My grandmother told me about it with the same rapture that, decades earlier, her parents had spoken of the old dream of El Dorado. She divulged that its mass was between yellow and orange, dry at first bite but pleasant and soft once inside the mouth. Her favorite game consisted of explaining the canistel fruit to me, as there is nothing more difficult than understanding the taste of something you’ve never tried. “Ana, what does it taste like?” I asked, because only a comparison would help me capture the aroma of this fruit that was missing from my life. “Like a mamey, but richer,” was the laconic phrase she managed to dig up before falling silent.
Many of my generation knew certain flavors by hearsay, described by those whose memories have stored the tempting taste of the loquat, the star apple, the marañón or cashew apple, and the guava. This ability to activate our taste buds with something we had never chewed helped us during the hardest years of the Special Period.* On the rusted iron bunk at the student hostel in Alquizar, I regaled a group of girls with what these fruits—which they had never heard of or tried—were like. The story was repeated weekly in an extemporaneous discussion group, where the principle themes were “sex and food,” the latter being the true obsession of all the fifteen year old girls gathered there.
Time passed and a week ago my mother showed up at the house with three canistels. She had bought them from a farmer for more than a full day’s wages. I thought first of Ana, who died more than twenty years ago and who, in the last decades of her life, never saw the golden roundness she so much longed for. Teo took the first bite and made a rare gesture before confirming, “It’s like a mamey.” Then he went back to his room without seeing the indecision on my face. To try it or not to try it? And what if it’s not like what I’d been told? Happily, it turned out to be the equal of that canistel which—while we both salivated—my grandmother had regaled me with.
Special Period: The years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its financial support for Cuba. It was named by Fidel Castro as “A Special Period in a Time of Peace.”