Mojitos

Now there is Orestes Mendez. At 58 he is an aging disciple of the old masters, a onetime bartender for Batista's army. "In Miami I am the exclusive specialist of the mojito," he declares, setting out two glasses for the inevitable demonstration. "The Floridita is the place to get a mojito in Miami. Winn-Dixie, they say they are the meat people. Well, we are the mojito people." Mendez's arms swing back and forth like a toy soldier's, the scent of pork rinds at war with his after-shave. His version of the mojito, topped off with a squirt of dark-green yerbabuena extract, is shaken with just the slightest hip wiggle. He makes them strong.

After Castro took power, Mendez, unable to find work, fled to Miami, where he has done time at a half-dozen bars. "After Fidel it was like everything was locked up," he says, twisting an imaginary key in a phantom padlock. No one knows for sure how the mojito is faring in Castro's depleted island nation, where media dispatches are issued like faded epitaphs. As with nearly everything, rum is rationed. The conventional wisdom in Miami, tainted though it might be, is that mojitos are restricted to the tourist circuit. "The Cubans make them at home," Mendez says, absently mixing another round. "If they make them at all."

He gives the glass one last swish, staring into the last of the mojitos. Over the barkeep's shoulder, a black-and-white photo of Hemingway mocks his rueful expression. Taken a few years before his suicide, the picture reveals Cuba's most famous writer red-nosed and contrite. In one paw he holds a mug, in the other what looks like a tall glass. From a distance the shape is a match for Mendez's mojito. Closer up, though, the decanter is a little easier to identify. It's a Budweiser.

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