Grateful For Turkeys and Potatoes in Cuba

 My purple sweet potatoes, a skinny Cuban turkey, and black market potatoes.

My purple sweet potatoes, a skinny Cuban turkey, and black market potatoes.

I started prepping for Thanksgiving early — in June. About half a year ago, a friend of mine told me she had a relative who’d managed to get her hands on some turkeys. Though I didn’t ask for too many details because I’ve learned that it’s unwise to do so, I imagine someone had smuggled them out of a state-owned farm and sold them to this relative.

One afternoon, my friend delivered the turkey. Though clean and plucked, the carcass, at ten pounds, was quite a bit more slender than the Butterballs I was used to in the U.S. Nevertheless, I was grateful that I wouldn’t worry come November. Another hard-to-find item, potatoes, appeared on my doorstep one afternoon, carried in the backpack of a black market vendor. Other side dishes aren’t proving to be so difficult; lots of autumn-like foods populate the stands at the agros (farmers’ markets) almost year round in Cuba, including calabazas (a type of butternut squash), boniatos (sweet potatoes), and habichuelas (string beans). 

We have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, though it may not seem like it to those who are recovering from the U.S. election. But from afar, living on a Caribbean island, I see many Cubans who have not changed their opinion about the U.S. despite the result. Many still want to visit and live in the U.S., because Americans have all kinds of foods and material comforts that Cubans struggle for — turkeys and potatoes included. Beyond that, Cubans — and many people around the world — still yearn for the political and social freedom that we Americans sometimes take for granted. 

 Pollo Bell, one of the rare quasi-food food restaurants in Havana, and the scene of an encounter with Americans. 

Pollo Bell, one of the rare quasi-food food restaurants in Havana, and the scene of an encounter with Americans. 

I'm not going to lie; It’s been a difficult week and a half. I’ve spent days in my sweats. In the immediate day or two after the election, I made a tray of brownies and demolished three-quarters of the them, leaving a few for the kids. At a recent casual gathering, I sought out French fries and inhaled one after another until they were all gone. I went to Pollo Bell, the closest thing that Cuba has to a fast food restaurant, and ate a big basket of fried chicken wings that, in a Cuban twist, came sprinkled with banana chips. A group of Americans happened to be sitting in a booth at Pollo Bell. One told me that he’d voted for Trump and launched into how he liked his foreign policy. Since the election, I’d read about confrontations at restaurants around the U.S. between people of opposing political positions: waiters writing hate notes, diners being denied service. I envisioned plates of food hurled across dining rooms. Oh no, I thought. It could happen here. To avoid an international incident, I finished my chicken and got out of there as fast as possible. 

What also gives me hope is that I’ve learned something about myself in the last week. I never thought I had this reserve of emotion for my country. Another American friend of mine who lives here and I have been sharing with a Cuban friend our frustration and sadness over the last week. Our Cuban friend’s reaction to our reaction was telling. “I am surprised that you care so much about your country,” he said. He and so many other Cubans are apathetic and jaded after the same family having been in power for almost 60 years in Cuba. 

The other thing that’s been keeping me sane is that in Cuba, the news and the fallout is not an all-consuming affair. We don’t have CNN, Fox News, or any other American channels on our boxy old television with a bunny-eared antenna that beams four Cuban channels. Talk show hosts on the radio have been debating the benefits of pilates and spinning classes. The election results barely made the headline of Granma, the one daily newspaper in Cuba. (That’s not to say that Cubans don’t care about the election. It’s the lack of freedom of press that contributes to this vacuum of news, for which I am grateful during just this particular moment.) 

 If only I could superimpose this picture of a burger I made over the image of a certain who's been making a lot of headlines lately ...  

If only I could superimpose this picture of a burger I made over the image of a certain who's been making a lot of headlines lately ...  

But yet, the internet -- a rare luxury in Cuba -- has enabled me to pursue an unhealthy obsession with the news. Unfortunately, and ironically, our very unstable internet connection has been working better than usual. In my hours of trolling the internet looking for reasons for what has happened, I found a handy program that replaces Trump's image with a picture of a hamburger. Not long after I found that software, I realized it was time to log off. 

And as I done in the past when I’ve faced previous setbacks, I go to the kitchen. I’ve got a lot of cooking ahead of me: a bake sale at my daughter’s school later today, a dinner party over the weekend, and of course, Thanksgiving. For those of you who are suffering, I highly recommend taking on lots of engagements involving food. Escape by peeling, chopping, and grating. Take out that cleaver and pound and smash as much as you need to. Blend stuff into smooth, digestible bits. It’s cathartic. Know that there will be a time when it’s necessary to be engaged, but that doesn’t have to be now. 

Here and here are a couple of links to some of my favorite fall recipes that I’ve prepared so far, to get you inspired. And once we’ve cleared our heads, I’ll be back to deal with Thanksgiving.