While free-flowing rum and the wail of a trumpet spill out of Little Havana's Sala'o Cuban Bar & Pescaderia and onto Calle Ocho, a constant struggle simmers in the kitchen.
Past the larger-than-life Ernest Hemingway photos, chef Jorge Mas — a handsome, chiseled, Cuban-born 36-year-old who's been in the U.S. for only six years — is taking the misery of eating under a Communist regime and turning it into a joyful celebration.
Mas was born in Vedado right on Havana's seaside near the broad esplanade, walkway, and seawall the Malécon. Yet when he was 2 years old, his parents simply didn't have the time to care for him.
"My mother was a schoolteacher, she was finishing university, and doing an internship, while my dad worked for radio and was traveling all over the country," he says.
So for six years while his parents worked, he lived with his grandparents about three hours outside of Havana in the tiny town of San Juan de los Yeras in the central Cuban state of Villa Clara.
There, harina — or grits, as some might call it — rules the diet.
"Harina was a basic meal, and you eat it four our five times a week with fried eggs, with pork. You find harina everywhere every day," Mas says.
Even on special occasions, such as his grandfather's birthday, the family would eat harina. Yet that day, his abuelo traveled north to the coast to buy a big bag of wriggling crabs. He then hurried back south, where Mas' grandmother set to stewing the crustaceans in a tangy tomato sauce to be spooned atop a pile of steaming grits.
"He was a skinny dude, but he used to eat a lot, and this was in a hot town in the countryside in the middle of Cuba," Mas says. "Imagine eating harina at 2 p.m., there's no air conditioning, and he'd put on the side of the table a little Russian fan and he'd just lick his fingers clean."
Though Mas' interpretation ($19) is a bit more refined, it arrives in a vast scratched aluminum pot without sacrificing any homey comfort.
Here, finely ground cornmeal is cooked off in tomato water until creamy yet still al dente. Meanwhile, blue crabs become his grandfather's fragrant, sweet, and tangy enchilado cangrejo after a simmer in ground tomato fortified with ají picante, paprika, onion, bell peppers, and the dry red Cuban cooking wine known as vino seco. The first bite makes you wish you were home, seated comfortably and looking out at your yard, the sea, or any place where you could spend a few long hours taking it all in.
At the age of 8, Mas moved back to Havana with his parents and resumed life as usual, or as usual as it can be on the island. Across the country, the so-called government-run bodegas that popped up every five or ten miles were a source of both sustenance and terror. Sure, citizens could get staples such as five-pound bags of beans or three-pound bags of rice by trading them for a stamp on a government ration card, but wanting something better was a dangerous affair.
"Sometimes they would give out these cans of fritata de bonito, a kind of fish paste that came with tomato sauce," Mas remembers. "It was disgusting. Nobody wanted to eat it, even if they were starving."
During his teenage years, his girlfriend's mother, through some sort of alchemy and perhaps a bit of luck, was able to turn the detestable foodstuff into croquetas he can never forget. They appear on the menu at Sala'o, whose name is a reference to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
Here, though, grouper replaces government-issued seafood paste. Mas and his crew make an aporreado de pescado, a kind of stew with onion, garlic, tomato, a bit of ají picante seasoned with paprika, oregano, cumin, and bay leaf. In a separate pot, oil and flour cook down into a dark roux that's then combined with the grouper stew until it forms a thick paste that can be formed into a croqueta.
Not long after, Mas was pushed into a kind of hybrid agriculture college, Comandancia a la Plata, named for Fidel Castro's secret headquarters in the Sierra Maestra where he plotted his coup and was the staging point for his army's invasion of Havana.
"We used to do college in the morning, and in the afternoon, when all the kids were playing sports, we'd go out and work the land picking tomatoes, planting seeds," Mas says. "That's how the government found us productive."
Mas and the other students would spend the weekdays at the school, situated in the small town of Güira de Melena, about an hour's drive south of Havana, and return home for the weekend, mostly to stock up on food.
The school's food was barely edible, so students mostly brought their own. There was no refrigeration, so everything had to be canned or nonperishable. The students slept on cots, 50 in a room. Locked to each bed was a suitcase filled with tins of Spam, ham, hot dogs, or fish; Cuban crackers; perhaps some old cocoa powder; and a can of condensed milk called fanguito.
By midday Thursday, most of the students had run out of everything other than crackers and condensed milk. Luckily, the cloying syrup was so rich it rationed itself.
"Every morning, everyone would put a little bit of fanguito on some toast or a cracker," Mas says. "It was too sweet, too strong to eat all at once."
By the end of the week, however, they were all starving. So the students would mix what was left of their fanguito with the cocoa powder and the last remnants of their toast or crackers.
"That last day was just surviving, and we'd all share with each other because so many people ran out of food," Mas remembers. "You don't know how something like that can carry you through, and so many of us had to go to classes that day, to the field, and then travel all the way back home."
There is no such suffering in the fanguito ($7) at Sala'o even though it comes in the same tin can Mas and his comrades ate from all those years ago. Here, condensed milk is boiled four hours until it becomes dulce de leche and is whipped with cream into a rich, nutty mousse that's flurried with grated dark chocolate, crisp breadcrumbs, and sea salt.
It seems almost too simple, but the wonderful interplay of the salt with the crumb's crunch, the chocolate's bitterness, and the milk's sweetness is entrancing. It's almost unjust that locals and passersby can enjoy these totems of poverty and starvation without ever having to experience poverty and starvation. Yet what makes these dishes so beautifully shocking is Mas' ability to present them with enough embellishment and enough restraint to create an accurate representation of the original while just hinting at the struggle that went into them. Though knowing of that strife can make enjoying these dishes a challenge, the only tragedy would be forgetting those struggles and injustices in the first place.