Dan Goldberg, Andrea Kuhn and Jody Eddy — a photographer, prop stylist, and food writer, respectively — do not speak Spanish. None are of Cuban descent. As they decided to write a cookbook about Cuba before Fidel Castro’s death, the authors were unable to travel to or within Cuba freely. After visiting Cuba three times, they wrote Cuba!. The resulting cookbook offers only a surface glimpse of the nation and its cuisine, filling the gaps with florid writing and sweeping generalizations about a country, its people, and the food they eat.
The headnote to a Rice and Beans recipe sets the tone:
Though rice paddies do exist in Cuba and the nation used to rely solely on its indigenous varieties, locally grown rice is a rare find in the modern Cuban pantry. It is hoped (italics mine) that as Cubans begin to explore their culinary traditions once more, they will rediscover their indigenous rice varieties.
Who, precisely, is doing the hoping?
Cuba! is permeated with this kind of writing. The Cubans of Cuba! may be oppressed, but never are they depressed. Time and again their resourcefulness, hospitality, and authenticity is extolled, often to the detriment of their wealthier neighbors. Chapter Two, “Snack and Chat”, tells the story of Pepe’s mother, who drops her radio from a third story balcony. A handy neighbor pieces it back together with cardboard. The authors write:
We discovered throughout our travels that a Cuban will never question you if you are in need, and if they do not have an immediate solution for whatever ails you, they will find it for you without judgment. They support each other in the same way, creating for themselves an impregnable safety net that will always catch whoever is about to tumble off the precipice. There is a resourcefulness and inventiveness about the Cuban people, born of a struggle that ultimately resulted in a creative and unconventional approach to solving life’s most challenging problems.
Instead of being horrified — cardboard! — the authors are charmed. Acknowledging the Cuban custom of “snack and chat”, or gathering to eat, drink, and problem solve, arises from “a lack of resources”, Cuba! glorifies the experience. The warm evening, cool mojitos, and tasty empanadas lead the authors to wax nostalgic, invoking grandmothers longing for the good old days. Yet the authors are free to fly home to America, with its internet access and 600 cable channels. Pepe’s mother, meanwhile, is stuck with her cardboard radio.
This superficial view is evident in the unsettlingly beautiful photography. Cuba! sings with vibrant imagery: plangent blues, sunny yellows, soft Frida Kahlo pinks. The people of Cuba are radiant, by turns soulful and outright sexy. But those faded walls and soulful stares belie a wretched poverty. Teetering walls are covered with torn, faded paper. Food is cooked in cheap tin pans and eaten off cracked plastic plates. In one shot — perhaps meant to be atmospheric — a rooster flaps through a dirty kitchen. In another, black bean soup simmers atop an ancient two-burner cooktop.That the writing overlooks this dissonance makes is disconcerting.
The authors describe visiting organic fincas or farms, and the wonderful meals served there. They also discuss the rise of organoponicos, or privately-owned organic farms, writing, “Urban farmers have increased from just under ten thousand in the early 1990s to well over forty-five thousand in the past decade.”
Despite this, Cuba! doesn’t offer a single savory vegetable or fruit preparation, unless one considers condiments like salsas part of a balanced diet. Instead, Cuba!’s recipes lean heavily toward starchy foods like plantains, rice, and potatoes, with an incredible 28 savory recipes and two more desserts calling for a skillet or deep frying. Is this truly what the people of Cuba live on? Fried, starchy food?
What about those recipes, anyway? Cuba! is organized by cute chapter headings revealing little of their contents. Yes, “Basic Training”, with its recipes for broths and rice, is clearly introductory. Don’t look for reason beyond that. Under “Pressed and Starched” you’ll find recipes for Hamburger with Crispy Shoestring Potato and Pineapple Avocado Salsa; “Three Amigos”, Ribs with Guava BBQ Sauce and Crispy Yuca. “All Aboard!” gives readers Savory Goat Stew and Guava Hand Pies. “Azucar (Sugar)”, reasonably, is a dessert chapter.
Into the kitchen.
Cuba!’s recipes are wildly inconsistent, ranging from simple chicken and rice dishes to complex shellfish preparations requiring the skills, equipment, and budgets of a professional chef. A few recipes don’t appear to be thoroughly vetted; a recipe for fish stock calls only for “fish parts”, neglecting to mention said “fish parts” should only be from white fish. Add dark, oily fish like salmon or mackerel to a stock and the result will be inedibly bitter.
The recipe for Cream of Malanga Soup calls for peeling malanga, also known as taro. Cuba! fails to warn readers that raw malanga can cause extreme itching, making it advisable to wear gloves while peeling it. Once cooked, the rogue enzyme is disabled.
Papas Rellenas won’t cause itching, but they could be costly. The recipe calls for making cream cheese mashed potatoes and stuffing them with a picadillo filling. The Papas Rellenas recipe calls for two cups of picadillo filling. But the picadillo recipe makes “about three cups”. What to do with the leftover cup? Cuba! suggests you “Save the rest in a covered container in the fridge for up to one week.” The authors should either offer suggestions for using up the leftover filling or scale the recipe down so there isn’t any.
Recipes like Tostones Stuffed with Lobster and Conch, Vedado Lobster Rolls, and Squid Ink Empanadas are hardly the province of home cooks. Each asks for expensive, highly perishable ingredients that must be handled with great skill: lobster-wrangling and empanada-making aren’t exactly like tossing a burger on the barbie. And the continual emphasis on deep frying — Crispy Pork with Mango Salsa, Codfish Fritters, Crispy Yuca — assumes high-power ventilation and convenient disposal of rivers of used cooking oil.
Incidentally, curious about fresh conch, I searched the internet. Five pounds of fresh conch, shipped from Virginia, is mine for a mere $134. Cross-country shipping to California not included.
Can a person cook from Cuba!? Yes. Yellow Rice, which I made with turmeric instead of bijol, a yellow coloring involving achiote, is rice with chicken broth, garlic, onion, and frozen peas. While neither ingredient is novel nor exciting, the result is perfectly nice. We ate this with Braised Garlic Chicken, which calls for a marinade of 20 garlic cloves, and lieu of sour orange juice, fresh lime and orange juices mixed together. Season with oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. The result is a classic chicken and rice combo with a nicely citrus angle.
Cuban Fried Rice comes from Chef Shugui Luo, Havana Chinatown’s last Chinese chef. The dish successfully melds China’s beloved leftover rice dish with shrimp, cilantro, bell pepper, Spanish-style chorizo, leftover diced pork and a swirl of Sriracha sauce. But wait… where’s the Cuban food? Aren’t all these ingredients, well, Chinese? Arguably, yes. Cuban Fried Rice makes an excellent argument for great food transcending borders.
Cuba! takes Ropa Vieja — a play on “old clothes’ — and makes it into sliders. I unslidered it, returning it to classic Ropa Vieja: beef chuck cooked for hours into tenderness, here with onion, bell pepper, garlic, tomato sauce, tomato paste, paprika, black pepper and a bottle of pilsner. The two tablespoons of white vinegar are key, lending an inimitable tang. Pickled onions went nicely alongside — a quick pour of heated white vinegar over a sliced red onion.
Time forbade testing the dessert chapter. Those who feel at ease making caramel might try the flans, while dab hands with pots of boiling oil might try Churros. I’m holding out for the Coconut Tres Leches Cake, a straightforward recipe calling for coconut milk, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, butter, and five eggs.
Cuba! concludes “With a Twist”, a handful of recipes for the nation’s iconic drinks: the Cuba Libre, the Mojito, the Daiquiri. It is here in the drinks chapter where the de rigeur visit Hemingway’s Finca La Vigia transpires. The authors’ guide, Pepe, is moved to deliver a speech on Papa, only partially quoted here:
We existed with him in a mutual state of respect and solidarity. It is absolute. We seek an unwavering fellowship (with Americans) even after all these years of separation. Hemingway is that idealized American for us. He is our Papa.
True understanding of a country and its cuisine comes after years of dedicated immersion. Writers like Fuchsia Dunlop, Carolyn Phillips, and Paula Wolfert have devoted their lives to their respective cuisines, living in the countries whose foods fascinated them, learning the languages of those cuisines, and reading the literature — not only the cookbooks, but the novels and histories, too. Their informative cookbooks and precisely written recipes reflect this devotion.
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid worked extensively in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Political tensions were often high. The couple took the utmost care to depict what they saw without insulting their host nations. Their work sets an example for anyone wishing to perform culinary research in a politically sensitive locale. Naomi Duguid, now working alone, carries on this tradition with recent books Burma: Rivers of Flavor and Taste of Persia, her most politically sensitive book.
Cuba! does none of the above. This is a harsh yet unavoidable assessment. A relentlessly rosy, superficial view of a people in obvious difficulty is discomfiting, even offensive. Photography bolstering this message leaves the viewer, comfortably seated amid her comparatively new appliances, feeling shamed.
The recipes? When a recipe can’t bother to warn you against salmon in fish broth or to wear gloves when handling taro, how can you trust the more complex or expensive recipes? You can’t.
A few months ago I reviewed Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites for this magazine. It’s a cookbook full of complex recipes calling for a great deal of time and often expensive ingredients. Yet the recipes are clearly written and precise (thank you, Laurie Woolever). At no time is the cook, however unskilled, left hanging. Bourdain’s recipes work perfectly. Every time.
The few recipes a cook can use in Cuba! — recipes somebody with passable kitchen skills can put together on a Tuesday night, recipes without $134 ingredients, recipes without deep dives into boiling oil — are easily found elsewhere. Yes, Chicken with Yellow Rice and Ropa Vieja are delicious. This dish and others included here are not, however, unique to Cuba.
Fidel Castro’s November 2016 death and the immediate lifting of the American travel ban to Cuba means now we — Americans and Cubans — truly can hope for greater freedom of exchange between nations. This includes the ability to deeply immerse ourselves in one another’s food cultures, to become bilingual, bicultural, and write wonderful cookbooks about one another’s cuisines.