Recession soup

by Ari LeVaux

While much attention has recently been focused on the economic stimulus package, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act has quietly been working its way through Congress. Introduced by Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., this bill would allow Americans to travel to Cuba without restriction for the first time since 1963.

I went to Cuba in 2003, on a special permit to lead a group of sustainable agriculture students. We examined how Cuba’s agricultural system responded to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Back in the 1960s, Cuba had more tractors per capita than any country in the world. These tractors powered a highly chemical-intensive agriculture system that produced mostly sugarcane to feed the Soviet sweet tooth (and rum tooth) in exchange for fertilizer, fuel, wheat and other commodities. When the U.S.S.R. tanked, Cuba’s tractors ran out of gas, and the nation had to convert to a diversified and largely organic agriculture system, quickly.

We visited urban farms, agriculture cooperatives, alternative energy research facilities, worm ranches, community gardens, farmers markets, cane fields, and many other places of agricultural interest. Cuban ingenuity is inspiring, and good things were happening wherever people had the freedom and tools to grow food. We had a tremendous experience, with many positive and constructive interactions.

The educational permit we traveled on was issued for two years, but soon after our first trip President Bush tightened the restrictions on travel to Cuba, and our permit was cancelled. Congress then introduced a bill to ease these restrictions, which Bush vetoed.

I think Obama will sign a version of the new bill, having campaigned on bold promises to ease the embargo, including the travel restrictions. His win in Florida shows that the growing younger generation of Cuban Americans doesn’t share the bitterness of their grandparents toward Castro and the revolution, and supports a forward-looking policy.

I agree. The embargo has made life unnecessarily difficult for Cubans, and hasn’t resulted in regime change. In fact, it has probably strengthened the government, and allowed some questionable actions to be justified in the name of survival.

For example, many Cuban resorts and tourist spots only cater to wealthy foreigners, while barring Cuban citizens (except the workers). This is, arguably, a result of the embargo, as the government protects these places as economic engines with which to generate foreign capital. This capital, desperately needed thanks to the meddling of Cuba’s nearest neighbor, has helped Cuba pass the United States in key statistics like infant surival, literacy, doctors per capita and life expectancy.

While the exclusivity of Cuban resorts proves a moral paradox to some, others, like the aptly named James Suckling, European editor of Cigar Aficionado, don’t appear concerned. On the possibility of U.S. travel to Cuba, he reported recently in his blog: “‘Just think of it,’ my friend said, as we were having a lunch of lobster and shrimp while drinking delicious chilled whites from Marques de Murrieta, the excellent Spanish winery, on a gorgeous beach about 30 minutes from the marina. ‘You could leave from Miami in your cigarette boat in the morning, be here in two hours for lunch, smoke a cigar, and then drive back.’

“That sounds like paradise to me,” Mr. Suckling added.

Meals like this on the island are rare these days. We were traveling largely in un-touristy areas, where the fare was geared toward sustenance rather than luxury. Shrimp and lobster were not on the menu. Pork was a luxury. The food was boring, bland and basic.

But children are guaranteed a quart of milk every day (often powdered), and the new farms are injecting lots of fresh vegetables into the national diet. And, for what it’s worth, everyone had plenty of cigars. I’ll never forget seeing a street sweeper do his work while puffing a fat stogie.

The Spanish wine sipped by Mr. Suckling is a reminder of the close links between Spain and Cuba, which remain despite U.S. objections. And while most Cubans don’t drink Spanish wine, they might be able to scratch up a shot or two of sherry, which really helps a certain Spanish-influenced garlic soup I learned how to make from a book called Cook Cuban, written by three brothers-in-law who call themselves “Three Guys from Miami.”

This spectacular soup is made with simple ingredients that are available even when times are tough – like, say, during a 46-year embargo, or when the world teeters on the brink of global depression.

Break six slices of white bread, or the equivalent amount from a baguette, and sauté the bread chunks in olive oil until they begin to brown. Stir in 12 cloves of garlic, minced, and sauté for another minute – just long enough to cook the garlic slightly. Mash the garlic and the bread together with a spoon.

Add one 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes (or the equivalent amount frozen from last year’s garden), one teaspoon paprika, one bay leaf, four cups chicken stock, and half a cup of sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Separate 6 eggs and add 3 tablespoons of the hot broth to the egg yolks, beating constantly, to temper them. Add egg yolks to the broth and whisk in rapidly until smooth.

Now quickly whisk in the unbeaten egg whites until mixed completely. Bring the soup to a boil and then remove from heat. Garnish with parsley and serve.

This soup is so buoyant it practically floats off the spoon, so tasty you better not serve it too hot or your guests will burn their mouths, helpless to slow their savory slurps.

Clearly, the fact that our closest overseas neighbor remains a communist holdout that we were unable to topple is annoying to many Americans, who are maddened that Castro has won. But if U.S. citizens can travel to Iran and North Korea, it’s hard to justify a ban on travel to Cuba.

If we were allowed to mix, maybe American ideals like freedom to speak, organize and protest would gain traction in Cuba. And having weathered tough economic times, thanks partly to us, for years, Cuba now has some valuable things to teach us about belt-tightening and thrift, and some great recipes too. •