Cuba: Our Daily Chick-Peas

Veronica Vega

Cream of chick peas. Photo:
Cream of chick peas. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — I recall my high school history teacher once telling us that, “before” (the revolution), chick-peas were used as pig fodder.

This anecdote promted some rather nasty jokes and comments. It was the glorious 80s, but the thick, yellow soup was a common lunch or dinner dish on most Cuban tables. It was even mentioned in a parody of a Bonney M. song popular at the time:

Grub, grub, baby
Rice, chick-peas and eggs every week

Not once, however, was the common and undervalued chick-pea ever demoted to the status of porcine feed.

At the small market located on 5th Avenue, Alamar (a 5th avenue bereft of the beauty and glamour of its counterpart in Miramar), chick-peas are sold as much as rice, eggs, wheat flour and sugar. In addition to being roasted, ground and mixed with the coffee, chick-peas are a kind of miracle food that give a modicum of dignity to Cuban meals, sitting in the stomach and guaranteeing hours of energy – a good substitute for beans, which cost as much as 12 or 15 pesos a pound.

It is a high-demand product, which is why, when people ask for the humble legume and the vendor warns them the “peas are infested”, it is like a slap on the face

First, because the consumer’s honor is suddenly at stake. If they don’t disdainfully reject the product, they are admitting they are so poor that they have no choice but to eat peas with bugs in them. Secondly, because getting rid of the invasive weevils requires infinite patience.

To retain their dignity, some say: “That’s okay, it’s for my pigeons.”

After all, the vendor has no way of knowing which customers breed pigeons and which do not.

I cannot but praise the courage of those who buy weevil-infested peas, place these in water, throw away the grains that float and then proceed to meticulously scrutinize every pea against the light, to see whether it is infested and keep it from reaching the pot. After all, negative thoughts can just as easily ruin one’s food.

The question no one is asking (not even me, convinced as I am that no answer will change anything anyways) is what link in the production and distribution chain has been lost or is being skipped, such that goods that ought to be thrown away continue to be sold, and at the same price.

The little market on 5th Avenue stands out among State-operated establishments that sell products in Cuban pesos, boasting a peculiar quality seal: a neon-sign that reads “OPEN” and good service (people say “good morning” and even thank you for buying their products). Most vendors have change, even if you pay in hard currency, and have plastic bags available, of their initiative.

I am of course also grateful about being alerted to the poor state of a product. Whether people choose to buy the infested peas or not, no one asks themselves why it is even sold in such a state.

Why are customers who frequent these establishments that sell products in Cuban pesos (95 percent of the population, perhaps) deserving of such little respect?


2 thoughts on “Cuba: Our Daily Chick-Peas

  • Adding insult to injury, this complaint about chickpeas is nothing new. My last trip to Cuba was a year ago and I was told then to avoid buying chickpeas in the ‘agro’ and to instead by the chickpeas sold in the plastic packages in the dollar markets. Both kinds of chickpeas are grown in Cuba. It would seem that the ‘infested’ kind are sold to Cubans who use the national peso while packaged, bug-free chickpeas, sold at twice the price, are reserved for Cubans with CUC.

  • Chickpeas are a healthy & versatile food, with more protein than most other beans. In Canada, a 375g can of cooked chickpeas costs about $1.29, while a kilo of dried chickpeas can be had for around $4. That may seem expensive with respect to the Cuban salary of $20/month. However, in Toronto the minimum wage is $10.25 per hour and so chickpeas are a very affordable source of protein. I never found a weevil in any chickpeas I ever bought.

    Veronica asks why Cuban customers are treated with so little respect? That’s a common complaint in socialist countries. Shop keepers control the distribution of scarce food to people with no rights or freedoms. In such circumstances, the abuse of power and the petty denigration of others is to be expected. The roll model for treating the people comes down from above, so what more can one expect? The Cuban government treats the Cuban people very rudely.

    There’s an anecdote about the time when the first McDonalds opened in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union. A Russian speaking manager from the US was sent to Moscow to train the locally hired Russian staff. He emphasized time and again how important it was for the staff to smile and great the customers every time. The Russians could not grasp why this was even necessary, let alone why they were expected to do it:

    “Why do we have to smile? We have all the hamburgers!”

    When the State has all the hamburgers, the clerks in the state run store don’t have to smile. The people are expected to take what’s available and be grateful for it.

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