The flight of the swallows

By: José Antonio Michelena

Gastronomy and time stamps

Nothing expresses reality better than a popular phrase. This synthesis of social, political, economic, sports situations, generally full of humor, which extracts the essence of the facts and offers, in very few words, a definition, a judgment, a state of opinion, difficult to overcome.

A few years ago, the expression Say you and it’s not chicken was introduced in the Cuban phraseology, to highlight something that attracted a lot of attention and was unusual. The phrase was built with the name of those coffee shops that proliferated in the last two decades and that are now entering the inventory of losses, such as cheap books, or neighborhood cinemas.

Seeing that Ditú in the photo gave me a feeling of regret. He had walked there, after several months, out of sheer inertia, dreaming of the miracle of finding croquettes, meatballs, sausages …, chicken sub-products, since chicken was ruled out.

Pure illusion. The fences advertise that there is a facility there, but nothing else. Apparently, the Ditú will join the long list of gastronomic ghosts of the public space, such as the Mar init, the Pío Pío, the hamburger, the oyster …, not to go too far.

Each era, in the last six decades, has had its mark on popular gastronomy. The sixties saw a chain of pizzerias flourish that those who did not know can not even imagine. A quality pizza and spaghetti and a beer, priced at $ 3.00, seems like science fiction. Those establishments went up a notch a decade later in so-called specialty pizzerias, with higher prices. Later, pizza was losing attributes and becoming more expensive as the years passed, until it reached what we have today.

That very decade (the sixties) brought us the Mar Init. My god! Snappers, needles, bream, chernas, squid, lobsters, shrimp … Fried, roasted, breaded, enchilados, seviches …, within reach of workers and student pockets. One wheel of snapper $ 1.40. It seems like another invention of memory. Something similar to what happened with the $ 1.20 pizzas happened with the Mar init. They reached the threshold of the nineties, but very battered.

In the seventies the Pío Pios appeared. What a delight those fried chicken posts with crispy potatoes and the inevitable beer. The wide court of L and 17 had me as a fixed point more than once a week before going to college. The Pío Pío were also shipwrecked in the sunami of the nineties, although their bodies remain exposed there.

In the fat cows of the eighties, when the CAME oil entered through thick pipes, when the super markets were crowded with products from the socialist countryside (Slavic table, garden chicken, jams …), all those creatures of popular gastronomy lived together , of fast consumption, while the restaurants with more cache proliferated, many of which were reserved by phone, such as La Torre de Marfil or La Divina Pastora.

It was in the eighties (although perhaps they come from further back) when I discovered the taverns of the fortresses, both those on the other side of the bay, and those on the side here. They were enchanted places, ideal for having wine and sharing as a couple or in a group, the closest thing we had here (in terms of atmosphere) to British Pubs, as well as La Taberna Checa, which lasted very little.

But if I have to name a symbol of gastronomy in the eighties, only one, in Havana, for me is the Moscow restaurant. Located in the building that occupied the Montmartre cabaret, it was designed, thought, set, on a giant scale, in the Russian style: huge court, wide dance floor, multitude of tables, menu with numerous dishes, abundant, excellent and cheap food, and a perennial noise in the living room, a joy of polka dancers and Vodka drinkers. In the fire that consumed him an age burned. Proshai Moskva.

The nineties represent the food orphanhood (and of all kinds) that fell on us. The brand of popular gastronomy of that decade is in line with that poverty: hamburgers. They took over the spaces of restaurants and cafes and came to offer something when there was practically nothing to bring to the table, but that rare mixture of meat and soy was never liked. It was a survival resource like the collective pots in the shelters.

In the following decades, in the new century, everything is very confusing. The self-employed were supplanting the gastronomic establishments of the state, which have been in the saga. With everything going for them, cafes, pizzerias, state restaurants, have been, however, the big losers. On the other hand, paradoxically, without a wholesale market to provide them, the self-employed have imposed their law, their exorbitant prices, and the customer, the population, has paid for the broken dishes (pun intended), the laziness and clumsiness of gastronomy state. The cafeterias and restaurants –the so-called palates– of the self-employed have marked these last years.

And what will be the brand of gastronomy in this gap of time? Prevented from going to restaurants, pizzerias and coffee shops, we are now forced to buy to go, or order by phone, with the corresponding increase in the price of the latter option. It would have been the time of luxury for online shopping, but the poor quality of the local internet, and the high costs of the product and the messaging, make it a minority service, not popular. So what will typify the gastronomy of these pandemic years? I have no answer. In any case, food as a feast of the senses is not present, it is an absence. We only feed ourselves – as we can – to stay alive.

Like the swallows in Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s poem, cafeterias, restaurants, and pizzerias will return to provide meals in their spaces, but those from a distant time will not return.

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