Rebeca Monzo


In Nuevo Vedado — according to popular opinion one of Havana’s best neighborhoods — something has been happening for several years that would have been unthinkable in the past: assaults with firearms, knives and even bare hands. It does not matter who you are; you can be targeted by criminals even if you have only one CUC to your name. Recently, this happened to a friend  of mine, who carelessly answered a call on her cell phone one night. She was attacked, jabbed in the buttocks and stripped of all her belongings by some youths who could not have been more than sixteen-years-old.

Two weeks ago all the outdoor furniture at a house in a neighborhood just outside Herradura was stolen. The owners —  an elderly man in his eighties and his daughter, who was at work at the time — filed a report at their local police station.

A few days after filing the report, the man, who stays home all day — a fact known to his neighbors and friends as well as to the robbers — received a visit from a uniformed police officer. Once inside the house, the officer told the victim that the robbers had been apprehended but that the police were unable to recover the stolen items and gave him a form to sign stating that he was being giving 3,000 CUCs in compensation. The man in question then signed the form and was handed a roll of bills by the officer, who immediately left the premises. Once alone, the man began calmly counting the money and was astonished to find there were only 2,000 CUCs.

How is it possible for an officer of the law, acting on his own, to show up and settle the criminal’s debts without a trial being carried out, a sentence being handed down, and the amount and means of compensation being determined by a magistrate?

Could it be that, out of fear of being discovered or a desire to protect a close family member, the officer decided to handle things himself and in the process stiff the victim?

This remains an open question.

21 November 2014

Some of the most spectacular recipes in gastronomy have been the result of accidents that occurred during their preparation.

I remember that during the second half of the 1960s, while fulfilling diplomatic duties in Paris, I would frequently visit the Cuban embassy and there I met and established a lovely friendship with Chef Gilberto Smith, his wife, and children. Smith, knowing my fondness for culinary pursuits, would invite me to participate in the finishing and presentation of his famous dishes.

During one of these exchanges, he shared with me how his exquisite and famous recipe for “Lobster au Café” (coffee-infused lobster) came to be: “Some lobsters I was cooking were sticking to the pot, almost burning, and all I had on-hand was a big jugs of fresh-brewed coffee reserved for guests. I emptied the jug’s contents, firefighter-style, over the lobsters, and from this emerged the famous recipe that I later perfected.”

A few days ago, this story was on my mind as I worked in my kitchen from early morning on, preparing dessert for a luncheon to which I had invited a couple who are friends of mine. My mother always used to tell me that she liked to make dessert first, just in case something came up that interrupted the proceedings.

I had left on the double boiler a very soft pudding I make that many people confuse with flan. I got busy doing other things when suddenly I detected an aroma coming from the kitchen that was like a cake baking. I ran to see what was happening and noticed that all the water in the double-boiler had evaporated. I quickly removed the top pan so that the pudding could cool and, upon turning it over, part of the pudding remained stuck to the caramelized sugar on the pan, ruining the look of the pudding.

I couldn’t serve it that way to my guests, but neither could I discard it. I immediately set to preparing another dessert. This time, using a bit of cornstarch I had in my pantry, I made a type of soft “floating islands” custard. On this go-round there were no problems. It was then that I got the idea to present both dishes together as one.

I found some deep, wide-mouth crystal water glasses. On the bottom of each I placed a bit of the pudding, filled the rest with the soft custard, crowning each with a bit of burnt meringue, a mint leaf, and grinding some cinnamon over the top to give it a more pleasing appearance.

The dessert was a success, enjoyed and much-praised – but when they requested the recipe and asked what the dish is called, I could think of no other name than “Copa Rebeca” (Rebeca Goblet).

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 November 2014

After reading an article, “Not Very Anomalous Anomalies,” published in Granma on November 7 and written by journalist Pedro de la Hoz about Halloween, cheerleading and those little stars-and-stripes flags, I couldn’t wait to get to my laptop to respond and refresh Mr. de la Hoz’s memory.

First of all, it should be pointed out that for some years now a small group of young people — and others not so young, myself included —  have been celebrating, as best we can, not only these but many other dates that have become as intrinsic a part of our culture as Christmas, Christmas Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany — holidays which were  banned for fifty-six years.

Though we are part of a global village, each country manages to keep its own traditions alive without being too worried about adopting new ones from other continents. A good example of this is Japan. Attractive, pleasant and joyous customs are not imposed by decree; they are assimilated spontaneously.

This is not the case with the well-known yellow ribbons, which have been imposed on us in schools and workplaces by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, labor unions and the Communist Party, yet which have nothing to do with our cultural heritage. Not to mention that they come to us via that famous enemy country which our media rails against daily in spite of the fact that Cuban artists, intellectuals and athletes continually turn to it in hopes of improving their lives.

College students at CUJAE and even the University of Havana organized their own Halloween festivities. It was also celebrated by the musicians at the Tropical, at the 1830, at the Diablo Tun Tun and at the Hotel Capri’s Salon Rojo, which to my mind is perfectly fine since they were options one could freely choose.* Also, as far as I can tell, none of these locations would be considered sacred, so where is the anomaly?

Translator’s note: CUJAE is a Cuban university that offers a variety of engineering degrees. The Tropical and the Salon Rojo, or Red Room, are Havana nightclubs. 1830 is a Havana restaurant and salsa club. El Diablo Tun Tun is a piano bar and musical venue.

8 November 2014

To the Directors of CNN:  I have inserted here just a few photos of our city (Havana). There are many hardships borne by the residents of any neighborhood, including Miramar, with respect to garbage collection. The state-run company, Comunales, which is charged with this task, alleges a lack of trucks and containers.

Neighborhoods that are located far from the city center do not even have garbage cans. Thus, the waste is thrown into the river, on the train tracks, or — in the best of cases — is hung from nails on the trees.

It would be very good if, when you are broadcasting a report based on statistics, that you do this from the location that is the subject of the report, and not just base your information on numbers provided by a totalitarian regime.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

31 October 2014

Patchwork portraits by the author 

When the ill-named Special Period began in 1989, three years had passed since I had quit my job with the Cuban National Commission of UNESCO (with all that that implies), where I worked as a secretary. I was making 148 Cuban pesos (CUP) a month at a time when a pound of ham that tasted artificial and weighed half that amount once you removed the excess water cost 6.00 CUP. I was earning only 6.20 CUP a day.

Around this time, thanks to my very good and late friend Poncito, I had found out about the Cuban Association of Artisan Artists (ACAA) and how much it was growing. So, after submitting three samples of my work and letters of recommendation from two of its member artists, I was admitted to the organization, which allowed me to be my own “immediate supervisor,” improve my quality of life and work from home, which had become a veritable artist’s studio.

By then my older son was pursuing a career in design, my niece — who was also living with us — was in college and my younger son was in primary school. On weekends the house was filled with kids and on weekdays my friends — all of whom were professionals who worked  nearby — came over for a little peace and quiet, a cup of tea and a friendly atmosphere.

Since we all truly believed this was the end of the System, I “broke out” (as we often say here) my best porcelain china cups — family heirlooms — and filled them with Soviet black tea or an infusion of lemongrass stalks from my patio. Sometimes I managed to make a tasty pudding to sweeten our get-togethers. Outside my four walls the world looked grey and menacing. People on the street walked with their heads down and their shoulders slumped.

I remember one particular birthday during this period when there was nothing in the stores and only a few vegetables in the produce market. Some architect friends suddenly appeared at my door singing “Happy Birthday” and carrying a beautiful basket they had fashioned from cardboard and decorated with a beautiful bow made out of newspaper. Inside it they had carefully and tastefully placed some green bananas, several taro and half of a small pumpkin.

My friend the painter showed up with a beautiful painting of sunflowers. And the dentist, who was never able to fill even one cavity for me due to a shortage of materials, did me the honor of giving me a pixie haircut. He was a master at challenges like this. It was without a doubt one of the most memorable birthdays I have ever had.

As time went by, everyone’s lives gradually got more complicated and they began leaving the country. My children also left and this house, which had always been so happy and bustling, began descending into silence and solitude. I continued working as an artisan-artist and started meeting new people, making new friends (some of whom have also left) and seeing a new world open up through my blog.

Other wonderful people keep crossing my path, people who have given new meaning to my daily routine as well as the courage and strength to carry on. These days I am busy preparing for the next exhibition of my work outside “my planet,” taking advantage of our newly “restored” right to travel freely, which had been denied us for almost half a century.

22 October 2014

Rebeca Monzó, Havana | October 14, 2014 — The high cost and the limited selection of basic produce forces us to trek from one farmer’s market to another in search of the most essential ingredients for our kitchens.

These days the prices for vegetables as basic as onions, garlic and peppers, indispensable in the kitchen, are so unbelievable that you would think they were threaded in 18 carat gold. The hard-currency stores have stocked various imported spices of good quality that generally are somewhat more economical.

So here I will list some of them, along with their uses and applications:

Garlic Powder.  Well known by all for its use – however, being a concentrated product, it must be used carefully, with a concomitant reduction in the amount of salt used in the same recipe. Very appropriate for soups, and meat and fish sauces. A little goes a long way.

Onion Powder. Very recommended for all types of stews, legumes, meatballs and chopped meat. As with garlic powder, care in its application is recommended.

Sesame. This product is found in some farmers markets that accept CUPs (Cuban pesos). This oily seed is especially indicated for making pastas and sweets. For example, when caramelizing a pan to make a mold for pudding or flan (Cuban-style custard).

Celery Powder. Delicious and aromatic seasoning that has a great variety of uses, especially in sauces, vegetables, tomato juice, fish, mollusks, and above all in broths and stocks.

Curry. This is a mixture of spices – with strong therapeutic qualities – that comes from India. Very recommended for meats, fowl, and varied sauces and soups. Especially wonderful for curry chicken.

Cinammon. In stick or powder, this is the most prized eastern spice. Used in sweets, as we all know, but also in fruit salads, beverages such as sangría, ice cream, baked dishes and boiled fish.

Ginger. Widely used in international cuisine. Very appropriate for meat sauces, stews as well as sweets. In its natural form, ginger root, it can be found in high-end farmers markets, such as the one on 19 Street in El Vedado.

Sweet paprika. A marvelous vegetable product used as a seasoning in soups, sofrito*, stews, fish and rice dishes. It imparts an unusual color and flavor, and can substitute for red pepper powder which is often rare and expensive in our markets.

Vanilla bean. Has many uses in sweets, especially in flans and custards, ice cream, fruit cocktails and liqueurs, to which it imparts its delicate flavor. It is also used in cooking as an ingredient in certain sauces – for example, bechamel, in which it makes a good substitute for cinnamon.

Sage. Although this plant is known above all as a culinary herb, it has also had a medicinal use for thousands of years. In medieval times it was thought to promote longevity. Its flavor makes it advisable for soups and sauces for meats and meatballs, as well as for cheese-based dishes. Its leaves can be applied to infection sites as an effective, natural anti-inflammatory. It can be easily propagated by cuttings in gardens and pots. All it needs is watering and full sun.

Nutmeg. Generally available whole or sometimes ground into a powder. Used in all types of sauces for meats, fish, seafood and to give a special touch to bechamel sauce. Used as well in chicken stews and above all in sweets. This is an expensive spice and not always available in our markets.

White pepper. Also available in two forms: peppercorn or ground into a powder. It is the peppercorn that is ideal for use in pickling brine and is also recommended as a seasoning for meats and in stews. It has a mild flavor, subtle and aromatic. Ideal for soups, meats and sauces.

*Translator’s Note: Sofrito is a stir-fry of aromatic vegetables, herbs and spices used as the base for many Cuban dishes.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

17 October 2014

The little box or the hospital?

A friend, whose name I withhold in order not to harm him, tells me of a neighbor “partner” of his who works in the Ministry of the Interior and who became, what we call here a “super salary,” who confessed to having raised the following complaint at his work center:

“I earn 690 CUP (Cuban pesos), which here is considered a good salary. Recently they passed by my office taking note of colleagues who were interested in buying the decoding boxes for digital television; this equipment, according to what they explained to us, has the purpose of converting the digital signal into analog for those people who, like me (the majority), cannot immediately replace the less modern televisions that we own.

To my understanding, they are of two prices: they cost 30 and 38 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), depending on their functions. I, of course, would opt for the more economical which, multiplying its price by 25 CUP, as they do in the stores, becomes 750 CUP and I earn 690 monthly, therefore I would have to take 250 CUP from my salary for three months until matching the price of said box, and make do however I can during those 90 days, which means that during this period of time I will not be able to buy milk, pork meat or vegetables and will even have to neglect my grooming a little, besides which with the remaining 440 CUP I will have to pay each month for gas, electricity, water, phone and some other essential grooming article like soap, which would be impossible because that would far surpass my meager budget.

“What to do then?  Get used to not watching television when I arrive home, tired after a long work day, because of not acquiring the little box, or failing that, go after acquiring it, directly to a hospital?”

Translated by mlk.

30 September 2014

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