by Cassandra Flechsig
During my first visit to Cuba in the spring of 2013, I arrived naively expecting to find all of my favorite Caribbean foods and hoping to tour local community gardens. Though I visited Cuba understanding that their political climate certainly must affect daily life, I also knew they had a thriving tourist economy. I anticipated finding similar tropical treats that I have enjoyed in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Curacao, and other Caribbean islands. I had also heard of Cuba’s agricultural resiliency, which has led to the island being held up as a shining example of urban farming. In fact, ninety percent of fresh produce in Havana is grown within the city’s urban farms and gardens; no small feat for a city of two million people.
Having lived in New York City for over a decade, where we enjoy a strong community gardening scene, I expected to find an even more robust network of community farms, backyard plots, and fire-escape gardens. I thought the streets would be lined with markets and stalls selling innumerable varieties of brightly colored fruits and vegetables that I had never seen before and may not be able to pronounce.
Instead, I found pushcarts selling only garlic and onions, produce markets offering little more than tubers and papaya, and dozens of restaurants that either were out of beans or had never served them to begin with. To my surprise, the most common foods sold on the street were 7-Eleven-style pizza, bland spaghetti, and one-egg omelets on white rolls. During a recent visit in January 2016, I was even more dismayed to find that avocados and mangos were not in season. Fortunately, I had packed a small bottle of Mexican chili lime seasoning to spice up my meals.
The notion of shopping and eating locally has been placed on a pedestal and heralded as a cure-all for many of society’s very tangible problems, ranging from childhood obesity and inner-city health disparities to crop erosion and global warming. Don’t get me wrong – I am a strong proponent of sustainability and local eating, and I ride my bicycle to farmers markets from Union Square to East New York.
That said, it was very evident that Cuba’s embrace of local farming stemmed more from necessity than from any loftier ideas of sustainability or “getting back to its roots.” After several trips and dozens of conversations with locals, I still don’t understand why Cuba doesn’t grow the broader assortment of vegetables that I’ve found in similar climates. Many Cubans have never tasted cauliflower, broccoli, okra, or callaloo. A good friend in Havana longs to try any squash besides what I dubbed “Cuba squash,” the single variety of squash I found, with a color and consistency somewhere between butternut and kabocha. As it was the only squash around, it was simply called “calabaza,” the equivalent of the generic English word for squash.
I am astounded that a meal of locally sourced food in New York City would be more interesting, varied, and flavorful than a locally sourced meal in Cuba during peak growing season. Even a winter meal in New York City might include a roasted beet salad and polenta topped with sautéed mushrooms and roasted Brussels sprouts. There might even be house-made focaccia topped with carrot-greens pesto as an appetizer and apple pie for dessert, both using locally grown grains, of course.
The typical vegetarian meal I was served in Cuba in 2013 included white rice, fried plantains, and raw shredded cabbage and tomato topped with soybean oil. Salt was always available, pepper was not. Cigars, however, were plentiful, and sold at most street pizza and spaghetti shops. During my 2016 visit, my options were expanded to include cooked cucumbers sautéed in soybean oil and the occasional chunk of boiled “Cuba squash.”
It’s easy to embrace a local food philosophy when it is served up alongside hundreds of varieties of grains, plump heirloom tomatoes, and winter squashes, especially when topped with imported olive oil and sea salt. The local food revolution is much less exciting when it is restricted to white rice (much of which Cuba imports), raw cabbage, and cucumbers cooked in soybean oil. I look forward to my next trip to Cuba this spring, when I plan to further research urban agriculture and enjoy avocados and mangos while they are in season.
Cassandra Flechsig is a former consultant for Karen Karp & Partners. In addition to writing, Cassandra works in food systems, food justice, health equity, and community development. We’ve always loved Cassandra’s travel writing, and it in fact inspired this series, so we asked her to contribute.