Food, Crowds and Books at the Havana Book Fair

Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — The news says that the 25th Havana Book Fair brings us a wide range of publications this year, that more than four million volumes will be sold at the different venues. One of the books the public is anxiously waiting to get their hands on is Orwell’s 1984, which has been published in Cuba for the first time and will be sold in Cuban pesos.

The guest country this year is Uruguay and the fair will of course pay tribute to poet Mario Benedetti and essayist Eduardo Galeano.

The book fair has become the year’s most popular event, even more so than the film festival.

On Sunday, February 14, one could hardly walk at the Morro-Cabaña complex in Havana. Large crowds of young people, children and adults filled the venue, stepping on the freshly-cut lawn, throwing garbage on the ground and piercing their surroundings with their yelling.

The first thing that strikes the eye when one enters the Cabaña fortress is the colorful, inflatable castles. It’s a shame there are no regulations restricting the kind of music the owners can use to attract the public, as the worst of reggaeton is the norm.

“There’s nothing else to do. Where are we going to take the kids, so they can run around and have a bit of fun? Where can young people meet with others without having to spend too much money? It’s a fact, the book fair is a meeting place more than a literary phenomenon.”

This is what an acquaintance of mine who’s a journalist was telling her friends, convinced that very few people actually go to the fair for the books. It’s no secret that the strongest incentives for people are the food, entertainment and posters they sell there.

We can’t deny that the book fair is an opportunity to socialize with writers and people in the publishing world from different countries during the book presentations, but how many people are actually interested in these things? The places where books are launched remain nearly empty, unless the book is a how-to manual. Posters depicting people’s favorite soccer clubs, Barbie or a music band in vogue, and the inflatable hearts, are the things people buy the most, even though these are sold in hard currency.

For instance, whenever cooking books are sold at the fair, these run out immediately. However, the talk offered by academic Jorge Mendez on graphic design for food-related literature didn’t see much of a turnout. One need only change the terms used a bit and people become confused. The venue Degustando la palabra (“Word Tasting”) is one of the novel spaces brought to the fair by the Cocina y Cultura Alimentaria (“Cooking and Eating Culture”) project.

Sitting in the near-empty venue, we were led by Mendez down the history of culinary publications. This way, we learned of gastrosophy, an interest in cooking linked to art and feelings, and that the creator of culinary critique was Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (author of The Physiology of Taste, where he claims that cooking is a science).

Arriving in Cuba, he showed us images from the Cuban Cook’s Manual, published in 1914. He underscored that, before 1960, publishing recipes was a common practice in Cuba and that nearly all magazines – was male chauvinism worse then than it is now? – included a section aimed at a female readership. After discontinuing these types of publications for many years (some say it was taboo, given the food shortages we suffered), they reappeared in the second half of the 90s.

Nitza Villapol, the woman who, next to Margot, led the Cuban people in their daily eating habits, without resources and always improvising, was worthy of a special mention. A number of designers, painters and photographers who illustrated these books were mentioned, including Gerda Andux Collazo, Rau Martinez, Angel Alderete, Jose Alberto Figueroa, Rolando Pujols, FERVAL and Alain Gutiérrez.

Till recently, being a cook wasn’t something that inspired much respect in others. However, as tourism has gradually seeped into the island and the food industry has gained in status, male and female chefs have proliferated and more and more people have an interest in this world.

No one mentioned that the price of food continues to rise and that a restaurant’s kitchen is something quite different from the daily struggle to put food on the table for people at home.

Minutes after the talk, two chefs from a private restaurant in Jaimanitas, Santy Pescador, staged a demonstration – with a food tasting session at the end – showing the public the kind of Japanese food they offer at the establishment. In other words, free food samples were offered and next to no one found out.

While all of this was going on, many in the huge crowds that attended the fair on the 14th of February – Saint Valentine’s – were having fun outside, showing off their heart balloons and plastic, natural or cloth flowers. We’re waiting for the official statistics but, that day, though not many books were sold, one could hardly walk among so many people at La Cabaña.

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