menu of Cubadebate. Phone in hand, she starts calling other neighbors and “negotiating.”

Ernesto, who lives on the first floor, will lend her a few handfuls of powdered egg. “Let’s do the same deal as the other day,” Aurelia proposes, reminding him that, in exchange for the egg, he got some croquettes she had prepared. Using the same tactic, a call to her neighbor Sandra guarantees her a small bunch of chives and two or three spices.

The oil begins to get hot, Ernesto prepares a salad, someone else the rice, and Aurelia throws the picadillo into the pot

The kitchen counter begins to look less squalid, and Aurelia gets down to work. At the last minute, a packet of flour appears. “I sold the cigarettes from the bodega [the ration store] and got this a few days ago,” says Pedro. As if she were making an act of contrition, she confessed to her friends that she was saving the flour to make some sweets, but since the eggs are not available through the ration book, it’s better to use them and that’s it. “You only live once,” she concludes, while the downpour continues beating on the windows of the house.

The oil begins to get hot, Ernesto prepares a salad, someone else the rice, and Aurelia throws the picadillo into the pot. Disappointed, she notes the meat shrinking as it makes contact with the metal. Shortly after, already at the table, everyone devours Aurelia’s picadillo with white rice. “It won’t be Cubadebate’s hacked shark, but it is what it is,” she says.

The coffee – a bit watery – rounds off the meal. The weather begins to clear over Havana. Someone opens a window to let the fresh air in, but Aurelia asks that they close it: the neighborhood dump, located a few meters below her window, must be at its peak.  She is right, whoever looks out the window will see a horde of flies swarming over the garbage. “With so much trash, it’s best not to talk too much,” she warns. “If you’re not careful, flies will get into your mouth.”

*Translator’s note: Malarrabia (insanity or bad case of hydrophobia) is a typical Cuban dessert made with several fruits and vegetables and syrup.

Translated by Norma Whiting

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