14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez/Juan Izquierdo, Havana, 16 December 2022 — The stench comes from the back of the butcher shop, from the bundle of pork that the clerks handle with sweaty hands. As he approaches the counter, having survived being shoved and yelled at while in line, Carlos discovers that the unpleasant smell comes from the reddish suet that mucks up the floor.
The transaction is short-lived. The butcher sets his hooks and knives on the mass of smelly meat, weighs it –always cheating, but even Cubans get used to dishonesty — and throws it inside the shopping bag. The manipulation of the scale does not seem to matter to the policeman who watches over the buyers and who, at the end of the day, will be paid in kind for his “indifference.”
The smell is just the beginning of the odyssey to have a bit to eat to put on the family table during the New Year holidays.
The smell is just the beginning of the odyssey to have a bit of energy to put on the family table during the New Year holidays
The meat just bought is old, gray, and almost greenish. Fat, cartilage and bone predominate. Its texture is perhaps the most unpleasant, typical of pork that has not been well refrigerated and that, when it begins to thaw, becomes slimy to the touch.
Unfortunately, Carlos thinks, he listened to the clerks who were shouting on the outskirts of the butcher shop. “Make the effort and buy now,” they said this Thursday, “this is what’s left and tomorrow is going to be worse.” There were people who were more discerning, who preferred to not buy anything.
The meat that the government puts up for sale for the end-of-year celebrations is, according to the diagnosis of Havana housewives, “lukewarm” and it is impossible to remove the stench, even when frying it in very hot butter.
The conspiracy theorists in the neighborhood have already launched their explanation: in the absence of a recent product, the government makes available for sale its mysterious “war reserve,” the secret food arsenal that has always been attributed to the regime. It is not pork that has been kept in a refrigerator, hanging on a hook, but in little refrigerated warehouses, one piece on top of another. For this reason, they say, the meat is “crushed” and has an “ugly” color.
Crackling pork rind, fried pork chunks or some roasted ribs have always been part of the Cuban New Year’s festivities, even more than holiday trees and cider. The latter, the official hatred for the Christmas festivities has made them disappear and reappear from homes, but pork meat had remained a constant despite the fact that every December of the last decade its price has risen significantly.
In private markets, a pound of steak or leg is close to 500 Cuban pesos but, as the month progresses and Christmas Eve approaches, the product’s presence decreases
In private markets, a pound of steak or leg is close to 500 Cuban pesos, but as the month progresses and Christmas Eve approaches, the product’s presence decreases. Hence, the official announcement was received with relief that the product would begin to be sold in the city of Havana in a “limited, controlled-release” manner, upon presentation of the ration book.
Silvia, Xiomara and María Eugenia have come to an understanding. Between the three of them they will buy a piece of pork that costs about 7,500 pesos. It is a leg that will be divided for Christmas Eve dinner for their corresponding families. “We’re just going to buy just one because no one has the money for the piece that is allocated to her nuclear family,” María Eugenia clarifies.
Since last Sunday, having been alerted that the sales would begin this Wednesday, the three retirees began to stand in line at the butcher shop on Ermita and Conill streets, in the municipality of Plaza de la Revolución. Since then, they have alternated the hours they spend in line, hoping that the time to go into the establishment will arrive this Friday afternoon. “We have about 80 people ahead of us, and sales are going very slowly.”
The long wait is not because the piece of meat has to be cut, since the customer must purchase the complete piece, a requirement that has made many needy people give up, since they do not have the thousands of pesos that a leg costs at a price of 250 pesos per pound. “They weighed a medium one for me and it came out at 6,800 pesos so I had to share buying it with a neighbor,” warns a nearby resident who went in “among the first” because she started standing in line last Saturday. The delay is attributed to “all the paperwork that must be reviewed before buying.”
According to the woman, it is pork meat “with a lot of fat,” it comes unpackaged, which makes her assume it’s from Cuban pigs, but the employees could not tell her if it was imported or from national farms. “The store has refrigeration problems and when I bought the leg, I ran home to put it in the freezer because otherwise it wouldn’t make it to the end of the year.”
In other municipalities, such as Arroyo Naranjo, the residents have improvised real encampments outside the butcher shops to be able to get a portion of meat
In other municipalities, such as Arroyo Naranjo, the residents have improvised real encampments outside butcher shops to be able to get a portion of meat, since it is known that what is available is not enough for all the households registered in the city’s rationed market. On social networks, some of them have shared photos of people wrapped in blankets or drinking rum to warm up in the cool early morning this December.
“I hope that the piece that I get is tenderloin, which is worth 235 pesos a pound and comes with some ribs for frying that my children love,” commented a resident of El Vedado this Thursday, who has to buy at the local store at 17th and K streets. “You can always convince someone else in line to take your piece if you don’t like it and he prefers it that way.”
However, the man fears that the meat that signals the holidays could also become a matter of contention. “Those who are buying legs for three households are not going to be able to separate it until everything is cut in their presence, because otherwise there will be a dispute due to a little extra lard that goes to one or a few chunks above what the other gets.”
Translated by Norma Whiting
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