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Lately on my planet, whenever friends get together the conversation revolves around the past. Why is this? Nothing pleasant is ever said in the present tense. We must always conjugate the imperfect indicative form of the verb, ending in “aba” or “ía,” i.e. comía, bebía, salía, bailaba, ganaba, viajaba, disfrutaba, etc. (used to eat, used to drink, used to go out, used to dance, used to earn, used to travel, used to enjoy…)

Especially when speaking about common acquaintances, we try very hard to avoid hurt feelings, since in many cases we don’t know whether we have lost touch because they have simply left our planet or they have gone far away.

If the talk turns to food, things really get ugly. You can’t give anyone recipes anymore. You have to say: if you have this, you put it in, or you substitute this for something else; all in all it has gotten extremely difficult to follow the book made so popular by Nitza Villapol — the cooking show hostess from the ’50s.

Even I, with my love of cooking, find myself having to constantly come up with solutions and substitute ingredients, or incorporate new ones instead of the usual ones. Thankfully my mom was a dietician and taught me a host of kitchen tricks. She suffered greatly seeing our gastronomy, an essential part of our identity, slowly disappear and in its place atrocities pop up, such as “orange steak” — a dish made by boiling orange peel to resemble meat — or “ground beef” made from ground-up plantain peel.

But our yearning gets the better of us when we begin to remember those spectacular Havana restaurants, each with its own wonderful specialties. Or when we would hit the road and all of a sudden someone would say, “Let’s go to the ‘Congo’, and eat sausage!” or, “Why don’t we get ourselves over to ‘La Dominicana,’ eat some delicious croquettes, and keep driving?” Then maybe we would stop by the “Rincón Criollo” or “Rancho Luna” and really get our fill.

Let’s see now, with the new paladares — private restaurants — popping up, whether they will be able to keep themselves stocked and regain, in part, our once-respected cuisine, which has nothing to do with caldosa (stew), and those croquettes whose ingredients are strictly secret and are commonly known as “aviators” because of the way they stick to the roof of your mouth. Hopefully soon we will be able to conjugate verbs in all their forms and tenses and not only the past imperfect.

March 30 2011

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