Digging around for answers to this little mystery, I have discovered that the root causes behind the Cuban food story also shed light upon the greater mystery of Cuba as a whole. And the more I learn about Cuba, the more I learn about the U.S.A.
Indeed, the fates of these two countries have been entwined for centuries, and food isn’t the only example of how the cultures overlap. Consider baseball, which easily eclipses soccer as Cuba’s national sport. Cuban baseball is so modeled upon American baseball that English words like “outs” and “inning” are used, and pitch speeds are measured in miles per hour rather than the metric counterpart in place elsewhere in Cuba. And, of course, they drink beer and eat hot dogs, and then they drive home in American cars, 1951 Chevys and 1952 Fords.
All this is testimony to the fact that many Cubans look up to America the way little brothers look up to their big brothers. This makes it all the more tragic, not to mention morally reprehensible, that the policy of the U.S. government has been to consistently shun, demonize, starve and flat-out lie about the realities of our little brothers and sisters to the south, and their experiments in socioeconomic fairness.
The Red Lobster comparison applies not just to the cultural similarities that inform the food. There is a parallel as well that can be drawn between the institutionalized mediocrity of American franchise restaurants and the institutionalized mediocrity of the food in Cuba’s state-run restaurants, i.e., most of the restaurants in Cuba.
What does working for a state-run restaurant have in common with working for a corporate-owned restaurant? Well, in both cases creativity is stifled in favor of prescribed mass-production, and personal incentives hover at a minimum. This is a recipe guaranteed to take the flavor out of the food. That’s why the corner pizza shop will almost always be better than Pizza Hut.
In recent years, the Cuban government has caught on to the advantages of private enterprise in the food sector, and has authorized thousands of private citizens to open restaurants in their houses. These paladares are home to some of the best food in Cuba, and their operators generally do quite well for themselves.
The same thing is happening with food production. Individual farmers, as well as farmer cooperatives, are now sanctioned by the Cuban government to farm for profit on land that they own, lease or borrow. These private farmers are some of the best-paid people in Cuba, as opposed to in the states, where farming is a synonym for “slave labor.”
In terms of variety and quality, the small Cuban farms run circles around the state-run farms. They sell their produce at private roadside stands, as well as to paladares, government restaurants and hotels, and at municipal farmer’s markets, which are divided into two sections: one for private farmers, one for state-run.
Camaguay is an agricultural city in the heart of Cuba, where horse-drawn carriages outnumber vintage American cars. Everything about Camaguay is charming, including the farmer’s market, a perusal of which provides quick evidence of the difference between state-run and private agriculture. At the state-run side of the market, I saw garlic, squash, tomato, cucumbers, onions, cabbage, carrots, beans, and—a nice touch—cut orchids. The private-run side of the market had all of those things—minus the orchids—as well as catsup, pineapple, radish, bok choy, coconuts, at least three types of banana, oranges, orange juice, sweet potato, potato, scallions, peppers, spices, dried corn, yucca, sunflowers, seedlings, star fruit, ginger, passion fruit, cilantro, eggplant, lime, aloe, houseplants, and a huge variety of spices, all grown by small, private farmers.
Get the picture? In terms of both production and preparation, small private enterprise trumps mass-production for food variety and quality.
How different is this from the American model, in which big agri-businesses have huge clout with the government—i.e., business running the state, as opposed to in Cuba, where the state runs the business? Both models yield the same results: industrial-strength mediocrity. Now, both countries have vast agricultural monocultures competing with small, diverse polycultures. But here’s an interesting difference: In Cuba, the government purchases unsold produce from the private farmers, thereby guaranteeing a market, and supporting them in their important private enterprise. The Cubans have figured out that food security=national security.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org