Dear Lynn Crawford, steely Iron Chef competitor, former executive chef of Four Seasons New York and Toronto, top dog at Rubywatchco and firecracker host of the Food Network’s Pitchin’ In–
CC: The Barefoot Contessa, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Bourdain
S.O.S! Cuba needs your knives and spice racks!
Ten years ago my partner and I went to Holguin, Cuba. The water was just like the glossy brochure: like 7-up, like Perrier, like all those things that are promised. The sand is tumbled diamonds, as soft as walking through flour.
But, the Cuban food. Insert groan here. Welcome to the all-inclusive buffet, more commonly referred to as the “barfet.” There has to be a PhD thesis in here somewhere—about the hysteria created in normal citizens over an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s as though we believe that our stomachs are sudden bomb shelters. We must take stock! Eat as much as we can! Quick! More!
But we couldn’t. Even if we wanted to, we were appalled at how the entire barfet offering was deep-fried. All the fresh fruit was submerged in cloyingly sweet syrup. The sodium content of normally healthy vegetables made my aorta take on the pace of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me documentary heart.
The fish was so salty it tasted like it was sweating on my plate. I was retaining more water than information. Although, that might have had some correlation to rum intake. In this vein, Cuba took top marks. The daiquiris and pina coladas were boozy, frothy textbook perfect rum shakes. They became our meal replacements because we couldn’t bear another agonizing walk along the buffet line.
Scroll forward ten years, back to Cuba. Back to Holguin even—but without the cushy, sanitized all-inclusive experience.
I had earned the Willy Wonka golden ticket–a travel writing scholarship awarded by the Adventure Centre, that had me hopping on 10 day Geckos Viva Cuba tour as a participant. I had the opportunity to eat, imbibe and delve into textures and terrains of Cuba that were amiss in my not-so-cultural visit in 2002. And write all about it for the Matador Network.
So, Lynn Crawford, I knew eating was going to be a daily challenge. And I’m no fusspot! I’ll eat testicles, insects, that green glop on the lobster’s head, hot sauce made from fire ants, piranha, tripe soup even!
I knew that Cuba had one reliable fall back in its pizza, so I wasn’t totally alarmed about returning to the island for two weeks. Which makes me feel like a fussy teenager, unwilling to try anything that might have the likes of curry or cilantro in it.
Cuban pizza is a godsend though. In Trinidad, 20 minutes from the south coast’s best beach (Playa Ancon) I found solace AND the best mango and pineapple pizza on the terrace of Restaurante Trinidad Colonial. For 10 bucks I had a pizza as big as a bicycle wheel and two cold beers, oblivious to the sheets of rain blamed on the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaac.
I know what you’re thinking. Surely, on a tropical island there has to be some enterprising chef taking advantage of the local produce veta madre (mother lode). There has to be something more amazing than pizza to eat!
I’ll take a pass on the guavas. Those suckers have lethal pits for anyone with dental work. Clarification: guava pits are dangerous for anyone with teeth, in general. They are as hard as peppercorns!
I applaud the Cuban pineapple though. The watermelon is a little anemic, its flesh was a consistent cat tongue colour, and not as sweet as the Californian cannonballs we import. Cuban bananas are often freckled more than an Irish kid and ready for banana bread, but the plantain…it makes for such addictive chips—I’d even take a pass on Tostitos for the dense and starchy crunch of plantain.
So, Lynn, here’s my beef. Cuba has avocadoes as big as footballs and they refuse to make guacamole. When I returned to Toronto I immediately pulled up the menu of Julie’s Cuban Cafe on Dovercourt. HA! Guacamole. Our Geckos guide Leo sneered at me when I said he could make a mint if he opened a tortilla chip and guacamole stand. “That is Mexican. We are Cuban.” So! I balked, “I’m Canadian, I make guacamole!” He wouldn’t budge on his stance. The Cuban avocado is like green butter, as rich as a handful of macadamia nuts. It’s often served on a side plate with sliced beets, green beans and wimpy carrots. Boo.
I want guacamole.
Leo teases me with talk of the Christmas avocado, three times bigger than the ones we’ve seen for sale along the Obispo in Havana. Shame. I bet a Christmas avocado would feed 40.
Cuba needs a Christmas avocado guacamole intervention.
And how about some hot sauce? I thought every island had their own fiery concoction. I am at the rationing stage of my Marie Sharp’s grapefruit hot sauce, procured on a February trip to Belize. In fact, I’ve hoarded two extra bottles that were intended as gifts. It’s citrusy with a surreptitious drop-kick. Surely Cuba could whip up its own blazing counterpart?
The only condiments that grace a Cuban table are (50% of the time) white vinegar and oil. Slim pickings. Some of the hotels we stay at have ornate displays of HP, A-1, ketchup and mustard—showcased like they are fine wines.
One hundred percent of the time, mayo makes an appearance. It’s the Cuban cure-all. Mid-trip we take shelter from the rain at ZinZin in Santiago de Cuba. Between serenades from the Cuban playing showtunes on his Flamenco guitar, our server delivers fresh bread and an accompaniment to our table.
Tipsy from afternoon mojito intake, we all greedily grab at the bread. It’s so fresh and pliable! I slather on more butter than I normally would, slightly starved from a slim ham and cheese toastie lunch by the pool.
“This isn’t butter,” Jacqueline remarks.
I agree. “What is it?” I struggle to place the taste.
We are eating not “bread” per se, but sliced hot dog buns with mayo. And we think it’s the best thing ever.
I entered the danger zone that night.
Lynn, the baguettes in Cuba could be used in a cricket game as bats. I am embarrassed to be so complimentary of white hot dog buns!
Could you run a workshop on 12 grain bread baking? Even 7 grains would do. Any grains? The bread that is served with breakfast is already in a crouton state. Is it pre-toasted?
I wouldn’t even feed most of the bread I eat in Havana to birds. They would never fly away again with its weight. Every endemic Cuban bird would become a flightless turkey.
Am I simply missing North American preservatives? Food dye #5?
I am a big cheerleader of eating local and I KNOW that Cuba has very local mangoes, sugarcane and coffee. The island outside of city centres is verdant and pastoral. The red dirt pulls me back to Prince Edward Island in a flash.
All the essential elements of an awesomely stocked kitchen grow in Cuba: sweet potato, lychee, okra, peanuts, coconut, plantain. Pork. Beef. Chicken (often joked about in trip guides as being “born fried”). Lobster, red snapper, mahi mahi and shrimp are on every menu. But, they get overcooked to the point of the fish doubling as a shoe insole.
And the stew. Not a stew at all. I had a rabbit stew at El Nardo and it was actually a rabbit leg in OXO cube gravy. At El Barracon in Santiago de Cuba I have the lamb stew, and it’s just lamb in gravy. The kind of gravy I loved in high school on a $2 plate of fries. Not stew. But the gravy is better at El Barracon.
So, why? Why the OXO cube gravy? Why all the mayo? WHY all the lacklustre stale white bread-cheese-ham sandwiches?
I am barely surprised when I place my order at Plaza Vieja Factoria and am told that they are “out of Cuban sandwiches.” How can Cuba be out of Cuban sandwiches? It’s like Manhattan being sold out of Manhattan martinis.
I do find passable snacks like Pelly pork rinds. Cubans are mad about their “aerated chips.” All of them are of the cheezie family consistency—more air than substance, and called chicarrons. Even the chicarrons would be better with guacamole.
Don’t even get me started on the coffee. Most mornings I can’t figure out if I’m drinking coffee or tea. The UHF shelf milk (long lasting milk that doesn’t require refrigeration) adds floaty bits that make the cofftea more mud puddle than breakfast beverage.
I come to realize (and in the end, even our Cuban guide agrees) that Cuba prides itself more on quantity than quality. Dinners are like Italian weddings with seven courses. I would never normally eat a plate of watermelon and pineapple followed by black bean soup, some polenta, then a plate of soggy green beans, avocado and boiled beets and another dish with a chicken breast and three cups of rice. PLUS, one of three typical desserts: ice cream, bread pudding or sponge cake. With espresso. Ugh.
Lynn, can you help? I know the premise of your Pitchin’ In show. The whole island needs your kitchen brains and pizzazz. I know you’ve already set the menu: snapper flambéed in dark rum, grilled espresso-rubbed pork and plantain on sugarcane skewers, mango cobbler with avocado gelato…
Cuba needs you Lynn Crawford.
(But, we need you too, in Toronto.)