Mojitos

"I used to make mojitos every day," Cruz says, halfheartedly spritzing seltzer into a glass. "Mixed drinks cost 25 cents when I made my first drink. I was eighteen." The top sellers at La Carreta, he says, run to the mundane. Beer mostly. Iced tea. An occasional sangria. A tedious lot, hardly livened by his waitresses, gum-smacking, vaguely annoyed women who place their orders with sullen grunts. But it beats Cuba. "I didn't agree with Castro's politics. All the tips went to the government. We worked only for salary," Cruz says, flicking his Marlboro into the sink. "He made people work in the cane fields. I refused to do that work. I make the mojito. I don't pull it from the ground."

When Miguel Bretos thinks of the mojito, the image that comes to mind is one of cold cocktails, and of pork roasting under a tropical sun in the countryside. It's unlikely that Bretos, the prodigal son of upper-middle-class parents with roots that stretch back to Aragon, Spain, ever partook in such a pastoral scene. But his passion for the relationship between Cuba and its Floridian exiles has made him a de facto mojitoist.

"I had lunch a while back with an older Cuban, and he ordered a preluncheon drink, a mojito," recounts Bretos, a historian at Miami-Dade Community College. "As he sat with his drink, I remember so distinctly him telling me, `You know, tasting this drink makes me think of Santiago [Cuba]. For me this is almost like a communion.' I think this is true of the older generation. The mojito's presence in Miami is all about trying to re-create the culture they had there, over here.

"You have to understand that of all the cocktails in Cuba, the mojito was the really Cuban thing," the effete, blue-eyed professor adds. "It was almost like the nationalist drink." Bretos's clipped English, shaped by eight years as a professor of history in Sydney, Australia, lends his pronouncements an air of Alistair Cookelike authority. Despite his timid declarations of abstinence, Bretos has agreed, for heuristic purposes, to conduct some field work.

The first stop is Casa Juancho, an upscale cousin of Versailles distinguished by the alarming amount of meat that hangs from its ceiling. (According to Jose Galvez, the mojito at Casa Juancho is the city's best, a tribute not bestowed lightly.) The bartender snaps to attention when Bretos orders the drink, thrilled to have an audience for his elaborate preparation. He strips the yerbabuena, drops the leaves into a pear-shape glass, and sets to work with a pestle. "Even the mint in Cuba tastes better," he booms. Next he adds several tablespoons of sugar to each glass - an act that compels Bretos to murmur, "My God, I'd keep that away from a diabetic" - then a healthy splash of rum. But alas, the performance pressure is too much. A final stir with a cocktail spoon shatters one of the glasses. Undaunted, the barman delivers the surviving drink and hovers, watching as Bretos takes a dainty sip.

A large and garrulous man, the bartender chats with Bretos at length about the mojito, then, for no apparent reason, launches into a yarn about his years in the merchant marine, how he wound up in the Congo and was served roasted monkey but refused to eat it. In addition to his penguinwear, the man sports a gold neck chain adorned with a pair of eyes. As he speaks, the eyes bob to and fro, his thick chest hair coiled over them like eyebrows. The impression, particularly after downing a mojito, is of speaking to a man who has a three-dimensional tattoo of Groucho Marx on his sternum.

Bretos lets the man finish his story, then takes another shot. "Of all the rum drinks," he says, "the daiquiri was always the fancy one, the one that made the international rounds. The mojito was a drink with no airs. Just a refreshing drink suited to the island's climate. Nobody would say, `Give me a mojito' and expect to impress anyone."

All of which makes the drink's appearance in Miami's trendiest restaurants more than a bit ironic. At Victor's Cafe, where the owners make quite a to-do about their selection of Cuban cocktails, the mojito is served up as a kind of nostalgic status symbol. The ultraswanky Yuca in Coral Gables charges more than four dollars for Bretos's test mojito, which is whipped up by a Colombian kid who looks fresh out of high school. (Then again, it's hard to imagine that anything at Yuca - the kind of relentlessly nouveau joint liable to serve chicharrones with cantaloupe chutney - possesses much folkloric authenticity.)

Bretos figures El Pub, the venerated Calle Ocho eatery, may provide a better research site. No such luck. "We don't serve them," announces bartender Oscar Hernandez, a stooped fellow with a roiling pompadour. The liquor license doesn't allow him to serve anything that strong. Besides, he says, "People don't have the taste for mojitos any more."

Part Two
No taste, perhaps, but plenty of memories. Indeed, though the number of mojitos purchased in Miami on any given night probably can be counted on one hand, just about every exile old enough to remember the homeland has a mojito memory to impart. Al Rodriguez, a marine specialist with the City of Miami, recalls drinking mojitos out of a galvanized pail during the cattle runs of his youth. "We'd mix up a batch and pass the ladle around," says Rodriguez, who left the island only to return during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Mercedes Sandoval, a professor of anthropology at Miami-Dade Community College, recalls making her version of mojitos in coconut shells. "They could be treacherous," she says of the creation, which came to be called a saoco. "I remember walking back to my town from a nearby village, up and down the mountains. My friend got a little high and she forced us to sing hymns the whole way." Carmen Menocal, niece of the notorious General Mario Menocal - the Cuban leader for whom the Presidente cocktail was named - can still recount, at the age of 80, the days when a strapping young Ernest Hemingway would visit the family ranch outside Havana, El Chico, and indulge in the General's famous homemade mojitos.

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