Culinary, Auto Tech, and a Tale of Two Cities


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June 15th 2017
Published: June 15th 2017
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June 15, 2017



This morning we began by trying out the breakfast buffet on the first floor. It was a lot of stuff but only a little stuff we recognized. In retrospect, we ate too much for what was ahead. We were one pilgrim down as Barb wasn't feeling the best. The other three headed off to a backyard organic garden where we met Julio and Jesus, a team of brothers who by day are an accountant and an auto mechanic, but who moonlight as gardeners. The produce from their garden is given to an area hospital as well as to the restaurant we were about to visit.

Soon, we were at a paladar in the same fishing village that inspired Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea." There, we sat for a few lessons. The first was about a Cuban stew that represents Cuban culture through its many ingredients. It included garlic, onion, pepper, yucca, plantain, squash, corn, chives, culantro AND cilantro (not the same), cumin, salt, and cassava, along with a combination of beef, pork, and chicken. After this lesson, it was time to dawn our aprons and head into the kitchen. Rich was assigned to disassemble the lobsters using a special knife technique. In the process, he confused his hand for one of the lobsters. It wasn't too bad, but we were there to make lobster and shrimp stew, not Rich blood soup. Jake and Jeannette were assigned to the shredded beef station, where they added tomato sauce, white wine, beef broth, the holy trinity (garlic, peppers, onion), chives, spices, etc. and sautéed them. After Rich's mis-chop, Jeannette was reassigned to the seafood station and the two of them got to flambé the mixture by adding rum and setting it aflame over the mix. At this point, it was on to lesson three: How to make a mojito. This version of the mojito was flavored with honey, lime juice, and spearmint with a purple root all mottled together before the addition of sparkling water, rum, and ice. The rum was measured by counting to five, so depending on how one counted, he or she ended up with more or less rum.

Finally, it was time to enjoy our fare, with a few additions for appetizers and to go along with the stews we had made. We started with Cuban stew, followed by what we cooked alongside rice and beans etc. As usual, it was more than we could dream of eating. The end of the lunch featured a demonstration of coffee as it was brewed in the 1800s, using a tin bucket and pouring the coffee/water mixture through a cloth filter. We were then presented with certificates of Cuban culinary certification. I don't think these work in Cook County.

We had to take an alternate, winding route to and from this paladar because the main highway was closed. Jorge, our driver, skillfully navigated narrow roads through the hills and led us to Ernest Hemingway's Cuba estate, where he lived from 1939-1961. When he fled the compound for the second time, he literally (haha) walked away and left everything in its place down to the liquor on his sidebar and the picked lizard above his toilet that he killed in defense of one of his cats. This brought our Hemingway roadtrip to an end and then it was back to Havana to regroup and reclaim our fourth pilgrim.

After a rest and cooling off, we ventured out again to find Jorge admiring a 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air parked in front of our hotel. To our great surprise, this would be our escort vehicle to an auto shop and to our dinner. The auto shop was a private business (rare in Cuba) started by an owner whose passion was to restore old vehicles, especially Chevys, that once restored, he put on the road as taxis. We spoke with the manager who was very enthusiastic about the work of the operation, both in terms of the quality of the cars they restored as well as in pride that they were able to provide jobs for others in the shop as well as the taxi drivers. This shop was visited by John Kerry as well as Michelle Obama along with many other state governors and political leaders. Finally, we were whisked away in the Bel Air to dinner at La Guarida, Havana's earliest paladar. It opened in 1996 following being used in the filming of an Oscar-nominated film called Strawberries and Chocolate. We were again treated to a feast, though it was becoming increasingly obvious to us that the level of our dining experiences was not anything like the reality of a typical Cuban. The paladar was located in what would have been a palatial residence in the 1920s that, today, has been divided up into housing for over 50 families. Squalor and extravagance were housed in the same massive structure. After dinner, we ran into the crowd from Universal Pictures again, who were living it up. A climb to the rooftop was humbling. Here, in Central Havana, we were surrounded by thousands of people in cramped, crumbling apartments, inevitably listening to the clinking glasses and excesses of those experienceing gaiety in a luxurious restaurant plopped right in the middle of their neighborhood and knowing they would earn less in a month than many of these visitors were spending on a meal.

So, we leave Havana with mixed emotions. Sad that the door of shared experiences between Cubans and Americans may be becoming more difficult pending a Friday announcement from the White House. Happy that we have been able to walk the streets of a place filled with such joyful, trusting, and talented people whose lives have been forever impacted by politicians who can't get along. Sad that we didn't experience the daily life of a typical Cuban. We will leave further reflection to our final blog in Miami after we have experienced other areas of Cuba. Tomorrow we are off to the Bay of Pigs and to Cienfuego. Internet access is unlikely, so though we will do our best and continue to write each day, it may be a few days before you hear from us again.

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