“The Fridges Are on Vacation”: The Obsessive Search for Meat Products in Cuba
“Is there meat?” asks a customer outside a market in Havana. “No, the refrigerators are still on vacation,” the employee, who has heard the same question a dozen times in the last hour, says ironically. In the midst of the famine of food supplies, the first to disappear from the shelves have been all those of animal origin.
Cubans have a long and painful obsession with flesh. During the crisis of the ’90s they tried to recreate it with other products, some of which weren’t even food. Today, in the midst of the shortages of chicken, pork and sausages that currently affects the whole island, the effort is being repeated, with an endless coming and going to the stores and markets.
“I got up at four in the morning to look for pork but when I arrived at the counter nothing but butter and orejas were left,” Lala Garcia tells 14ymedio. Garcia is a neighbor of the Youth Labor Market (EJT) on 17th Street in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood, who had to be satisfied “with some chicken bouillon cubes to make some croquettes.”
Garcia inherited the recipe from an aunt who made it frequently during the Special Period: “You only need old bread, an egg, a little nutmeg and two small bouillon cubes to make up to 20 croquettes,” she explains proudly. “That’s the closest thing to a protein [of animal origin] that we will eat this week in my house.”
The crisis of the ’90s led to a “multiplication of substitute products and a decrease in the quality of products in general and protein in particular”, including “fricandel (sausage based on fishmeal) or minced meat that is textured or enriched (with soy flour and meat scraps),” according to a study by anthropologist Margalida Mulet Pascual.
History repeats itself for many, like Virgilio Fuentes, 78, who says he was lucky because he managed to get a pack of ten hot dogs in a store in convertible pesos. “With this I have my grandson’s food for several days,” he tells this newspaper. “One day I prepare two dogs in sauce, another I grate them and make a Chinese sauce (soy) and the third day I slice and fry them on both sides.”
Fuentes was a teacher at a secondary school when the Soviet Union imploded and the island lost the huge subsidy that came to it from the Eastern European socialist camp. “I learned to make steak with the white part of the grapefruit, to prepare a good forcemeat with wheat flour or a plate of shredded “beef” from shredded banana peel.”
The retiree regrets that now there is less and less supply in the butcher shops and lists some products that have also been disappearing, such as “turkey hash, hamburgers and even the cans of spam, which solved a lot of problems because they can be prepared in various ways.” Now “only the cans of sardines are left but they are very expensive, at 2 CUC each (Cuban convertible pesos – roughly worth $1 each), and I have a pension of 300 CUP (Cuban pesos) (about 12 CUC)” per month.
A study carried out in 2017 by the Ministry of Agriculture and the United Nations Program for Development determined that “in Cuba there is an unmet demand for animal protein for feeding the population.” This dissatisfaction becomes more evident in the case of beef,” because “the consumption of this product has been deeply rooted in the food culture of the country and is the product that has suffered the most from the effects of the crisis.”
According to figures offered in the study, the amount of beef that each Cuban eats each year barely reaches 7.3 pounds, far from the 19 pounds consumed in the 1980s when the product was imported at very preferential prices from the countries belonging to the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CAME) of which the Island was also a member.
Although recent studies confirm that the consumption of animal protein is not necessary for proper health, beef has become a recurring dream for many Cubans who see it as an unattainable delicacy.
“The last time I could eat a beef steak was at an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, when my brother who lives in Miami came and invited the whole family,” recalls Osmani, a 30-year-old who was born just when the Special Period crisis began.
“Every time I meet with my friends we end up talking about food, and especially meat, roasts, grills and chops,” he says with a smile. “We all end up salivating, and then the problem comes because we have to go back to the house and face a plate of rice with beans or maybe a croquettes of ’mystery meat’,” he says.
Among the reasons that Osmani yearns to emigrate outside the Island is just being able to eat meat more frequently. “I want to fulfill the old dream of one day eating breakfast with meat, eating meat at lunch and dinner with meat,” he says and touches one of his eye teeth. “I have to use this which nature gave me, because at the rhythm I eat here, they will atrophy on me.”
At the end of last year, the authorities announced that they were trying to stop the fall in pig production but the lack of liquidity has prevented buying the animal feed necessary for raising pigs abroad. In Candelaria, Artemisa, a town that has traditionally been dedicated to farming and raising pigs, many producers have had to sell their animals when they are just a few weeks old because they do not have feed to keep them.
“When the sow gave birth we had no food to give the piglets so we had to sell them when they were very small and also slaughter the mother,” Onelio Suarez tells 14ymedio. Suarez is a producer who insists he had twenty pigs in fattening barely two years ago. “Recovering will cost me a year,” he says.
“Even if we get a lot of feed for the pigs, the producers here need at least a year to recover the cycle of births and fattening that has been severed,” he says. “That’s why the cost of pork has exploded everywhere and will continue to rise,” he says.
In several agricultural markets in Havana the price of a pound of boneless pork has reached 60 CUP, the salary of two days of a professional. “As there is not much frozen chicken in the shopping centers there is an even greater demand for pork and that has complicated the situation much more,” says Suarez. “This has been going on for a while and the production is not going to meet the demand.”