The Pursuit of a Decent Meal

Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal, by Hanna Garth (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Maggie Dickinson, Guttman Community College – CUNY

Hanna Garth’s ethnography, Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal, opens with the story of Amalia, a Cuban woman living in Santiago de Cuba searching for fresh corn to make hallacas, a traditional Cuban dish similar to tamales. Garth traces Amalia’s attempts to locate the corn, crossing back and forth across the city to various vendors. Amalia’s fruitless attempts to locate the main ingredient for this traditional dish, her frustration, and her nostalgia open up a window into what Garth terms the politics of adequacy.

Food in Cuba asks new questions about the social, emotional and political dimensions of food security. Looking closely at food acquisition strategies in a country where socialist welfare programs have eliminated hunger, Garth uncovers the time, effort and energy Cubans exert to put a decent meal on the table in a strained post-Soviet food system. The effort that Cubans put forth to obtain the makings of traditional Cuban meals speaks to the importance of food in the maintenance of social relations within the household and for what it means to be Cuban. In doing so, she expands our understanding of food security, showing that it must mean more than simply access to sufficient nutrients for survival. Instead, her focus on the politics of adequacy points our attention to food systems—the systems of provisioning that people access in order to procure the food they need for their households. Garth proposes a set of questions that are not just about the right to food, but also the right to meaningful food – something that is increasingly challenging in Cuba and elsewhere given the expansion of a globalized food system.

Garth’s method of “deep hanging out” is at the heart of her detailed accounts of how relations of race, class, gender and sexuality affect food acquisition. She spent twelve to eighteen hours a day, over a span of three weeks to a month each, with twenty-two different families living in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city. Her theoretical work is driven by and derived from detailed descriptions of everyday life—the mundane struggles to put together a meal, borne largely by women. Her methodical descriptions of daily eating and shopping habits bring to life, in particular, the specific ways that darker-skinned Cubans and lower income Cubans struggle eat well.

The ration system, established in Cuba during the 1960s, ensures that all Cubans have access to basic necessities at no cost, but these rations cannot provide all the ingredients for a decent meal and do not fully provision a household. In the wake of the Special Period, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, access to consumer goods and basic foods has become far more challenging for Cubans. Darker-skinned Cubans, who must cope with the added stress of racial discrimination in their daily quests for food, and lower-income Cubans, who do not have access to the resources to purchase food on the black market or through other channels, make do with lower quality foods that often do not fulfill cultural expectations of a decent Cuban meal. Further, Garth follows queer households, who struggle because they do not have the same kind of social and familial networks that are so important for food acquisition and provisioning.

What emerges is a picture of meal-making that is deeply social. Garth demonstrates that food acquisition and eating are embodied forms of political subject-making. Struggles to make a proper Cuban meal evoke a strongly held national identity, first formed in the independence period. Garth sets the everyday struggles to produce a proper Cuban meal in historical context through the nostalgic reflections of the people she spends time with. Many of them experienced the Socialist revolution as a period of abundance. This collective alimentary abundance was an important aspect of the development of a shared commitment to socialist principles and the socialist project.

The Special Period and its aftermath have produced a fraught relationship between Cubans, the dinner table, and the state—a state which can no longer provide enough of the kinds of food people need to eat in ways that they feel are proper. Documenting the emergence of reliance on black market foods, sometimes pilfered from the state, Garth teases out the complicated relationships Cubans have to the fraying social safety net and how this affects what it means to be Cuban. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women have shouldered the bulk of these transitions, intensifying their labors of food acquisition and preparation that they see as central to maintaining desired social relationships within the Cuban household.

Increasingly, Cubans rely on social networks to fill the gaps. Many worry that this undermines the socialist ideal of the “New Man”—a person who “curtails individual desires for the needs of the collective” (p. 26). These transitions are deeply felt by the people Garth writes about. In the final chapters, she powerfully illustrates how breakdowns in the food system manifest as social and emotional breakdowns among Santiagueros who see no end to the daily struggles they face.

By turning our attention to food acquisition, Garth’s ethnography raises new questions about the kind of systems that people rely upon to produce enough or sufficient food. Cubans remain committed to the socialist project of ensuring that no one goes hungry. And yet, Cuba’s position in the global capitalist food economy has strained that project in ways that are shifting social relations in Cuban households and communities. Garth demonstrates how diverse people access these systems differently, as they each attempt to uphold and enact a Cuban identity rooted in food and eating habits.  In doing so, she asks us to consider the full breadth of the needs and desires of Cubans – not just for enough food, but for food that has and creates meaning for them.