Cuba’s State-Run Food Industry and Culinary Traditions

Yenisel Rodríguez Pérez

Food stand. Foto: Juan Suárez
Food stand. Foto: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — The greatest damage to Cuba’s food industry isn’t to be found in the precarious working conditions and poor services in the sector but in the destruction of the culinary traditions that were once a part of the identity of the island’s main provincial capitals, particularly cosmopolitan Havana.

Disastrous State management made it impossible for new generations of Cubans to come into contact with a work-related imaginary that was sustained by the sale of food products at grocery stores and bars, croissant sandwiches, beer-on-tap and fried snacks of every kind. Because of this, more than the products themselves, what we urgently need to rescue is the spiritual dimension of the sector, the feeling of belonging and professional ethic of those who work in it.

The undermining of national and local culinary traditions is not something unique to State authoritarianism. Consumerist capitalism has also dismantled popular culinary traditions and idiosyncrasies, replacing these with homogenized fast-food franchises and other transnational establishments.

What characterizes subsidized and bureaucratized managements like those in Cuba is perhaps the fact that they are unable to be dynamic in any way, that they are devoid of any logic (be it industrialist, neoliberal or what have you). This way, we lose much and all we get is the filthy aesthetics of seventh-rate cafeterias where one is hard pressed to find anything save mere survival strategies.

Though individuals always have a degree of precarious autonomy through which they can choose to distance themselves from the established system, the bureaucratic system is most to blame for this situation.

Barbarism has triumphed. First came the expropriation of those who embodied the country’s culinary traditions, mostly small business owners. Many of these were forced to leave the sector or become employees at State cafeterias.

Then, through the Sovietization of society, Cuba would renounce many traditional foods and services – the preamble to the 90s, a period of severe shortages that led to a radical break with tradition. It was a coup de grace to popular food culture.

The timid recovery that followed reached a peak in 2006 and, today, it seems to have come to a halt in a kind of no-man’s land. Free enterprise hasn’t managed to create an authentic services culture, contenting itself with a rustic economic rationality that ends up disdaining the consumer much like the State does.

It is understandable that the methods and jobs created by the country’s administrative bureaucracy should be undervalued, but there are other realities that link us directly to the pre-Castro era, the reservoirs of an exemplary culinary imaginary that many are unaware of.

Many of the barmen who work at State cafeterias are an example of this. Most are elderly men who have been working in the sector for many years and had some kind of contact with the legendary bars before the revolution.

Many of these gentlemen make an effort to have face-to-face dealings with patrons at the bar, something that is hard to come by at other food venues in Cuba. They are able to serve many customers at the same time, offering a better and more efficient service than that offered by waiters at adjoining cafeterias.

Of course, such details can only be appreciated through an unprejudiced approach, as, despite their good intentions, these practices are embedded in marginal social contexts.

In this connection, I’ve noticed – and not without surprise – that many Cuban television programs address the figure of the barman and his know-how. I hope this initiative will not become caricaturized and nostalgic and that it will take on the political dimension needed to rescue a very important part of our traditions.

3 thoughts on “Cuba’s State-Run Food Industry and Culinary Traditions

  • Viva Fidel !
    Viva Raul !
    Viva los Castros !
    Que controla todo y todos !

  • I recently ran into a couple from Ohio, on a layover in Miami, that was taking part in a “people to people” Cuba tour. They thought Cuba was a charming, very “old world”. They enjoyed the very friendly people but did say they found the food a bit wanting. During their stay in Miami they had the opportunity to eat at a local place called Havana Harry’s, which was recommended by the tour organizer. Their eyes opened up as they spoke about the fabulous food, especially the Vaca Frita!. Unfortunately that food, especially that dish as it requires map meat, can’t be found in Cuba. But we are keeping the traditions alive and we’ll in Miami!

    It’s quite telling that a tourist who visited Cuba found better Cuban food in another country. Thank you Castro!

  • Yenisel, take heart, these culinary traditions that you fear are lost are not lost at all. They have simply defected to Miami. It is widely known that the best Cuban food in the world is to be had in Miami. The legendary culinary traditions are alive and well in a large number of Cuban restaurants and in Cuban homes all over Florida and elsewhere where Cubans have migrated. I have no doubt that one day when Cuba is free, these traditions will return to the homeland intact.

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