Several years ago I met a young woman about to travel outside the country for the first time. She had so many doubts about what she would find on the other side that she asked those who had already “crossed the pond” about even the smallest details. She wanted to know if she should take a coat or short sleeved clothes for the summer in Europe and if, with her slight knowledge of English, she would be able to be understood. She inquired about names, places and even flavors, as one of her principle fears centered around whether she would like the food over there. She feared, basically, that she would not find on her plate the rice and beans she was used to eating every day.
When she confessed this to me I wanted to laugh, but then I realized the awkward situation that a break in her dietary routine represented for her. Since childhood she’d been accustomed to that Creole combination and the thought of finding herself in front of a plate of vegetables seemed like a sacrilege. She was worried about having to eat just broccoli or spinach, as she had seen in some movies, and about going for more than a month without black beans and rice, which we call “Moors and Christians.” Her distrust reached the point to where she boarded the plane with her luggage loaded up with several pounds of her inseparable legumes and daily grain. She never returned from that trip because she settled in Northern Italy, apparently finding herself enchanted with the flavor of the place.
The impoverishment of our culinary culture, due to the chronic crisis in which we live, has gotten to the point where our palates experience barely a dozen flavors. The “proteins” that show up on Cuban plates are those contained in a hot dog, a slice of turkey hash, or a piece of beef liver. These products have the most affordable prices at the convertible peso stores and are imported, for the most part, from the country to the north so often mentioned in political slogans. Even pork has become unattainable and, in my neighborhood, when eggs are for sale there’s a joy as if it were the advent of the Three Wise Men themselves. The repetitive mix of rice and beans is also disappearing due to agricultural disaster, drought, and the dysfunctional nationalization of our fields. Now we have to fork over double and even triple the cash to enjoy that congrí — black beans and rice — for which my friend was about to abort her trip to Europe.