Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Grub

In catering, as in boxing, the Cubans can count themselves amongst the world's talented amateurs. So the first thing I note as I head out for a meal in Cuba is that I am far less likely to have it ruined by the rising bile of my generalised distaste for the polished marketing culture of the strip mall.

Even here in Antigua the tail of image consistently wags the dog of content when it comes to the restaurant scene, where the few kitchens actually capable
of producing a meal that one might actually look forward to eating are submerged in a sluice of shouty brand propositions.

I suppose this is quite normal for a touristy destination where the majority of diners will visit each restaurant proposition but once, and where there is typically a marked over-supply of businesses chasing foreign-earned income. 

That the Cubans haven't quite been able to reproduce this little triumph of capitalism is nevertheless rather to their credit. 

Refreshing also is the comparative lack of that steak, spaghetti and crêpe nonsense, all too familiar round these parts. (Actually a steak is something you are unlikely to be able to indulge in in Cuba unless happen to be are a member of the political elite, given that the island suffers from a meagreness of bovine stock.) 

Back in the UK we used to have a TV game show called The Generation Game, in which some very talented individual demonstrated his or her particular professional skill and then two members of the same family from different generations had to have a go themselves. The end results varied of course. Well, when it comes to the provision of anything with even a hint of luxury or premium quality about it, the Cubans are like keen, above-averagely capable contestants on the aforementioned programme who have just watched someone else showing them how it can be done, should one happen to have many years of experience. 

The state-owned tourism and catering companies can get away with this for now because their customers are predominantly lower-middle class coach party herds from Europe...and Canadians, who, according to my father at least, will eat anything

One does indeed come across gaggles of Frenchies, but rather than the sniffy gastronomic sort, they appear to be embittered old socialists who have made it over to the free republic of the Americas with the singular intention of being allowed to smoke indoors. 

Things may eventually (have to) change if the Yanks ever decide to grow up a bit and cut the Cubans some slack.

How might the locals cope with a sudden influx of 'discerning' diners? It's not of course that Americans have higher standards when it comes to their nosh than other rich-worlders (one could indeed make quite a strong case against this presumption); it's just that they love what Marxists might call the superstructure or marketers the value-add: the shouty branding experience, the over-trained niceness, and everything else that comes packaged with products that want to be loved and remembered as a service (because the actual product experience is often pretty lousy!). 

There are signs that the Cubans are fumbling their way towards a strange simulcrum of self-referencing, late stage capitalism: in the pic above a lone diner at La Bahía restaurant in Cienfuegos has to watch a looping showreel in which the chef demonstrates the preparation of his greatest hits.

1 comment:

scott said...

Excellent essay. You should package a number of your food and travel essays and get them published. Great stuff.

This is why some of the best meals I've had in Guatemala were either street food, meals from tiny hole-in-the-wall comedores for workers, or little roadside places in Izabal or Coban--zero branding, zero metadata (well, minus the Gallo advertising)--just good food, abuela-style.