Cuisine, restaurants and sound environments

by: José Antonio Michelena

Seven decades ago, alluding to a circulating opinion in the city, José Lezama Lima said in a chronicle: “In what someone has already called common places of second degree, you can hear: in Havana there is no place to converse, an archetype café, no noise and where between sips you can talk about the theory of ideas or colors…”.
Like many of the texts included in Treaties in Havana, that chronicle, in essence, takes effect. The capital of the largest of Las Antillas shares with many other Caribbean cities that noisy atmosphere, which is not conducive to conversation, that penetrates and owns public spaces – including restaurants. Because there is a false idea of the Cuban that associates the bullanguero with our identity, as if on the island we always lived by partying, dancing rumba and playing maracas. It’s nothing new, but in recent years it’s taken the form of an epidemic and spread to the intolerable.
Favourite scenario for the carnival jolgorio is the oldest area of the city, which is invaded, at any time, by all kinds of hustle and seek after waves of tourists who travel through it. Son, guaracha and infallible Guantanamera are constantly mistreated and un contemplated by improvised street musicians.
Gone are the times when you could go to La Bodeguita del Medio and listen to Carlos Puebla or the Taicuba trio, see how Varilla prepared a mojito for you and even chat with Martinez while shoveling black beans, pork doughs and cassava with mojo. Even more buried is the memory of Snowball performing in Monseigneur. As far away as El Chori playing in the bars of Playa.
As it is known, the old network of restaurants that existed in Havana until 1990 no longer exists. Some of the survivors only retain the name, but not their soul. The Polynesian, The Mandarin, The Tower, The Bunny, The Emperor… they only inhabit nostalgia. And there always comes the food.
Let us remember that Cuban food, represented by its most typical dish, ajiaco, constituted the symbol used by Fernando Ortiz in his classic 1939 conference at the University of Havana, “The Human Factors of Cubanity”. But do the last generations know how to prepare an ajiaco? Do you know its taste? Of course not. It has been replaced for many years by that dish they call broth, in which any type of food enters, without order or concert, without respecting the cooking times as should be done in the ajiaco. Interestingly, the broth is associated with community celebrations, therefore it is usually accompanied by resonant speakers that preach the sound enthusiasm in many meters around.

Food and new times
Food has become a recurring theme in social research. Hundreds of articles are published daily on food and health. As obesity has become a threatening epidemic, weight loss is an obsession for the past pounds, so all kinds of diets and exercises claim to be ideal for having the right weight.
In new food stories, meat, white bread, sugar, dairy, fats, play villain roles in the face of the goodness of fish, fruits, vegetables. According to these precepts, the Mediterranean diet is the universal panacea to be healthy and happy.
However, this obsession with healthy food goes to a forced background under the imperative of the economy. For those who are mired in financial scarcity, the problem is not eating healthy, but eating, without pretensions. And landing on the island, we remember the popular saying that reads: “in Cuba there are only three problems: breakfast, lunch and food”. Between a pizza and an avocado (which have the same price) there is hardly any alternative.
Dozens of cafes, palates, restaurants, have been established in the capital. In not a few there is a varied menu that combines, with success, Cuban and international cuisine; even with a pleasant sound environment that respects customers, which does not impede the conversational flow. But it is necessary to have greater accessibility of the population to these places, so that just as before you could go to eat barbecue chicken in El Polinesio, paella in Taramar, fried rice in El Mandarín, or roasted piglet in El Cochinito, you can now taste a shrimp in the garlic without bleeding out your economy. For the vast majority, those spaces don’t exist.
In the eighties of the last century, the bars of El Conejito and La Torre, facing each other, were contested the supreme excellence of the sector. From his height, the second was a favorite place of romance, while the former hoarded the contertules of the cultural universe. And how to forget the ineffable Moscow restaurant, with its gigantic bar, its always lively dance floor, its varied halls, its exquisite (and cheap) menu. In the fire that consumed it, it burned for a time: Havana has never had anything like it again.
Distant in time, in Las Sombrillitas de Prado, conversation and music had an appointment every night, without stridentity, in a comfort zone that have lost the most popular public spaces. But as Mrs. Augusta says in Paradiso – while uncovering the soup where a curd of banana soup smokes – “there are so many things that we liked as children and that we will never again enjoy.” Ω

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