Mariana’s Havana

By Christopher Hirsheimer

Published on June 14, 2007

The Cuban night is warm, soft, and dark—really dark. Electricity can be capricious in Havana, and tonight, our first night here, as Maria and I walk down calle 21 in the Vedado district, the heart of the city, there are no street lights. Strangler fig trees line the street, their big roots heaving up the concrete and buckling the sidewalks, so we walk smack in the middle of the road, avoiding the potholes.

Even though more than two million people live here now, there's no traffic to worry about—no cars at all, in fact, except for a few that are parked, or abandoned and cannibalized for parts. Cuban jazz floats down from an upstairs window, two dogs bark back and forth, and the sound of women laughing mixes with the clatter of dishes. We pass opulent mansions, almost a century old, hiding behind wild, derelict gardens; the windows glow with the blue murky light of fluorescent tubes and television screens.

We pass the hulk of a '54 Dodge, with two men holding up its heavy hood while they shine their weak flashlights into the engine. The darkness and aura of neglect here has left us jumpy, so we cautiously call over to them in Spanish and ask directions to Le Chansonnier, a neighborhood paladar—a privately run home-restaurant. The men are gracious: One of them insists on leading us through the dark streets, down an unmarked path to a lovely tall, narrow house set in the middle of a garden—our restaurant. We choose an old lace-covered table on the veranda and, as we sip our first mojitos of the trip—all rum, sugar, lime, and mint—our apprehensions begin to vanish. We order conejo en salsa sabrosa, rabbit in a piquant sauce; and pollo asado en cazuela, roasted chicken with mushroom sauce. When they arrive straight from the tiny home kitchen and we savor these first true tastes of Cuba, Havana works its magic, and we slide under its spell.

Mariana Rodriguez Alvarez opens one of her heavy double front doors on calle F and peers out through the wrought iron gate. We have come in search of real Cuban food and culture—but I know, as we wait expectantly on the deep porch, that we're hoping for more. Much more. When Mariana recognizes us, her pale blue eyes light up and she swings the gate open. Maria Millan, producer of this story, and her artist husband, Prudencio Irazabal—both Spanish—had first visited Havana in 1993. It was the grimmest year of Cuba's "Special Period," when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians, who had their own problems at home, pulled out of Cuba, taking their tanks and massive subsidies with them. The results were catastrophic, as most of Cuba's trade had been with the Soviet Bloc. At the same time, the world market price for sugar, which accounted for most of Cuba's export earnings, plummeted. Utilities and services stopped, factories had to be abandoned. There was little running water or electricity, and food was scarce. It was a difficult time for everyone, even tourists like Maria and Prudencio, so they turned to Mariana, the grandmother of a close friend in New York. Mariana took them into her home and shared what little she had. Strong friendships are forged in such hard times.

Today, Mariana welcomes us with the same warmth she had accorded Maria and Prudencio. We hug and kiss, and walk through the doors into her world. To us, the place looks stopped in time—as things often do in Cuba. Light leaks through the tall shuttered windows that keep the room cool, dim, and dreamlike. A chandelier hangs from the 18-foot ceiling, and where 20 tiny flame-shaped bulbs once glowed, a single 40-watt fluorescent bulb forced into an adapted socket tips the elegant fixture to one side. We feel like we are underwater in the greenish light.

Four white rocking chairs sway back and forth as Mariana brushes by them, and a tasseled midnight-blue curtain billows in a doorway. We sit down and rock and talk. When the conversation, inevitably, turns to food, Mariana leans forward in her chair. "We live in a golden land," she says proudly. "Plant a seed and a tree will grow in three days. When things were not so difficult and food was more abundant, we ate very well." Losing herself in her memories, she recites a litany of old Cuban dishes: pastel de pollo con masa real, chicken simmered in a sauce of bitter orange juice with olives, raisins, and almonds, then encased in a flaky crust; lechon asado, roast suckling pig; dulce de leche, a sweet milk custard flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. We know in an instant that we've come to the right place.

In 1958, on the eve of Castro's coup, Mariana recalls, she and her husband, Wilfredo Angulo, lived with their twin sons Emilio and Wilfredo in the village of Ranchuelo, 62 miles east of Havana, on the island's northern coast. Although part of Cuba's upper middle class—they owned and operated a concrete factory and a general store, and raised cattle on their ranch in the nearby countryside—they shared Castro's new ideology and believed that balancing the inequities between the very rich and the very poor was the hope of their country. In the years after the revolution, some of their family and many of their neighbors fled to America. Mariana's brother still lives in Florida. But the Angulo family stayed and supported Castro. They turned all their holdings over to the government, and then, as the supreme gesture, gave their hacienda to the people for a small hospital and moved their family to Havana. Before his death, Wilfredo was an important member of the party, so they were given this house on calle F, which Mariana has now divided into four apartments for her sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Falling out of her reverie, Mariana is all hostess, on her feet, heading to the kitchen. She returns carrying a tray of small porcelain cups and saucers filled with a dark, rich brew. We add spoonfuls of coarse cane sugar and drink in the essence of Cuba: coffee and sugar. Then she invites us to stay with her—insists—thinking that she's offering us a room; we know that she's offering us a way into the Cuban kitchen. We leave the luxury of the Hotel Nacional and move into a bedroom off her front parlor, behind the midnight blue curtain: a high-ceilinged and pretty room, with two baroque beds and a window overlooking an inner courtyard. When there is water, in the vintage bathroom, it's cold. So we shiver through showers for the rest of the week. But already we love being in the heart of this warm Cuban family and we immerse ourselves in their daily life, hoping that in some real-life exchange we can better understand this blood feud between Castro and Washington. As for me, I just want to clear my head of all the rhetoric from both sides.

Each morning we walk down the wide hallway to the kitchen, the center of the household. Here, though dampness creeps up the walls, crumbling the plaster and turning the paint a poisonous green, a certain decorum is preserved. The kitchen table, draped in plastic, is always simply but correctly set. And Magdelena Napoles, who comes every day to help with the housework, hovers, pouring us cup after tiny cup of that good Cuban coffee. "The ground coffee they sell in the bodegas is not pure," Mariana tells us. "It's cut with split peas to make it go further. I like mine dark, but not bitter, so I buy the beans and roast them myself."

One morning, Magdelena walks into the kitchen with a basket of the holy trinity of Cuban cooking: yucca (Manihot esculenta), also known as cassava, a starchy potatoey root with barklike skin; yellow malanga (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), and long like a yam, with a dark, shaggy skin; and boniato (Ipomoea batatas), the white Cuban sweet potato. With the yucca and the boniato, Magdelena wants to make us a treat: buñuelos—Cuban fritters. We watch her knead a dough of the vegetables, boiled and mashed until smooth. Then she oils her hands, pinches off a piece of dough, rolls it into a coil, and twists it like a little ribbon. She fills trays with the rolls, then moves to the stove where she drops them, a few at a time, into a large cast-iron skillet of boiling oil. We eat them as fast as she makes them, dipping each fried curl into a sugary cinnamon syrup. Javier Serrano, Mariana's grandson-in-law, shows up, and after his fifth buñuelo proclaims them "the best buñuelos I've had in years". In truth they are the only buñuelos he's had in years, because until recently, the highly caloric yucca and malanga couldn't be wasted on such luxuries.

All day long, people knock at Mariana's front door, discreetly offering to sell food that they have carried in from the countryside—a few fresh eggs wrapped in a cloth, a small home-smoked ham, a jar of thick guava marmalade, a big handful of long green beans tied together with string. These offerings are part of a benign black market that seems to serve everyone. Free enterprise is still illegal; there are often policemen on street corners, and every block has the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution's "selected" watchman, who keeps track of comings and goings, ensuring the "safety" of the neighborhood. But Cubans are practical, with a strong sense of irony and a deep tolerance for inconsistency: They know when to turn a blind eye.

Every day, Mariana cooks beans for lunch; long-simmered, silky black beans with pieces of spicy chorizo and a golden sofrito of onions, peppers, and garlic swirled in near the end of cooking; or tender white beans in a pale-rose broth with shreds of a smoky country ham. One day, when we find some dried garbanzos, Mariana is thrilled; she has not seen them in the market for two years. After soaking them overnight, she rinses them three times and cooks them in her old pressure cooker with potatoes and malanga. For us she goes all out, adding a ham bone, some chorizo, and a small piece of salt pork.

I notice an old photograph hanging in the hallway next to a portrait of Che Guevara. In the faded black-and-white image, a proud, robust woman in the prime of life stands at the door of a grand house. As I look closer, I recognize a younger, more prosperous Mariana; when I ask her about it, she walks up close, raises her bifocals, purses her lips, and gives a little shrug. "Oh, I am a shadow of my former self," she says unsentimentally. Yet to me, she seems anything but a shadow: She's the heart of this home, tirelessly arranging and settling family matters. All day long, her family passes under her windows as they walk down the alley to their apartments behind. I hear a young woman's voice call "Nonna!" Mariana answers "Digame"—tell me—coming to the window and resting her elbows on the sill. It's Guaiquiria, her 30-year-old granddaughter. Mariana listens for a while, offers some advice, then coos to her great-granddaughter, Gabriella, in a baby carriage below.

Emilio, Mariana's middle-aged son, who has returned home to live since getting divorced, works for the government as an aeronautic engineering computer technician. Mariana proudly tells us: "Emilio does well. His monthly salary is 300 pesos [$14]. Of course, there are many benefits," she continues. "He receives laundry soap, which is very hard to find in the market, and ration books for flour and sugar. And, oh yes," she remembers, "they give him two sweaters a year." We try to mask our disbelief. Fourteen dollars a month! True, everyone's basic needs—housing, education, health care—are provided for by the government, but still, 300 pesos can't go very far.

No wonder the black market, where Cubans buy with American dollars (sent by relatives in the U.S. or earned from tourists), is flourishing. In 1994, with an estimated 300 million U. S. dollars circulating illegally, Castro, hungry for hard currency, opened diplotiendas, or dollar stores—large, well-stocked supermarkets where Cubans can buy food that they have only dreamed of for the past 40 years. All they need is a bankroll of American bills; the government pragmatically overlooks their source.

Maria and I plan a shopping expedition, aiming to stock Mariana's pantry and fill up her ancient Gibson refrigerator. On a breezy afternoon, the three of us hail a taxi, a baby-blue 1950 Chevrolet Deluxe, and sail along the Malecon, the broad boulevard that hugs the Bay of Havana. Waves crash over the crumbling seawall and onto the curving street, where, for years, they've weathered the arches and columns of the pastel buildings. This feels strangely familiar, and I realize it's the Havana I've seen in every movie.

The dollar store is in the tony Miramar district. Heavy curtains cover the market's large plate-glass windows to hide the riches inside. Shoppers are sized up for trouble as they enter, and watched by guards stationed at the end of each aisle. Mariana has only been here once before, and she wanders the aisles, overwhelmed and a little confused. I can only imagine what she is thinking, surrounded by all this bounty when right outside people are struggling just to get by. But Maria and I quickly push our cart through the market, filling it with flank steaks, coffee, Spanish rice, jars of fat green olives, bottles of extra-virgin olive oil. The prices are high even by New York standards. We lose Mariana for a while, then find her standing in the middle of an aisle, clutching her purse in front of her with both hands, as if she's trying to hold onto something that feels real. We had the best intentions, but seeing her there, I feel guilty and a little ashamed of my insensitivity. At the checkout counter, the bill is the equivalent of her son's yearly salary; we hide it from her. Mariana regains her composure. She is a practical woman, with a family to feed.

On December 4th, the Feast of Santa Barbara, patron saint of those who seek shelter from a storm, we are all invited to dinner at the home of Eduardo Hoyos, in a more modest area of the Vedado. Two tall Norfolk pines and a hedge of yellow-spotted croton shield the house from the busy street. Eduardo, is a respected ceramist, who, since his wife died, spends most of the day writing sad poetry in his darkened living room. Maria and I arrive early in the morning to offer our help (and to see what's cooking). We ask about traditional holiday food, and Eduardo describes pierna de puerco asada, a whole fresh ham rubbed with garlic and basted with bitter orange juice. "That roast could take five hours to cook," he reminisces, "but we didn't care if it roasted all day! We would talk and laugh and drink ice-cold beer until it was ready". We like the sound of this, and offer to supply a fresh ham and lots of cold beer. We squeeze into his tiny car and drive to the neighborhood peso market. Eduardo waits in the car, preferring not to be seen with tourists, and we enter the open-air market, walking past stalls piled with giant papayas, facet-cut to reveal orange flesh and pearly black seeds; malanga and yucca stacked like wood; a few strands of young garlic shoots; and mountains of green plantains. Luckily we find the butcher, and the market's only whole fresh ham—all 18 pounds of it—and lug the beast victoriously out to the car. Eduardo breaks into a big, wide smile.

Ofelia Farres, who cooked for Eduardo in better days, has returned to prepare the feast. She comes out of the kitchen to greet us, swaying on badly bowed legs, her feet sliding over the edges of broken sandals, a sagging red apron with jaunty flowers covering her modest skirt. Stepping into the kitchen, we see its impoverished state. Eduardo does not cook much; there's only one carving knife and a few battered aluminum pots. But Ofelia is a master. She helps Eduardo rub the ham with garlic, then slides it quickly into the oven. She makes picadillo, a spicy ground beef simmered with tomatoes, peppers, capers, and cumin, on a back burner. With a small pestle, Ofelia mashes boiled potatoes and then, using the pestle as a whisk, beats in eggs and sprigs of fresh parsley. She wraps patties of potato puree around spoonfuls of picadillo, then rolls each patty in finely crushed breadcrumbs.

As Maria and I peel and chop under Ofelia's gentle direction, her story unfolds. Though her brother left Havana in 1961 and now lives in New York, she stayed. "I had 11 dogs who are my family," she explains. "How could I abandon them to certain death? Sometimes dogs are better than people." When the rich—about 150,000 of them—"flew away" after the Revolution, she recalls, they left their homes in the care of their servants, thinking that Castro could only last a few weeks. "Of course," she adds, "that was in the '60s, and you should see those houses now. There are goats grazing in the gardens! Goats!" Her exclamation seems to express both horror and delight.

We drink the cold beer as the ham roasts and Ofelia continues to work miracles in that spare kitchen, frying spoonfuls of malanga batter into delicate, crisp, golden fritters. When we leave that night, Eduardo is leaning back on two legs of his chair, savoring a cigar and smiling.

On our last day in Havana, we all cook lunch together in Mariana's kitchen. Emilio sorts through the rice at the kitchen table; in the inner courtyard Magdelena cuts papaya to macerate all morning in a cold sugar syrup spiked with vanilla; Mariana shreds slowly simmered flank steak for a classic ropa vieja. The rest of us move a table into the wide, sunny hallway and cover it with a plastic lace cloth. We set the table with piles of pretty mismatched dishes and worn silverware. Finally, we carry out the food and take our seats. I ask everyone to wait just a minute before eating while I take a picture to help us all remember this wonderful moment. I take the picture, but I don't really need it. I'll never forget the image of Mariana, so dignified in a sky-blue blouse, sitting at the head of the table, looking at me with such directness, surrounded by her family.

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