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Under the Table

By
August 15, 2011

An American living in Cuba discovers Havana’s black-market epicurean scene.

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Photograph via Flickr by noborders

We prepared and ate family dinners together nearly every night throughout my childhood and adolescence, each of us taking a role in the family kitchen. Chopping, measuring, setting the table, stirring. Meals were rituals.

I’m standing on the porch of a rose-colored mansion in downtown Havana, waiting in line to enter the tienda de los rusos—the Russian store. It’s a room in the back of an embassy building where diplomatic imports are sold, cans of vegetables labeled in script I can’t read. I’ve seen them perched on the shelves of a musician friend of mine, Fernando. I’m not sure whether it’s legal since, technically, only the Cuban government can import and sell goods in this communist state. Yesterday afternoon, I was turned away from the gate by a man who asked if I was Russian. When I said I wasn’t, he told me to return this morning, and I walked in without a problem. I’ve been in Havana long enough to know that legality is malleable here. But I am nervous enough that I notice with some relief that the fuchsia and white bougainvilleas climbing the house’s fence hide the group of fifteen gathered people from the street.

We stand in clusters, the line visually disorganized but structurally rigid. A middle-aged woman sits between a teenage boy and girl and speaks to them alternately in jolty Russian and lilting Cuban. The man in front of me in line carries a bag that says “Es hora de estudiar Ruso!” (It’s time to study Russian!) As my turn to enter approaches, I have little idea of how large or small the shop is. All I know is what I’ve seen of the small, succulent canned mushrooms and that my landlady, Elaine, says they carry cheap, delicious fruit-flavored black teas. The only vegetables I’ve seen in Havana’s understocked grocery stores during the six months I’ve lived here are mealy canned peas and watery carrots. The only tea I can find is bland and overpriced. When Elaine gave me the address, she asked me to pick up extra for her. As it’s my turn, I step into the small, dark room, where the only light that enters is through two green-tinted windows.


****

I had been in Havana before, while studying abroad in college, and had made subsequent trips to the city. But this was the longest stretch I’d spent here. Havana’s contradictions fascinated me: TV news shows that railed against the yanqui imperialistas followed by reruns of Friends; empty supermarket shelves and hidden restaurants that served delicious platters of food; the fact that in a police state that threw political dissidents into jail, the open secret of Havana was that everyone did something illegal to augment the meager offerings of the ration books. At every turn, on each trip I took to the city, I learned something new about how life was lived there, and these discoveries thrilled me. I had begun to work on a book about youth culture in Havana a year before moving, taking month-long research trips and returning to where I was living in Mexico City. By the time I decided to head there for a year, my intellectual and professional goals also hid a vague personal curiosity: coming as I did from the rigid United States, I wanted to see if I could adapt to the more nuanced moral code that seemed to govern how people lived in Havana.

Buying food on the black market seemed to me like the difference between dealing with Havana and actually living there.

I had known since my first trip to the country that supermarket shelves there were lined with mealy canned vegetables; tin after tin of dark, oily tuna; ramen soups made in China; sugary cookies from Brazil; and beef as tough as hours-old chewing gum. There was rarely fresh bread or toilet paper. I never once saw aluminum foil or Ziploc bags anywhere in Havana. Grocery lists were little more than wishful thinking.

Even when I moved there at the end of the summer of 2009, the Cuban government was still trying to find a way back from the economic crisis that had followed the fall of the USSR in 1991, the innocuously dubbed “special period in a time of peace.” The national economy had lost around 80 percent of imports and exports and over a third of its GDP; the country had plunged into a poverty so deep that my friends’ parents told me stories of marinating and frying banana peels and grapefruit rinds. They called these dishes “cutlets” and ate them on bread. Throughout the nineties, the U.S. embargo had been continually tightened as Washington lawmakers and Miami exiles anticipated an overthrow that never materialized. Instead, certain policies on the island had been relaxed—the use of U.S. dollars was legalized, tourism was encouraged, and farmers were allowed to buy permits and sell directly to buyers at agromercados, fresh fruit and vegetable stands. Cubans got by, even if adults lost an average of 5 to 25 percent of their total body weight between 1990 and 1995. Decades later, the embargo still limits not only travel by U.S. citizens and trade by the government, but also sanctions companies from other countries that do business with Cuba. The imported goods in supermarkets include Canadian muesli priced at $14, about as much as a Cuban on a government salary earns in a month.

Somehow, though, I ate delicious meals at friends’ houses, welcome-back dinners generously served as if people knew that I was beginning to question putting my possessions into storage in Mexico City for a year. In the week following my September 2009 move, a diplomat friend who’d been there for nearly a decade made a noodle stir-fry with strips of chicken, fresh kale, beets and sesame seeds. Fernando was an expert ceviche-maker; he and his girlfriend invited me over for tangy, fresh fish piled atop saltine crackers, accompanied by cool bottles of Heineken. The next week, when I went to see my apartment for the first time, Elaine pushed me into a chair and served a moist, basic tortilla española made of inexpensive staples: eggs, potatoes and green peppers.

These feasts took on mythic proportions in my mind. I lay in bed each night in my rented apartment, my stomach sated and my curiosity piqued, and they grew into banquet tables piled high with food that I could not find in any store. Good meals in Havana seemed like a challenge and a stand, an insistence on the importance of sensuality over utility and as such, a secondhand political statement. Perhaps as a result, it felt more decadent to eat delicious food in Havana, renowned as it is for stringy chicken and dry rice, than elsewhere. As I faced months of supermarket trips filled with canned tuna but no fresh fish, the task of discovering how these friends procured their food became imperative. I wasn’t sure what the penalties were for buying food on the black market, but judging by how prevalent it was, I wanted to risk it. I’d steer clear of buying red meat—I knew that slaughtering a cow in Cuba carried a jail sentence, since they were so scarce—but as for the rest, it seemed to me like the difference between dealing with Havana and actually living there.


****

I’d always been a people-watcher. Throughout September and October, I watched people at the bus stops. Groups of three and four arrived together at the stop near where I lived on the outskirts of elegant Miramar, where the dilapidated wings of ornate sugar-baron mansions housed entire extended families. Neatly dressed men calmly checked their watches to see how late they’d be for work and joined other knots of people waiting in the dusty shade of a nearby tree. The tree’s roots had grown thick and high, like a large woman with ankles and toes swollen from the heat, and they served as knobby benches. Scrawny men shambled by and bummed lights from smokers (cigarettes were cheaper than lighter fluid). They stuck around to chat for a few minutes before discarding the butts and walking away. Women pushed heavy baby strollers over sidewalks that had cracked into broken tents of cement. Every so often, they lifted up the blankets they’d draped atop the carriages for someone to see inside.

It looked like everyone knew each other, but that wasn’t quite what was going on. Bus stops were hives of black-market activity. Strollers sometimes carried food, not children. Some of these people sold items like soda or yogurt that had been either skimmed from stockrooms or brought to them from relatives abroad. Embargo regulations limit how much money Cubans living in Miami or New Jersey can send to a family on the island, but many get around these laws by bringing portable items that the government doesn’t buy with regularity: costume jewelry, disposable diapers, boxer briefs, cheap lipstick.

I was seen as a tourist. In Havana, you are either Cuban or you are a tourist. In the dual economy, foreign residents spend kooks just like tourists. The Cuban convertible peso (CUC), or kook, is pegged to the dollar and buys all imported goods. But locals are paid their paltry monthly salaries in moneda nacional, the local peso, roughly twenty-six to one CUC. I was pushed out of the target market by my access to hard currency and the knowledge that, with an exit visa and a passport, I would eventually leave Cuba. Still, I wanted to eat well, and though I knew as well as the hustlers who approached me on the street with offers of cheap Cohibas that I was indelibly not Cuban, I refused to accept my outsider status.

“Where did you get this jamón serrano?” I asked Fernando, my musician friend, as we ate slices of it with red wine one October evening. I had spent weeks casting longing looks at his well-stocked fridge. Fer seemed to live in shabby Havana as luxuriously as if it were Paris. But inquiring about such contacts was an intimate step in any friendship: black-market vendors assumed a certain risk that depended on the discretion of their clients. There was a limited amount of good food for sale on the island. One more person on the demand end would only dilute the product and drive up its price. But Fernando didn’t hesitate. He thumbed through his iPhone and read me the number of the man I would come to call Mr. Dean & Deluca after the gourmet grocery I’d sometimes shopped at in New York. I felt flattered.

The next afternoon, I called. The man who answered told me what he had—bacon, jamón serrano, blue cheese, parmesan, wines, and olive oil, though at later dates he’d have smoked salmon and mozzarella, too. I placed my order.

The first time Mr. Dean & Deluca came over with a delivery, it was late October and the morning air was cool. I waited at my window. When I saw him, I leaned out of the building’s shadow and called his name softly. He was a thirty-something guy with a serious expression and abundantly gelled hair. I pointed at the rickety spiral staircase at the back. Bottles clanked against one another as he lugged them up the two flights to my apartment.

He set out my order on my glass-topped table. Two bottles of Chilean cabernet sauvignon that retailed for $9 in the state stores, two for $10 from him. One liter of satisfyingly green olive oil. A four-pound bag of grated parmesan cheese. A fifteen-pound, shrink-wrapped haunch of cured jamón serrano.

I looked over the heap with a mixture of awe, glee, and confusion. “Great, so, how are we going to cut this?” I asked him, nodding to the ham.

He blinked.

“You said you wanted Serrano,” he said, the crease between his eyebrows deepening in confusion. “If you’d told me you wanted half of a jamón Serrano, maybe I could have found another client who wanted to split this one and delivered half and half, but it’s too late for that now. If you don’t want it, I’ll find someone else.”

Fifteen pounds of delicate cured ham was still fifteen pounds of pig.

“But what am I going to do with all of this?” I waved my arms vaguely, as if trying to help him see how big the ham looked in my small space.

“Well, mira, what most of my clients do, they go to one of the supermarkets and give the guy behind the meat counter a dollar or two to slice it really thin on the machine,” he said. Clearly, he had misunderstood. Fifteen pounds of delicate cured ham was still fifteen pounds of pig.

I retreated into my bedroom to phone friends who might share half—a third, a quarter, anything. No one answered. The thought of saying goodbye to a glistening, pink Serrano ham—when the only meat I could find was tough steak, stringy chicken and endless quantities of pork—tugged at my gourmet heartstrings. If I didn’t want it, someone else certainly would. This was the food that usually went straight to the restaurants at the best hotels, imported from Canada and Venezuela and reserved for the real tourists on whom the Cuban economy depends. Filched by the entrepreneurs of Havana’s tomorrow, they were passed down a chain of black-market vendors and sold in wholesale quantities to the people living in Havana with disposable kooks, including frustrated foodies like me.

Seventy dollars later, I was the proud owner of a Serrano ham the size of a small child. I stared at it for a few minutes after Mr. Dean & Deluca left. I didn’t think I had a knife long enough to slice all the way through. I cleared the bottom half of my fridge.

Later that evening, I pulled out my biggest carving knife, put on an apron and tried to hack off a chunk. I couldn’t saw through it properly so I knocked sheepishly on Elaine’s door. After her husband, Nicolas, had successfully sliced some of the ham, I brought a plate over to their apartment. Elaine was stirring the spaghetti and talking to her two sons. She waved me into a seat, pulled out some saltines, and we ate Serrano ham and crackers as I listened in on their gossip, the news of the neighborhood. When dinner was ready Elaine set a place for me at her table. After the meal, the five of us sat around their dining room table for a few more hours and discussed the ever-polemical situation of Cuba as if the Communist leadership had asked our opinion.

I got a text message from an ex-pat friend who said he’d take half the ham. I shaved pieces from the remaining portion and ate them with fresh tomato and crackers. Elaine used the chunks of fat that I discarded to flavor stews that would later appear in Tupperware containers in my fridge. All in all, the ham disappeared much faster than I’d anticipated.


****

Our Miramar apartment building didn’t look like much: shaggy, dry palm trees and an empty reflecting pool in the front, a humidity-pocked façade, and yellowed, masking-taped X’s on most of the windows. The exterior didn’t match the shining marble floors in the individual apartments, the rich wood window frames, tall banana-leaf plants that towered over the couch in Elaine’s living room, the bright light and cross-ventilation that caught the breeze from the ocean four blocks away. The lush ambiance contrasted with the building’s dilapidated exterior to create exactly the mysterious feeling I loved about Havana. I rented a small, mostly independent apartment in the rear of their larger one.

By then, the anxiety of participating in black-market activity had mostly faded into the radio static of daily life.

Elaine was a vivacious housewife who’d given up her state job as a psychologist to rent out the back half of her apartment. As the months passed, Elaine and I bonded, somewhat to the chagrin of her sons, who at nineteen and twenty-two were not accustomed to so much estrogen in the house, so much talk of cooking and cuticles.

Her family bought almost nothing from the government import shops. Items that she regularly purchased through illegal means included cheese, eggs, fish (fresh and frozen), yogurt, tomato paste, coffee, horse meat (cheaper, gamier and tougher than beef and thus better for ropa vieja, the classic Cuban stewed beef dish), wine (when there was money for it, which was not often), clothing, acetone for removing nail polish, pots and pans, and diesel fuel for the car her son sometimes drove. Communist Party officials with state cars sold whatever they didn’t use of their rationed gas and diesel.

Elaine became my tutor in all things Cuban, especially in matters of the home. The first month I lived with her, she mapped out which of the city’s understocked grocery stores was most likely to carry toilet paper at any given time. The second month, I learned not to buy the eggs from the store but to wait until the man from the countryside stopped by to sell directly to her; his fresh eggs had the creamiest yolks I’d ever tasted. Shortly after, Elaine passed along the number of her favorite black-market fishmonger, whose small red snappers she baked with butter, cilantro, and onion. A woman across the street used an ancient sewing machine to adjust the ill-fitting clothes that passed among friends and neighbors, since clothing was rarely discarded; when Elaine saw that I needed a skirt taken in, she suggested I knock on her unmarked door. She had sent me to the small Russian store, from which I returned with my canvas grocery bag laden with three boxes of tea, biscuits, succulent canned sardines, and white chocolate. By then, the anxiety of participating in black-market activity had mostly faded into the radio static of daily life.

The privileged class of Havanans—those who rented to foreigners or owned paladares, the in-home restaurants legalized in the effort to attract tourists to Havana, artists, musicians, people with family abroad and the government elite—knew the tricks to eating well. Good food was a luxury that was invisible to the eyes of the poorer Cubans, the ones who lived in the inland neighborhoods of the city far from the sea or in crowded old Havana, who tried to make ends meet with government salaries of $15 per month and the occasional windfall from a foreigner, relative or black-market scheme of their own.

I felt equal parts glee and indignation as I marveled at how she found a way around any and every problem, dietary or otherwise.

So I picked up Elaine’s tricks. I began to buy in fives, because I never knew when a given item would vanish from the shops. I had the money to shop at kook stores, but if whatever I was looking for hadn’t been imported, it did me little good. Milk had once disappeared from shelves for a month, and toilet paper, too. I hardly even drank milk, but to know that it was not available inspired a frenzy in me that I hadn’t felt before in either Mexico or the U.S. Elaine looked on with amusement in her dark eyes as my pantry grew. “Hija mía,” she’d say with an emphatic shake of the head that made her thick, dark ponytail wag, “you’ve acquired what we call ‘Cuban Stockpiling Syndrome.’” Between local mismanagement and the U.S. embargo, the tattered national economy had bred a nation of housewives who hoarded, when they had the money, against next month’s shortages.

What Elaine enjoyed about her role as my daily life coach, I thought, was my reaction to the steps she took to achieve a comfortable life in Havana. I felt equal parts glee and indignation as I marveled at how she found a way around any and every problem, dietary or otherwise. My dual responses validated her sense that the hurdles she cleared to keep food on her family’s table and toilet paper in their bathroom were set absurdly high, high enough that I was awestruck that less privileged Cubans could get over them at all.

By December, I had begun to eat the big lunches Elaine prepared with her whole family. I often just sat at the table and talked as she stirred her stews. One afternoon, I came to her with man troubles, and we talked as she made her rich ropa vieja; the agile family cat climbed around her kitchen, rattling the glassware that Elaine kept on the windowsill above her sink in a symphony of impending disaster. Carlos, her older son, blustered in and out between watching illegally downloaded episodes of American Idol on the family computer. Soon he sat down across from me, interjecting hyperbolic statements and waving his hands for emphasis. Elaine shouted to silence him, but smiled as soon as she turned her back. The conversation turned to politics and gender roles, and Elaine leaned against the counter, gesticulating with a wooden spoon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a bit of cleavage peeking from the top of her apron. As we ate the pulled meat that draped lankily over our forks, food felt like something we came to as equals, insisting together on eating as a sensual experience rather than the utilitarian act of fueling our bodies.

The apartment I rented from Elaine was illegal, since she didn’t have a state permit to rent to a foreigner. If on a vengeful, envious whim, someone in the building had decided to turn her in, Elaine stood to have her home confiscated. But she risked it because, while she had to watch what she spent every month in order to support her family of four, she was, by Cuban standards, living very well. Besides, she wanted to save up for her move. She and her family were trying to emigrate—a relative in Miami was processing family reunification visas for them.

A few days after my trip to the Russian store, Elaine looked at me oddly as we smoked our afternoon cigarette at her table. “Hija, you’ve been here too long,” she said. “You’ve adapted to how things work. This is why nothing ever changes here—adaptation.” I should not accept things as being exotic and different from what I was accustomed to and therefore fine, she seemed to suggest, interesting as long as she and I and Fernando had good food on our tables, played the role of the law-flouting, danger-tempting aesthetes.

“Some things are simply not fine,” she said; some things are hardly tolerable.


****

Elaine and Nicolas moved to Miami last April. When I went to Havana in May, her sons were living in their apartment alone. They waited for interviews with the U.S. Interests Section in order to join their parents and they rented out the apartment and another room for cash. Since they were the last immediate family members in the country, the apartment would likely become government property when they left.

Last spring, Raul Castro announced new economic regulations, including permits that Cubans could buy to legally earn money for a number of non-professional jobs—any activity that the government hadn’t trained someone to do at a university, that didn’t involve buying and re-selling goods. Clowns, pastry-makers, dog-walkers, handymen. As I explored the city, I found new restaurants and hand-lettered signs advertising that this person was a seamstress and that family sold home-made candles for religious ceremonies. But Mr. Dean & Deluca was busy as ever and the girl who’d given me two-kook manicures hadn’t sought the permit. The government wanted to harness some of the gray market undertow that roared beneath the communist surface of impoverished Cuba, but many cuentapropistas—the legal term for these entrepreneurs—didn’t bother.

While I was visiting Elaine’s sons, a cousin of Elaine’s and her husband came over. She asked for coffee and he dropped a stuffed backpack on the floor.

“We’re not leaving,” the husband said to Carlos, Elaine’s older son. “When you leave for the United States, this apartment should go to us, not the government, but in order for that to happen, we have to live here first. I’ll sleep here even if it’s on the floor.”

I told him how giddy his father had sounded on the phone after his first trip to a Miami supermarket, how we giggled at everything.

When Carlos said no, that the apartment was his, the cousin began to shout. “We know that you’re doing things that shouldn’t be done here. We know that you’re renting to a foreigner in the back,” she cried—a Chilean had moved into my old apartment—“and we’ll call the police.”

Carlos told her to leave and never come back, but he was shaken. If the cousin followed through, not only could he lose his family’s apartment, but the exit permits for Carlos and his brother would be in jeopardy. Why would the government do a favor, give passports for people who’d been flouting its laws?

We sat at the kitchen table, talking, and Carlos’s hands trembled as he lit one cigarette after another. His brother was in the back telling the Chilean he’d have to find other accommodations. I told Carlos about his parents, and how I had spoken to Elaine on the phone frequently since she’d arrived in the U.S. I told him how giddy his father had sounded on the phone after his first trip to a Miami supermarket, how we giggled at everything: the meat in the meat case, the carts with wheels that didn’t stick, the excessive plenitude that he knew would wind up creating other anxieties for him.

“I’m like a frozen fish that can’t see anything,” Nicolas had said.

Carlos’s black eyes—Elaine’s eyes—had lit up and he let out two sharp, short guffaws. He’d chosen to apply for a visa to Argentina, too; he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of joining the ranks of Miami Cubans. He’d never had a job in Cuba and spoke minimal English. He feared he’d get a mediocre job that he’d get stuck in for years in order to make rent, essentially flipping from one extreme to another. Carlos didn’t want to trade bored, nervous stasis in Cuba for uncomfortable treadmill capitalism stateside. Elaine was hysterical, convinced that hers would be just another family separated by the political battle between the two countries.

In the end, what Carlos wanted was to leave Cuba and make his life elsewhere, so whichever visa came through first, he said, he’d take, “because staying isn’t an option.” I understood his arguments; I agreed with them. All he could do was wait. In six months, he would know.

G

Julia Cooke is working on a book that combines memoirs of the year she spent in Havana in 2009-10 with in-depth reportage on youth culture in the city. She is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University. Prior to moving to New York, she lived and worked in Havana and Mexico City as a cultural journalist; her journalism and essays from both cities have been published in The Smart Set, Monocle, The Christian Science Monitor, Metropolis, Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.), and other magazines.

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7 comments for Under the Table

  1. Comment by misha on September 17, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    The author seems to identify morality with law,a rather typical mistake in our litigious society.

  2. Comment by Jason Berger on September 19, 2011 at 11:54 am

    While in Cuba a couple of years ago, I noted a man with a fishing pole. It made me think, with such shortages, how could every pier not be filled with Cubans, fishing? Of course, I guess it’s illegal without a permit, as all the good fish goes to the foreign cash market to to tourists. Until you step into it, the absurdity of such a system is hard to imagine. Great article.

  3. Comment by NILESH SALPE on September 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Finally I read all article from top to down .

    It is good vivid description of good and bad side of Cuba .

    Nice vignette .

  4. Comment by ConnerGo on September 20, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Interesting article Julia.

    What you describe here, with the extraterritorial component, is the definition of a blockade:

    “Decades later, the embargo still limits not only travel by U.S. citizens and trade by the government, but also sanctions companies from other countries that do business with Cuba.”

    With so much insightful information in your post, I’m sorry you didn’t use this more accurate term – for those of us here, it is so much more than an “embargo”

  5. Comment by El Cubanito on September 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Great, great article. You brought back memories for me when I stayed in Cuba for a couple of months. Good Luck with your book.

    I have friends in Cuba who family has also been torn because they have move to diferent countries.

  6. Comment by Arpit on September 23, 2011 at 6:16 am

    i think went to cuba as a tourist. he describes thae relationship that he developed with elaine and her family during his stay in cuba. It also tells us we adapt to things and how v can take best out of worst

  7. Comment by Patrick Symmes on September 26, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Excellent, insightful, fair, and a tender portrait of these great people struggling in an absurd situation.

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