The Hearts and Souls of Havana

A foreigner explores the city, falls in love, and discovers the limits of hope

I had missed dinner. Carmen's mother, however, had saved me a portion, sarcastically noting that it was my favorite dish, picadillo (minced meat) of soybeans. Creation of this particular recipe is commonly attributed to Fidel -- also sarcastically. Before the "special period" (or as Carmen is fond of saying, "when this was a country"), food was food, and not merely an impression of it. Picadillo was used to describe hamburgers and the like. Then Castro, already doing stand-up comedy in the political world, decided to impose his sense of humor on the gastronomic world as well. He added soy to the picadillo because of meat shortages. The beef content diminished but the bulk remained the same, but before long picadillo no longer even tasted of meat. Officially it was supposed to be at least twenty percent beef, but Carmen's mother, who picks up the premixed concoction using the family's ration book, swears it's well below ten percent.

My problem was that I thought it was delicious, an opinion I once offered at the dinner table after finishing my plate but without noticing that the rest of the family had simply been picking at their food. "That was tasty," I said with a smile as I pushed my empty plate toward the picadillo pot in the center of the table. Conversation halted. Forks stopped scraping against plates, and Carmen's eyes shot daggers at me as she muttered, "Dios mio."

Her mother then let out a yowl of horror. The pot was placed directly in front of me to finish.

I tried to explain tofu in an effort to defend my comment, but my cherished status as a compassionate, sympathetic foreigner instantly had been revoked and replaced by that of a quasicommunist. Naturally, I never again said anything positive about picadillo.

Meals with Carmen's family were always an enlightening experience, even if the discussion inevitably turned to food, which would then initiate a series of complaints about how hard life had become and how much time each day was devoted to simply finding enough to eat. More recently that would often lead to mention of the "free markets" instituted late last year, which offer nearly everything, but at ludicrously high prices for the average Cuban. (A pound of meat costs forty pesos; the average daily wage is four pesos.) I never saw Carmen's family buy anything from these markets except three cloves of garlic (three pesos apiece), which went into the picadillo to mask the taste of soybeans. The standing joke: What are the three biggest failures of the revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But still the Cubans are not starving. Losing weight for the most part, yes. But starving? No. Theft and fortuitous employment are the keys to survival today, and it is no coincidence that some of the most sought-after jobs deal with gastronomy. Since my visit last year, everyone in the family had undergone some weight change. Carmen's mother, in her late forties and thin by Cuban standards, had actually gained some pounds after she found work in a kitchen. Yaelis, Carmen's 23-year-old sister, had lost her chubbiness and now constantly complained about how thin she was. Twenty-four-year-old Luis, Yaelis's husband, so thin last year, had put on some weight. He, too, had become involved in the world of food. But Carmen, at age 29, was as skinny this past March as she had been some months before. The only person I knew outside the food business who had gained weight was a drug dealer friend who plied his trade near the Habana Libre Hotel. "Business is good," he said. "Everybody wants cocaine." He had dollars to spare.

Dinner was done. I complimented Carmen's mother on her ability to make even picadillo edible and joined the family and neighbors in an evening ritual: gathering around the television to watch Te Odio, Mi Amor, the immensely popular Brazilian telenovela dubbed into Spanish. Carmen's mother sat in an armchair. Luis and Yaelis sat intertwined in another chair. Carmen and the neighbors with no electricity sat across the room on the sofa. I pulled a chair from the dining table, discreetly sat away from everyone, and desperately began to itch.

I would make sure nobody was watching me instead of the TV and then launch a pre-emptive strike upon a carefully targeted region of my body, scratching as hard and fast as I could in hopes of killing as many of the little bastards as possible. Two weeks earlier I had been traveling through the country, part of my work as a professional photographer, and returned with a most Cuban souvenir: scabies. I know exactly where I was given this gift, too A Hotel Central, room seventeen, in Bayamo, northwest of Santiago. A decrepit hostel, a filthy room, and an unwashed bed that turned out to be infested with bugs.

Carmen noticed my rather awkward writhing and understood all too well. After all, she had been the first to enjoy this welcome-home present, which only added to the misery she was already suffering from a severe pelvic inflammation caused by another parasite, monilia, found in her bath water. She was in constant pain and definitely not happy.

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