Cuba’s Bitter Sweets

By Amrit

Muffin in regular pesos. Photo: Yusimí Rodríguez

HAVANA TIMES, June 18 — The new packets of coffee distributed as part of our basic food rations are now labeled “blended”. I’m therefore being forced to bid farewell to that fine flavor of coffee free of crushed dried peas and to say goodbye to its formerly delicious brown color.

I’m saying good-bye in a way I couldn’t at the dawn of the Special Period crisis in the early 1990s, with its tempting crunchy bread and soft dough, with its golden crust that had nothing to do with the bread I saw in the Russian movies.

Pastries in hard currency. Photo: Yusimí Rodríguez

Then, unknowingly, I also said goodbye to the bars of butter and cream cheese that one could buy without all the hassle of ration books at the corner bodega store. I know that human memory is subjective, but I’m sure that it was possible to spread that butter on bread, effortlessly and smoothly!

It wasn’t like the diabolical concoctions being hawked by the street vendors right now. No matter how hard you press it against the bread, it only comes off in small chunks. It’s a mysteriously viscous and moist substance. If you let it get soft outside the refrigerator, you’ll be terror struck to find that more than half of it is water.

Someone told me that the sinister secret is that the original mixture of butter with water and shortening is whipped up in blenders to greatly increase the volume.

Pastry in regular pesos. Photo: Yusimí Rodríguez

Thank God that for fifteen years I haven’t eaten anything containing eggs. I avoided torturing my palate by eliminating from my diet those delectably spongy cakes – ah, those cakes that my sisters and I — secretly — would leave lines in the icing with our fingers. They were irresistible! However, those who continued eating sweets made from eggs have told me that since the 1990s they’ve never been the same.

That’s not difficult for me to believe after seeing the confectioneries on display in the shop windows of bakeries (selling in the regular pesos people earn) where there prevails a strident yellow color, sometimes even with the bread. I can imagine in their lumpy, inconsistent and unappetizing dough the flavor of dispassion and indifference.

But to forget what the wind’s gale mercilessly sweeps away and to get rid of the bitterness of the present is only possible without the presence of “other sweets” – wonderful pastries of harmonious colors and perfect compositions that pompously fill the confectioneries sold in hard currency. How can’t you not dream of their impeccable, unforgettable flavor if you’ve ever tasted them, a flavor where there’s not present spite or pilfering.

Pastry in hard currency. Photo: Yusimí Rodríguez

I had a terrible shock when I saw a beautiful pie in a pastry shop at the downtown Havana Libre Hotel. With a design that I had only seen in magazines, it cost 7 CUCs (about $8 USD). When I saw it, I immediately compared it to one I had bought a short time ago in a state diner in my outlying neighborhood of Alamar. The pie there only cost twelve pesos (about 50 cents USD) though I had to throw almost the whole thing away.

Apart from the horrible design (which would have never attracted me if I’d had any alternative) it tasted like smoke. Not only was the crust scorched, but even the marmalade tasted like smoke. Innocently, I had planned to use that as my son’s snack at school, but he said that he’d prefer to fast than eat that mess.

When I hear the song “Rabo de Nube” (Tail of the Twister) by Silvio Rodriguez I think that even the most ferocious whirlwind is selective in what its touches. I believe that if it were to “sweep away the ugly,” it would only sweep away the bakeries where we ordinary Cubans shop: the ones with deformed and hole-filled bread, crackers that are impossible to bite, along with our “bitter” sweets.