Food in Cuba
The Pursuit of a Decent Meal
Hanna Garth

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Introduction

In Pursuit of Adequacy

Amalia needed to buy fresh corn on the cob.1 It was late June, just when the very first sweet corn from the very first harvest began to hit the market. When accessed and processed at just the right time, this corn on the cob produced the juicy corn—locally referred to as tierno (tender)—perfect for making hallacas, a local Santiago de Cuba version of fresh-ground cornmeal rolled with meat and stuffed into cornhusks, similar to tamales.2 The essential ingredient for good hallacas is fresh sweet corn: the juicier the kernels, the better the hallacas.3 Braving the already sweltering heat of the summer, I joined Amalia in her search. Like most santiagueros (people from Santiago), she did not have a lot of extra money, so she could not afford to pay for transportation, and our shopping trip was to be on foot.

We began our search at the Plaza market, one of Santiago’s oldest food markets located near the city center. The Plaza is a large, old, warehouse-like building that has been used as a market for over 150 years.4 The interior was dark, with the only light coming in through open doors and windows located at the top of the 40-foot walls. The market had hundreds of feet of countertops for vendors to display and sell foods of all kinds. This was a bustling marketplace at various points during Cuba’s past, from the 1860s to the 1930s, but on this day there were only about a dozen people selling food, most located in one small corner of the large open space.

Amalia greeted several marketeers from whom she regularly purchased food, but it quickly became clear that there was no corn there. She asked where we might find corn: we were directed to the Trocha y Cristina market in another part of town, which is where Amalia and I quickly proceeded to next. The hallacas were for a party to celebrate the birthday of her favorite niece, who had always admired her homemade hallacas; Amalia was determined to prepare them for the party.

Amalia led us for a walk along La Alameda, a main thoroughfare connecting the docks, warehouses, and markets of the entire city. This was a more scenic route, and it gave her a chance to stop and ask several people who work in food distribution if they knew of any corn in the city. After 45 minutes of inquiring with no leads, drenched in sweat and parched, we arrived at the Trocha y Cristina market. There was no corn there either. We walked the aisles of the open-air market, each stall selling more or less the same variety of items—tomatoes, squash, small peppers, small bunches of fresh herbs, and a few small cucumbers.

After asking all of the vendors about corn, it seemed that the search had been fruitless. However, Amalia found one of the market managers, and he told us that while there was none in the state-run markets, he knew of someone selling fresh corn from the countryside out of their home nearby. And with that, we had moved from the official spaces of food acquisition to the unofficial ones, shifting our approach to food acquisition. We walked uphill 15 minutes to the house, but the person had sold out of corn earlier that morning. She suggested another location, another 15 minutes away, but when we arrived there the vendor knew nothing about any corn and seemed doubtful that we would find it anywhere in the city. Exhausted after trekking across the city all day, Amalia buckled on her original decision not to spend money on transportation, and for the equivalent of less than five cents, we took a communal camión (truck) to another market near the city center on Calle Martí. After an hour of waiting for the camión we finally arrived at the market, our last-ditch effort, only to find that there was no corn there either.

We finally gave up for the day and sat on a bench in the park. Amalia was clearly distressed and needed this moment to calm down after such a difficult morning. We did not know why there was no corn yet that year. She wondered out loud: Was there a problem with the local crop? Was it diverted to Havana this year? Had the state shifted land use toward exports? Corn could have been scarce for any number of reasons or some combination of all of these. Amalia began to connect her situation with the broader context of global food production and distribution, contemplating the competing political and economic factors that might be behind the lack of corn. However, she could not let the corn go; she wanted so badly to make hallacas for this party that she was still racking her brain about how she could possibly find some in time. To help get her mind off the search and out of genuine curiosity, I asked her when she started making hallacas. She replied,

I remember watching my mother make them every year during both seasons as a child. That was how I learned to make them. Over time one gets more experience and gets better. Everyone in my family made them, my mother, her mother, every generation.

Amalia spoke nostalgically about hallacas. She reminisced fondly about her childhood and other dishes made from corn that her mother often prepared. She remembered everything as delicious, as having a better flavor than foods today. She recalled her mother’s hallacas as always requiring the juicier kernel of summer corn. Through her personal and family connections to the dish, she linked corn accessibility to her cultural and national identity; it was part of what it meant to be Cuban and part of a connection to her family. As we sat on the bench, her nostalgia dissipated, and she lamented our inability to acquire corn that day. “Now everything is una lucha (a struggle),” she sighed. We got up from the bench and started walking back to her house.

The Politics of Adequacy

Although making hallacas within the narrow window when fresh corn is available is a seasonal task, the taxing and relentless labor of searching for ingredients—the lucha (struggle)—to make a meal is an increasingly cumbersome undertaking that people in Santiago de Cuba tackle on a daily basis. This book weaves together the lives of Amalia and others like her who struggle to find food that meets their standards for a decent meal and a good life. As Amalia’s search reveals, many Cubans invest a great deal of time and energy into food acquisition both for special occasions and for everyday consumption. This arduous search for food requires investments of substantial time and energy at the expense of other activities, including work and leisure. Despite what is lost in the search for particular foods, I observed many santiagueros bypass a variety of foods that might seem to an outsider like fine alternatives to scarce items. For example, Amalia could have foregone her search for corn and instead of hallacas made another dish with the squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers that were available at every market stall. Instead, she insisted on searching for the particular items that she nostalgically links to her memories of her mother and her own identity. I argue that this insistence on acquiring specific ingredients is part of a refusal to lower their standards for the foods they consume and part of their desire to consume what I call a decent meal, which is tightly bound to their sense of a right to a decent life.

This book is an ethnography of still socialist, post-Soviet Cuba, where “nadie se muere de hambre” (no one dies of hunger).5 This is a saying echoed in daily conversations, sometimes as an honest reflection on the successes of the Cuban revolution, and other times in a tongue-in-cheek manner while complaining about the difficulties of food acquisition. After my initial trips to the island, it quickly became clear that for many Cubans, the process of acquiring food is not only laborious; it is also a major source of daily stress and anxiety. On street corners, in newspapers, on buses, and in living rooms across the island, families and friends are constantly engaged in dialogue about rising food prices, the shifting availability of food, and the decreasing quality of various food items. The ways in which food is consumed and shared are central to human social and cultural life. Amalia’s quest for the perfect corn for hallacas is part of her nostalgic desire to connect her memories of her mother’s kitchen with her niece’s life, to pass on traditions, to share something that is dear to her, and to demonstrate her love and care for her family by way of food.

When access to food shifts and acquisition of the ingredients that people love to eat becomes more difficult, strained, or impossible, then acquisition comes to the forefront of their concerns. One of my central arguments in this book is that food acquisition is an important process along the chain of production-distribution-consumption. Increasingly, it is also essential to consider how we acquire our food, where our food comes from, and how the social, economic, and political aspects of obtaining food impact our lives. Just as food consumption itself was long ignored by anthropologists who saw it as innate, universal, and not particularly culturally interesting (Farquhar 2002), in many societies across the globe where household-level food acquisition is relatively straightforward, the process of acquiring food is not thought to be an important cultural activity; rather it is often seen as an economic issue that is more related to local channels of distribution (Mintz 1985).6 In Cuba, as acquisition has become more difficult, the economic aspect of food acquisition is deeply connected to intimate forms of sociality and the ways in which people negotiate their social position.

A study of food acquisition in Cuba may seem puzzling given that the island has virtually no malnutrition or hunger. Indeed, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) honored Cuba for maintaining extremely low levels of hunger and malnutrition, citing particular praise for Cuba’s national food ration, which still provides about half of an individual’s monthly nutritional requirements at very low cost. The Cuban government also provides supplements and additional rationed items for children, the elderly, and those with certain chronic illnesses. But it is precisely this context that allows me to illuminate the ways in which food scarcity is experienced outside of conditions of famine and starvation, but still within a food system that is rapidly changing. Cuba’s food system, like most across the globe, is entrenched within the web of distribution of the global industrial food system, and as the Cuban state struggles to buy food on the international market, food access shifts at the local level.

To understand this contemporary Cuban condition of food scarcity without hunger or malnutrition, I introduce “the politics of adequacy.” I ask the simple question: what makes a provisioning system adequate? and adequate to what ends? When I ask Cubans about their food system, repeatedly I have heard the responses “no alcance” (it is not enough) and “no es suficiente” (it is not sufficient). What I have found, and what this book centers on, is that there are multiple dimensions of what is meant by enough and sufficient that matter deeply to people. If food security, subsistence, and sustenance are about access to sufficient nutrients and mere survival, then I propose that the framework of adequacy can account for what is necessary beyond basic nutrition, prompting us to ask not whether a food system sustains life, but whether it sustains a particular kind of living. That is, whether a food system adequately supplies what we need for the social, cultural, and personal dimensions of a good life. The politics of adequacy is about who determines what is necessary to live a good life, how it is determined, and must include both the political economy of food access and the social and affective experiences of eating (Farquhar 2002). Adequate conditions relate to multiple scales of social concerns: those of individuals (caring for oneself), those of family and community (caring for others), and collective forms of ethical commitments and senses of belonging. When there is a shift in access to foods that constituted long-term ways of eating, communities may rethink or reframe the basis of a good meal and a good life.7 The boundaries of acceptable eating and a decent cuisine, as well as maintaining those boundaries, are important social acts. These social acts keep groups of people together, both symbolically and physically, around the table in times when consumption landscapes are changing. Food consumption is a profoundly relational process where care, social distinction, and dignity are enacted. Careful attention to and the extension of our understanding of adequacy, as it relates to food distribution systems, is therefore a necessary expansion of our understanding of basic needs. The focus here is on the adequacy of the system and whether the provisioning system yields the possibility for living a good life or not.

This book is an exploration of the blurred boundaries between mere survival or sustenance and a good life or a decent meal, a concept that I elaborate below and fully explicate in chapter 1. It explores how people struggle to close the gap between the two. Ultimately, I argue that the inability to access particular foods creates, for some santiagueros, a sense of crisis over individual subjectivity, family life, and what it means to be Cuban. By turning our attention to local understandings of adequacy, we illuminate aspects of lived experience that take us beyond a construction of people as “simply or only living in subjugation or as the subjected” (Sharpe 2016, 4), but as humans struggling for a respectable life. Within the politics of adequacy, the notion of politics functions with respect to the ways in which local Caribbean life articulates with systems of global power (Trouillot 1988, 1995; Agard-Jones 2013; Bonilla 2015) and how those “excluded from power can become legible political subjects” (Postero 2017, 17). This book analyzes the various dimensions that people struggling to become or remain legible political subjects must navigate to fulfill their desires to live a good life. They struggle to resolve problems amid the tensions between state socialism and individual and family needs. I examine the ways in which santiagueros grapple with the amount of time and energy they spend struggling to acquire food with the goal of assembling a decent meal and how often that ideal meal is met. I do not find that people’s concerns are wrapped up in questions of health, nutrition, caloric sufficiency, or any number of things that food studies and nutrition commonly associate with food adequacy. Therefore, I call for an expansion of our understanding of adequacy to be more aligned with the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security’s definition of food security: “the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (UN CFS 2018).

Notes

1. Unless otherwise noted, all proper names are pseudonyms. In some cases details that may reveal identities were also changed. For instance, a person’s occupation may be slightly changed to ensure anonymity. This practice is used to protect the identities of research participants and reduce any potential physical, social, psychological, or political harm from participating in this study. This research was conducted under Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from University of California, Los Angeles.

2. Hallaca is sometimes spelled ayaca.

3. Corn is assumed to be native to the island and was a principal staple of the Ciboney Indians, who are considered to be a faction of the Western Taíno of Cuba. Hatheway (1957) provides an elaborate account of the history of corn in Cuba.

4. The market was opened on December 31, 1859, and was previously known as Mercado Concha and Mercado Aguilera. In the early 1930s, a fire destroyed the original building and it was reconstructed in 1932.

5. Scholars have referred to post-Soviet Cuba as: “late-socialist” (Henken 2006; Hernández-Reguant 2004; Fernandes 2006; González 2016; Stout 2008; Tanaka 2011; Weinreb 2009), “para-socialist” (Frederik 2012), and even “neoliberal” (Perry 2016). Others have simply labeled it “post-Soviet” (Brotherton 2012; Humphreys 2012). Although I have used the term “late-socialist Cuba” in some previous publications (Garth 2009), I now refer to Cuba as “still socialist.” I contend that the ongoing redistributive economy and the extent to which welfare entitlements are still in place clearly indicate that Cuba is still socialist, and, like Frederik (2012), I do not necessarily think that Cuba must inevitably become a typical capitalist economy or neoliberal state, hence the hesitation to label it “late” in some teleological sense.

6. However, see Carney’s The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity across Borders (2015) for a nuanced analysis of the relationship between the economics of food acquisition and cultural dimensions of food consumption in the United States.

7. For further discussion see Fischer 2014, and Fischer and Benson 2006.