Near the back entrance of our home is a little bodega where people line up every morning. It’s a simple open-air storefront that sells just one item: bread. Baked in central, government-run bakeries every morning, it is distributed every day across the island. Cubans are entitled to one piece of bread every day. It’s quite a feat, given that there are the shortages of almost everything else and it’s difficult to grow wheat in a Caribbean climate. Much, if not all, of the wheat is imported. The daily bread is part of the food rationing system that began not long after the Cuban Revolution and still exists today.
Besides the one-piece-per-day allotment, Cubans can also buy additional buns at the “free market” price of 1 Cuban peso (about 4 cents) each. That’s the price for my family and me, since we’re neither Cubans nor permanent residents and therefore don’t qualify for rations. I sent my two-year-old son to buy bread one day and here he is at the stand:
The young man behind the counter handed my son the pan sauve (soft bread), weighing about three grams. Perfect for a hamburger slider, was my first thought, but then I remembered how difficult it is to find ground beef. My son took a bite and smacked his lips in approval. I gave it a taste. I was surprised to find that it was fairly edible, a little like Wonder Bread in its texture and flavor.
When I relayed my impression to local friends, though, they shook their heads. It can be okay sometimes, they said, but the quality varies from bodega to bodega, depending on what ingredient the state-employed bakers have left out that day, siphoning it for their own consumption (because state salaries are so low). And cleanliness is another issue. One friend told me that she harbors a memory from years ago that keeps her from going back — one day she bit into a bun to find a surprise filling: a dead cockroach.
As I was leaving my house one morning, I confirmed that cockroaches are indeed a problem. Just by coincidence, at the same moment I was going past the stand, I noticed a customer suddenly take off one of his flip-flops and toss it to the shopkeeper, who then smacked and killed an enormous cockroach that was scampering up the wall. After marveling at the extraordinary moment of community spirit— I couldn’t imagine giving up my shoe for the same purpose — I decided that my bread maker in our kitchen would soon be put to use.