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