When Keenwa opened in Cape Town last year, much was made of the fact that it serves ‘authentic’ Peruvian food. I put ‘authentic’ in quotes partly because I’ve read far too much Derrida and Foucault, but mainly as a result of some scepticism. I doubt that any of the reviewers who’ve eaten at Keenwa have ever been to Peru, and there’s something odd about deciding how a varied and changing cuisine can be made ‘authentic’. The bobotie I cook has grated apple in it, but a friend’s doesn’t: which is more authentic? Neither, obviously.
I was thinking about this a month ago when I had supper with my friends Katherine and Ricardo in London. Ricardo is from Cuba, and cooked us a Cuban-themed dinner. The only Cuban food I’ve ever eaten was at Cuba Libre, a restaurant and tapas bar in Islington. It’s the kind of place which people recommend by saying ‘it’s not authentic, but….’ I haven’t the faintest idea if it’s authentic (whatever that may be), but it was certainly fun.
The food that Ricardo made showed up the problem with the mania for ‘authenticity’ particularly well. We had fried plantain, tortilla, and congrí. This is, to some extent, the kind of food his family would eat in Cuba, although because he and Katherine are vegetarians, we had tortilla instead of the usual, more meaty accompaniment to the meal (hurrah – I love tortilla), and the congrí was pork-free. It was delicious, but was it any less authentic? You tell me.
Christiane Paponnet-Cantat describes the food eaten in Cuba as ‘contact cuisine’, a concept borrowed from Mary Louise Pratt’s conceptualisation of the colonial space as a cultural and social ‘contact zone’ which ‘treats the relations among colonisers and colonised…not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practice’. She suggests that Cuban, and colonial cooking more generally, is a manifestation of the complex relationships between different groups of people in colonies.
Congrí is an excellent example of this contact cuisine. As in the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba’s indigenous population was eradicated – by disease and conflict – after the arrival of European colonists during the seventeenth century. Slaves were imported from West and Central Africa to work on sugar plantations. In the nineteenth century, indentured labourers from India replaced slaves. Along with foodstuffs introduced by the Spanish – like rice in the 1690s – these groups brought with them a variety of cuisines.
Congrí – at its most basic, a dish of rice and beans – can be found in various forms around the Caribbean. It’s a version of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) and rice and peas. And jollof rice, popular in West Africa, is similar too. The term congrí seems to have originated in Haiti and is a combination of ‘Congo’ and ‘riz’ (the French for rice), suggesting its African origins.
The recipe that Ricardo used for his congrí was by Nitza Villapol. To my shame, I’d never heard of her until Ricardo mentioned one of her best-known recipe books, Cocina al minuto. This was published in 1958, four years after Cocina criolla, the Bible of Cuban cuisine. Villapol seems to have been a kind of Cuban Delia Smith or Julia Child: she was as interested in writing about Cuban cuisine as she was in communicating it to people. She had a long-running television series which aired between 1951 and 1997. (She died in 1998.)
Villapol would be interesting simply on these grounds, but she was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Born into a wealthy family in 1923, she was named after the Russian river Nitza by her communism-supporting father. She spent her early childhood in New York, returning to Cuba with her family at the age of nine. During World War Two she trained as a home economist and nutritionist at the University of London.
This experience of wartime rationing proved to be surprisingly useful. In Cuba, Villapol began her career during the 1950s by teaching cookery classes to young, middle-class brides and her earliest recipe books emerged out of this work. But after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, she devoted to her formidable talents to teaching a kind of revolutionary cuisine. Tellingly, editions of her recipe books published after 1959 no longer included advertisements for American consumer goods.
Under the new communist regime, food distribution was centralised, and rationing was introduced in 1962. People collected their allowances of food – listed in a libreta (ration book) – from the local bodega, or depot. Villapol’s aim was to teach Cubans how to cook when they had little control over the quantity or the nature of the ingredients they would receive at the bodega. She taught a cuisine developed to underpin the goals of the revolution. Unfortunately, I don’t read Spanish and I haven’t been able to track down any substantial scholarship on Villapol. From what I’ve gleaned, though, it seems to me that she was interested in cooking a form of a ‘traditional’ Cuban cooking – but the cooking of ordinary Cubans, rather than those at the top of the social scale who would, presumably, have favoured American or European dishes as a marker of wealth and sophistication. This elevation of ‘every day’ Cuban food would have meshed well with the aims of the revolution.
By writing recipes for favourites like congrí and flan, Villapol created a kind of canon for Cuban cooking. The popularity – and possibly the ubiquity – of her writing and television programmes meant that not only was she seen as the authority on Cuban cuisine, but she also became the source for all that was (or is) ‘authentically’ Cuban. The irony is that this happened during a time of rationing, when what people ate was determined by supplies available to the state.
When trade relations with the Soviet Bloc crumbled in late 1989 and 1990, and the United States tightened the trade embargo, Cuba was plunged into economic crisis. In 1991 the government declared the Special Period in Peacetime, which basically put the country on a wartime economy-style austerity program. An immediate 53 percent reduction in oil imports not only affected fuel availability for the economy, but also reduced to zero the foreign exchange that Cuba had formerly obtained via the re-export of petroleum. Imports of wheat and other grains for human consumption dropped by more than 50 percent, while other foodstuffs declined even more.
There was simply not enough food to go around. (A similar set of factors caused the famine in North Korea, a country as dependent on trade with the USSR as Cuba.) As a 1998 article from the sympathetic New Internationalist noted:
The monthly rations from the State for a family of four cost around 50 pesos ($2.15), almost a quarter of the average salary of 214 pesos ($9.30). Food from the bodega is not enough to live on and no-one, neither the Government nor the people, pretends it is. It may take you halfway through the month, but no more.
Even though he was shielded – to some extent – from the worst food shortages because he was in school and university accommodation during the Special Period, Ricardo described what it was like to live while permanently hungry – and entirely obsessed with the next meal, even if it was likely to be thin, watery soup or overcooked pasta. In fact, one of the most traumatic features of the Special Period was that staples like rice and coffee – things which most people ate every day – were no longer available. Some people seem to have made congrí from broken up spaghetti.
Drawing on her experience of wartime cooking in London, Villapol used her cookery series to show her audience how to to replicate Cuban favourites with the meagre rations available to the population. Ricardo mentioned one episode during which she fashioned a steak out of orange peel. She received widespread ridicule for doing this, and I think deservedly so.
Cuba managed to pull itself out of its food crisis by radically reorganising its agricultural sector. The state transformed most of its farms into worker-owned co-operatives which
allowed collectives of workers to lease state farmlands rent free, in perpetuity. Property rights would remain in the hands of the state, and [co-operatives] would need to continue to meet production quotas for their key crops, but the collectives were the owners of what they produced. What food crops they produced in excess of their quotas could be freely sold at newly opened farmers’ markets.
In addition to this, urban agriculture helped to provide a supply of vegetables and pork:
The earlier food shortages and resultant increase in food prices suddenly turned urban agriculture into a very profitable activity for Cubans, and, once the government threw its full support behind a nascent urban gardening movement, it exploded to near epic proportions. Formerly vacant lots and backyards in all Cuban cities now sport food crops and farm animals, and fresh produce is sold from stands throughout urban areas at prices substantially below those prevailing in the farmers’ markets.
Food may not be abundant now, and there are still occasional shortages of particular items, but no-one goes hungry anymore. Cuba does offer a model of a sustainable, largely organic and pesticide-free food system, and we can learn a great deal from it.
I’m interested, though, in how Cuban food has changed as a result of the Special Period. From a quick trawl of the internet, it seems to me that Nitza Villapol still exercises a kind of nostalgic appeal to some Cubans living in Miami – there’s even one woman who’s heroically cooking her way through Villapol’s oeuvre. But for those still in Cuba – and those who experienced the deprivations of the Special Period – she seems to be tainted by association. It’s certainly the case that despite Villapol’s best efforts, Cuban diets are more meat-heavy and vegetable-poor than ever before. I wonder if this is the effect of the hunger of the nineties: a diet which was based once mainly on rice and fresh produce, has become increasingly focussed around red meat because meat is associated with plenty – and with having a full stomach.
So where does that leave us on ‘authentic’ Cuban cuisine?
Sources cited here:
Mavis Alvarez, Martin Bourque, Fernando Funes, Lucy Martin, Armando Nova, and Peter Rosset, ‘Surviving Crisis in Cuba: The Second Agrarian Reform and Sustainable Agriculture,’ in Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform, ed. Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, and Michael Courville (Food First Books, 2006), pp. 225-248. (Also available here.)
Christiane Paponnet-Cantat, ‘The Joy of Eating: Food and Identity in Contemporary Cuba,’ Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 3 (Sept., 2003), pp. 11-29.
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821-1911,’ The Americas, vol. 53, no. 2 (Oct., 1996), pp. 193-216.
Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.