While many scholars have examined the idea of consumption preferences, also known as taste, in capitalist contexts, they have not explored how taste manifests in socialist or communist societies. In this case study, we query the ways in which two Cuban communities express taste through food choices and consumption patterns. We find that identity influences preferences less than the prevailing discourse around Cuban cuisine suggests. In addition, patterns among subjects’ responses speak to the ways in which local custom and larger structural forces intersect in respondents' lives. Instead of simply reflecting the notion of class differentiation through consumption, our subjects reveal the significance of gender roles and individual relationships to food production in their discussions of preferences. Thus, this study demonstrates that, while food preferences appear in this resource-constrained context, taste and actuality do not always align.

Scholars recognize that preferences for certain types of cultural productions, also described as taste, are central to class formation and, by extension, identity in capitalist societies. Questions remain, however, about the applicability of taste to parts of the world where communism or socialism is central to a country’s economy. What happens in places where governments have implemented goods distribution policies to mitigate social inequalities? What meanings do citizens place on the items that they consume through monetary versus other forms of exchange, like trade? In societies where reuse and recycling dominate people’s interactions with commodities (Hill 2011), or where other forms of non-market-based exchange prevail (Abid 2019; Smith and Stenning 2006), how is taste expressed? Finally, in what ways, if any, does identity correlate with what people prefer to eat, particularly if larger structural forces limit access (Leitgeb, Schneider, and Vogl 2016)?

This essay complicates the construction of class distinctions and, by extension, identity by examining food preferences among fishers and farmers from two communities: La Picadora and Yaguajay, in Sancti Spíritus Province, central Cuba. Sancti Spíritus, while understudied by Cuban and international scholars, provides important insight into constructions of twenty-first century Cuban identity and foodways. In these communities, we see not only how the relationship between food and identity operates outside of major cosmopolitan centers, but also how residents, who live in close proximity to their food production system, reveal the significance of gender roles and individual relationships to food production in their discussions of preferences. In addition, patterns among subjects’ responses speak to the ways in which local custom and larger structural forces intersect in respondents' lives. Thus, this study demonstrates that, while food preferences appear in the resource-constrained context of central Cuba, Cubans also struggle to access the foods that they want to eat.

Throughout most of its history, Sancti Spíritus Province was known for its role in the production of sugarcane for international markets. After the 1959 Revolution, residents continued to work in sugar mills or grow sugarcane for export until the early 2000s, when government-controlled production of sugar slowed (Alvarez 2019; Pollitt 2004). As a result, our first interview location, La Picadora, shifted its focus from sugarcane to other crops, primarily rice, beans, coffee, and bananas. La Picadora, home to eighty-five families and 216 individuals, is a small farming community that lies four kilometers west of the town of Mayajigua in Santi Spíritus Province. Historically, the area had little tourist traffic (Oficina nacional de estadística e información n.d.), but residents recently established a small-scale agroecotourism program catering to foreigners with casas particulares (bed-and-breakfasts) and an on-site paladar (family-run restaurant) (Noronha, Vázquez Sánchez, and Rivero 2016). We lodged with local residents and observed the ways in which residents grew, acquired, prepared, and served foods. The team also visited local agricultural areas, including an apiary, state-run store, and Mayajigua’s organopónico (organic urban farm).

Figure 1:

Closed sugar mill at Playa Vitoria near Caguanes National Park.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

Figure 1:

Closed sugar mill at Playa Vitoria near Caguanes National Park.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

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Sugar mill closures in the early 2000s (Alvarez 2019; Pollitt 2004) also impacted Yaguajay, a town of almost 60,000 located in Sancti Spíritus Province along the coast of Bahía de Buena Vista. About twenty kilometers west of La Picadora, Yaguajay has a much more diversified economy, but few residents formally farm or work in tourism. The town’s proximity to water means that small-scale fishing is a common recreational activity, and is also popular among local residents as a way to augment their diet and barter with friends and neighbors. As a result, marine products tend to dominate the local diet and function as important sources of protein (Vázquez Sánchez et al. 2020). Although the government regulates commercial fishing to ensure sustainability, recreational fishing has fewer restrictions. Exceptions include bans on spiny lobster capture (Joyce 1997), and size restrictions for other species (Díaz-Asencio, Lisbet, Clausing, Chamero-Lago et al. 2019). At Yaguajay, we observed small-scale fishing, which focused mainly on pargo (mutton snapper) and typically utilized a hook and line (no pole); this technique is common practice in Cuba. A few fishers did harpoon fishing, which requires snorkel or SCUBA equipment. Many fished only from shore, and while a few owned boats, two noted that their boats were motor-less.

Figure 2:

Pargo and a pinfish, caught with a line and hook (no pole) at Playa Victoria, near Yaguajay.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

Figure 2:

Pargo and a pinfish, caught with a line and hook (no pole) at Playa Victoria, near Yaguajay.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

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To explore the subject of Cuban food preferences, we interviewed a small number of residents of La Picadora (fourteen) and Yaguajay (ten) using a semi-structured approach with predetermined questions. José “Titi'' Rodríguez Sanchez, a delegate to the Sancti Spíritus Provincial Government and co-founder of the La Picadora Agricultural Collective, and Daily Ortegas Zuñiga, staff at Parque Nacional Caguanes in Yaguajay, coordinated interview timing and subjects’ availability. Interviews began with a discussion of the project’s goals, and participants reading and signing an interview consent form, keeping a copy of the form for themselves. Because our research relied on oral histories, it met the criteria for IRB exemption; however, in recognition of the topic’s potential sensitivity, our essay removes names to mask individual identities and protect participant anonymity. Survey questions focused on participants’ relationships with food production and consumption, including preferences, that we later tallied into tables. Our interviews also collected demographic information, including subjects’ gender (which they answered as a binary) and age, but we did not query them about race. We note that interviewees made no statements during questioning, or informal interactions, indicating differences in racial or ethnic identity.

By analyzing the responses of residents from Yaguajay and La Picadora, we find that our understandings of taste can not only include monetary-based consumer choice, but also should encompass preferential use or interactions with items not acquired through capitalist markets. In addition, we see how subjects’ food preferences are more diverse than the popular discourse about what is deemed to be “traditional” Cuban food, which local and international tastemakers promote among both foreign tourists and Cubans themselves (Dawdy 2002: 75, Garth 2013: 97). Finally, the diversity of responses highlights the importance of social roles, food access, and participation in food production for what people prefer to eat (Wright, Nancarrow, Kwok 2001: 54).

The Cuban Revolution brought forth radical changes in the country’s social organization and economic apparatus, introducing policies and ideologies designed to diminish extreme social inequalities. As a result, the revolution’s universalist, socialist principles were meant to define national identity (Gordy 2006: 384). The new government expanded educational access, nationalized industries, and attempted to improve housing. To support these changes, Cuba relied on financial support from other communist countries, most notably the Soviet Union, which purchased Cuban agricultural products at artificially inflated prices. Consumerism still existed in Cuba; however, it operated under different circumstances. The end of diplomatic relations with the United States and increasing reliance on the Soviet Union for support shifted the economy away from consumption towards production. Wages remained relatively unimportant as the government rationed consumer goods, such as clothing and food, and Cubans had limited goods to sell. This new system allowed Cubans to save money to spend when opportunities arose (Hill 2011: 8; Stainback 2018: 4).

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the Special Period, a time of significant social and economic turmoil, which forced the government to institute numerous reforms. These reforms included the country’s opening to foreign tourism and the legalization of remittances. José Luis Rodríguez argues that, through its reforms, the Cuban government hoped to create a “sustainable socialist society without abandoning the principles of solidarity that characterize it” (Rodríguez 2013: 102). Although the influx of overseas monies helped stabilize Cuba’s economy, these funds benefited Cubans unevenly (Eckstein 2006: 159; Gordy 2006: 395–397; Wilkinson 2008: 983; Stainback 2018: 5–8).

Social reforms enacted during the 1990s led to a partial return to pre-Revolution consumption practices. The arrival of foreign tourists and the legalization of remittances brought cash into the economy that bolstered state coffers and individual households. In response to an influx of monies, the government opened CUC stores where residents could buy items for American dollars or CUCs (a secondary currency created in 1994 and pegged to the American dollar), including branded clothing, hygiene items, computers, mobile phones, and televisions (Eckstein 2016: 154; Rodríguez 2013: 111). This money, however, has flowed primarily into the pockets of white Cubans in urban centers, especially Havana, who work in the tourism industry or whose relatives send monies from the United States. Access to consumer goods has led to the reemergence of materialism and social and economic inequalities that the Revolution had attempted to curtail, leaving rural residents and Afro-Cubans out of the country’s new found wealth (Gordy 2006: 395–397; Eckstein 2016: 159–160). Susan Eckstein argues that “status on the island has come to rest increasingly less on what you do, human capital based, than on dollar access or in-kind benefits obtained through who you know abroad” (Eckstein 2016: 159).

Figure 3:

Farmer working in fields in downtown Havana.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2015

Figure 3:

Farmer working in fields in downtown Havana.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2015

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As a result of the country’s economic uncertainties, Cubans have experienced a revolution in the production of food, with a return to low-petroleum farming practices, the reestablishment of polyculture, and the introduction of organopónicos in towns and cities (Koont 2007). Before the Special Period, many Havana residents had little involvement with agriculture (Premat 2012), due to prohibitions against non-ornamental plants in cities (Premat 2005) and perhaps because they associated home gardens with poverty (Altieri, Companioni, Cañizares, Murphy, et al. 1999). The food insecurity of the 1990s led the state to promote home and community gardens (Scott 1998; Altieri, et al. 1999). Scholars and food activists both inside and outside of Cuba have recognized these growing practices, and the resulting access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, as models for sustainable and accessible food systems (Buchmann 2009; Premat 2012; Leitgeb, Schneider, and Vogl 2016; Khan, Akram, Janke, Khan Qadri, et al. 2020) and alternatives to the hyper-industrialized practices of the Global North (Funes Luis García, Bourque, Pérez, and Rosset 2002; Carrasco, Acker, and Grieshop 2003; Wright 2009; Reardon and Pérez 2010). In Sowing Change, Adriana Premat documents the ways in which the Cuban government actively supported small-scale urban farming in Havana to offset the island’s continued problems with food acquisition (2012). These reforms, however, have faced many challenges. For instance, Cuba initially lacked the storage and transportation infrastructure necessary for farmers to supply agromercados (farmers markets) with produce and meat (Nelson, Momsen, and Niemeier 2010: 76). Communities that attempted to establish organopónicos also had to address issues surrounding soil quality, irrigation, and land access (Leitgeb, Schneider, and Vogl 2016: 416).

Figure 4:

Produce available at the Agromercado located at 17 and K Streets in Havana.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2015

Figure 4:

Produce available at the Agromercado located at 17 and K Streets in Havana.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2015

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Despite implementing major reforms, the Cuban government still relies on food imports to feed the country. Since the colonial period, merchants have transported a variety of foodstuffs, not only because they could not grow in a tropical climate, but also because they were integral to the colonialists’ perception of their Spanish heritage (Luzón 1998: 24 and 33; Paponnet-Cantat 2003: 16; Garth 2013: 98). With the Revolution, the Soviet Union became Cuba’s most important trading partner and introduced Eastern European cuisine, such as carne rusa (canned meats), black bread, anchovies, and borscht (Prieto Samsónov and Martínez Shvietsova 2012: 149–150; Yoss, 2012: 215 and 218). Support from the Soviet Union enabled Cuba’s food rationing system, established in 1962, which provided all citizens with la libreta, a monthly rationing card that allowed Cubans to purchase food and other items at a reduced cost in state-run stores. Hanna Garth notes that the rationing system both nationalized and homogenized Cuban cuisine, undermining locally-driven food production and potential diversity (Garth 2014: 374 fn 1). On the eve of the Special Period, between 44–57 percent of Cuban foodstuffs came from Eastern Europe (Carrasco, Acker, and Grieshop 2003: 2).

Today, imported items still comprise more than half of Cuba’s food (Botella-Rodríguez 2019: 194). For example, because most Cubans eat rice daily, they consider it one of the country’s essential crops. The centrality of rice is captured in the expression, “without rice, it’s not a meal” (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1989: 101; Garth 2020: 41 and 48). However, to meet demand, Cuba spends between $180–250 million USD annually on rice imports from countries such as Vietnam (Garth 2013: 101; Bono and Finn 2017: 7; Nova González and Figueroa Alfonso 2018: 7). The government also controls the importation of beef, primarily from Brazil and Argentina, some of which is sold to paladares. These small, family-run restaurants cater to tourists and purchase meat through state-run CUC stores (Nova González and Figueroa Alfonso 2018: 6–7; Deere and Royce 2019: 684). From 1959 until 2021, the state prohibited farmers from slaughtering cattle for meat and instead focused on milk production (Paponnet-Cantat 2003; Frank 2021). Although privately-owned and state-run farms produce milk, Cuba imports non-fat powdered milk from New Zealand and limits milk consumption to small children, pregnant women, sick people, and the elderly (Zahniser and Cooke 2015; Montagnese, Santarpia, Iavarone, Strangio, et al. 2017: 60).

In spite of Cuba’s agricultural reforms and import patterns, food access remains an issue for citizens, who struggle to feed themselves and their families (Garth 2013; Bono and Finn 2017). Dollars, often obtained through work in tourism, have allowed some to purchase food through CUC stores; however, only a small subset of white and urban residents have the type or amount of currency required to shop there (Eckstein 2006: 148–149). Women, who historically and presently do most food acquisition and preparation, spend a significant amount of time ensuring that their families have enough to eat (Garth 2020), including withholding food for themselves and moving in with relatives to pool resources (Davidson and Krull 2011: 71). Many Cubans turn to unsanctioned marketplaces to purchase or barter for food items (Anderson 2014: 102). Between 2002–2013, Cubans obtained an average of 15.65 percent of goods through informal trading systems, although that number has slowly declined over the decade (Abid 2019: 631 and 635).

Hanna Garth’s concept of “alimentary dignity” further complicates our understanding of food access by pointing to the cultural significance of eating that operates beyond food’s nutritional role (Garth 2019). Corresponding to the structural problems related to food access, Garth has documented frustrations surrounding the inability to cook what Cubans view as a “decent” meal. She argues that Cubans have internalized certain ways of eating, along with particular foods cooked in specific ways, as reflections of their identity (Garth 2019: 6). Out of necessity, her interview subjects consume foods that do not fit Cuba’s culinary heritage, such as spaghetti and pizza, which they view negatively (Garth 2019: 11–14). In addition, limited access to ingredients as a result of Cuba’s agricultural constraints and circumscribed participation in international commerce have required significant creativity or abstinence from certain foods (Garth 2013; Garth 2020).

Finally, fierce debates persist about culinary influences on Cuban cuisine today. Although Spanish traditions dominated the colonial period, Cubans have relied on Indigenous and African foods and cooking practices (Luzón, 1998: 24–25; Paponnet-Cantat 2003: 13–14; Folch 2008: 213–214). The idea of cocina criolla, or mixed cuisine, found its way into Cuba’s earliest cookbooks from the 1850s and was central to the articulation of a national identity (Dawdy 2002: 51 and 55). By the 1930s, Fernando Ortiz’s concept of transculturation used ajiaco, a stew made of legumes, viandas, and meat, as a metaphor to describe Cuba as a mixture of Indigenous, African, and European traditions (Ortiz 2014: 460–461). Interestingly, many twenty-first century scholars have criticized Ortiz’s model, which obscures the power relations among groups and allows for the persistence of systemic racism and classism (Arrizón 2002: 138; Paponnet-Cantat 2003: 11–12). For instance, leafy greens, integral to West African foodways, have mostly disappeared from Cuban cuisine, but appear in African-derived religious practices like santería (Vandebroek and Voeks 2019). Today, the racialization of food items (e.g. the cocktail known as the mulata) and paladares (e.g. El Barracón in Santiago de Cuba) reflects the marginalization of Indigenous and African populations (Arrizón 2002; Alcocer 2016).

In order to understand contemporary Cuban foodways, it is critical to engage past and present structural forces that influence access, societal norms, and cultural attitudes, which other scholars have already documented in Cuba. Both international and national policies inform what people can eat; however, proximity to food production or access to American dollars opens alternative food options, although these are not equitable. Individual food preferences operate within Cuba’s complex culinary heritage, which has been critical to the formulation of Cuban nationhood since the mid-nineteenth century. Nevertheless, we should not assume that all Cubans want to eat the same foods, or that Cubans deem all food in Cuba as “Cuban.” Cuban taste(s) depends on the experiences of individuals and the social and cultural networks that impact their lives.

Conversations with participants and observations made it clear that occupation at La Picadora and home gardening at both sites informed food preferences. We also found that, although the ages of subjects varied, the influence of location and gender eclipsed the effects of age. Thus, we highlight these two factors in the tables below.

In La Picadora and Yaguajay, small-scale farming influenced food availability and what people ate. Some participants grew food, and many spoke of their families’ histories as farmers. One of our oldest subjects, a 70-year-old male farmer from La Picadora, noted, “I always felt I was a farmer no matter what my day-to-day job was” (Subject #12, interview, May 5, 2018). Fishers did not consider themselves farmers, but they grew fruit trees to supplement their diets (Subject #23, interview, May 7, 2018). In addition, many respondents obtained food from organopónicos or bartered with family members and neighbors to supplement their home gardening.

Favorite main dishes demonstrated strong correlations with locally farmed or fished sources of protein. In fact, with the exception of beans (available on la libreta), residents infrequently purchased meat, which anchored these main dishes. No respondents from La Picadora, which lies approximately 30 kilometers inland, mentioned seafood (Table 1), while 94 percent of Yaguajay residents named pescatarian dishes as their favorites (Table 2). Conversely, 64 percent of La Picadora residents’ responses (Table 1), but no Yaguajay residents’ responses (Table 2), included pork.

Table 1:

Favorite Foods at La Picadora.1

FoodTotal MentionsMentions (Female)Mentions (Male)
pork, rice, and black beans 
chicken noodle soup 
congrí 
fried chicken, rice, and black beans 
pork, rice, black beans, and tomatoes 
pork/chicken, black or red beans, and rice 
pork liver steak, rice, and fried boniato 
rice with gravy and garlic 
spaghetti with cheese 
FoodTotal MentionsMentions (Female)Mentions (Male)
pork, rice, and black beans 
chicken noodle soup 
congrí 
fried chicken, rice, and black beans 
pork, rice, black beans, and tomatoes 
pork/chicken, black or red beans, and rice 
pork liver steak, rice, and fried boniato 
rice with gravy and garlic 
spaghetti with cheese 

1We noted each subject as mentioning (1) or not mentioning (0) a food item, then tallied the total number of mentions in Column 2. Columns 3 and 4 disaggregate responses by gender.

Table 2:

Favorite Foods at Yaguajay.1

FoodTotal MentionsMentions (Female)Mentions (Male)
fried fish 
fish in sauce 
ceviche 
escabeche 
chicken 
FoodTotal MentionsMentions (Female)Mentions (Male)
fried fish 
fish in sauce 
ceviche 
escabeche 
chicken 

1As in Table 1, we noted each subject as mentioning (1) or not mentioning (0) a food item, then tallied the total number of mentions in Column 2. Columns 3 and 4 disaggregate responses by gender.

For male farmers at La Picadora, food preferences related to occupation and gender. Pork, rice, and beans appeared as a favorite dish among male farmers, who were 79 percent of our interview pool at La Picadora. One male farmer admitted that there is an expectation that he should like to eat a certain dish because of his occupation. “But really I like chicken more than pork. Usually farmers prefer pork over chicken” (Subject #4, interview, May 5, 2018). Supporting this attitude, contemporary Cuban cookbooks state that the combination of pork, rice, and beans is a traditional meal (Villapol 1992: 54, Caunedo 1999: 132, Fornet Piña 2015: 97–98). With one exception, none of the women mentioned any pork dishes as their favorites; instead, they enjoyed a broader range of options, including foods that have no meat.

Figure 5:

Men hook and line fishing off pier at Playa Victoria, near Yaguajay.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

Figure 5:

Men hook and line fishing off pier at Playa Victoria, near Yaguajay.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

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At Yaguajay, residents’ primary occupation varied from attorney to sanitation worker, and only one was a full-time government-employed fisher. For all of our interview subjects, fishing functioned as a means of food acquisition occurring outside of formal employment, much like grocery shopping, gardening, or foraging. Thus, unlike at La Picadora, favorite foods showed little relationship to people’s occupation or education, but instead related to recreational activities they participated in during non-work hours (Table 2). Fishing continues to be a highly gendered activity, reflected in the fact that we only interviewed two women in Yaguajay. One female participant noted that she refused to let gender stereotypes inhibit her participation in fishing, and that her parents had brought her up that way. “But I don't think there is anything that affects that I can be a woman who fishes” (Subject #20, interview, May 7, 2018). The skewed sample size among fishers made the influence of gender on food preferences unclear; however, we note that one female interviewee mentioned preferring chicken over fish.

Respondents noted the accessibility of fruit, as almost all families did small scale fruit farming. Preferences reflected specific fresh fruits that families grew themselves and ate during breakfast or as snacks or desserts (Table 3). While we observed some evidence of preservation, such as bottling sauces at La Picadora, most residents ate fresh fruit or drank fruit smoothies (el batido), a refreshing drink especially popular in the heat. An exception was guava paste (guayabate), which they served at breakfast and after some meals with sliced cheese.

Table 3:

Mentions of Specific Fruits.1

Fruit or VegetableLocation(s) Gender (female, male)
oranges La Picadora; Yaguajay 2, 1; 1, 0 
guava La Picadora; Yaguajay 2, 0; 0, 1 
mango La Picadora; Yaguajay 0, 1; 0, 1 
tomato La Picadora; Yaguajay 1, 0; 0, 1 
papaya La Picadora 1, 0 
plantain Yaguajay 0, 1 
Fruit or VegetableLocation(s) Gender (female, male)
oranges La Picadora; Yaguajay 2, 1; 1, 0 
guava La Picadora; Yaguajay 2, 0; 0, 1 
mango La Picadora; Yaguajay 0, 1; 0, 1 
tomato La Picadora; Yaguajay 1, 0; 0, 1 
papaya La Picadora 1, 0 
plantain Yaguajay 0, 1 

1At both sites, we noted each subject as mentioning (1) or not mentioning (0) a food item, then tallied the total number of mentions by location and gender in Column 3.

A range of other favorite foods served multiple functions in people’s day-to-day consumption (Tables 1 and 4). Like fruit, beans and rice transcended regional differences that otherwise separated food consumption habits in La Picadora and Yaguajay. Most participants also did not articulate preferences for either red or black beans. For instance, one of our fishers from Yaguajay noted that he would eat either black or red beans, but he had to eat them with rice (Subject #23, interview, May 7, 2018). An exception was another fisher who ate either black or red beans but stated emphatically that he preferred red ones (Subject #24, interview, May 7, 2018). Only two male farmers preferred congrí, a dish of Afro-Cuban origins made of rice and red beans that is popular in eastern Cuba (Villapol 1992: 13).

Table 4:

Other Food Preferences.1

FoodLocation(s)Gender (female, male)
fruit La Picadora; Yaguajay 2, 1; 1, 3 
beans and rice La Picadora; Yaguajay 1, 6; 1, 3 
salad/vegetables La Picadora; Yaguajay 1, 1; 1, 1 
milkshake La Picadora 0, 2 
FoodLocation(s)Gender (female, male)
fruit La Picadora; Yaguajay 2, 1; 1, 3 
beans and rice La Picadora; Yaguajay 1, 6; 1, 3 
salad/vegetables La Picadora; Yaguajay 1, 1; 1, 1 
milkshake La Picadora 0, 2 

1At both sites, we noted each subject as mentioning (1) or not mentioning (0) a food item, and then tallied the total number of mentions by location and gender in Column 3.

Vegetables were almost universally unpopular among respondents from both locations. A mother of three grown children who cooked for tourists at La Picadora admitted that vegetable consumption was a recent phenomenon that began in response to requests from foreigners (Subject #5, interview, May 5, 2018). Other La Picadora residents confirmed that they did not regularly eat vegetables (Subject #1, interview, May 5, 2018; Subject #10, interview, May 6, 2018). One fisher from Yaguajay revealed that he emphatically did not like to eat vegetables, but he enjoyed fruit (Subject #22, interview, May 7, 2018). Those who liked vegetables usually ate them in salads.

Our interviews with the residents of La Picadora and Yaguajay, smaller towns in rural areas, highlight the diversity of local preferences that complicate our understanding of Cuban food. They reveal that food preferences are more diverse than the popular discourse about Cuban food, which tends to focus on roasted pork, rice, beans, and viandas (tubers or plantains) as traditional fare (Dawdy 2002: 75; Garth 2013: 97). In turn, their answers point to a more complicated notion of Cuban identity through food. Our study shows that taste relates to social roles, participation in food production, and food access (Wright, Nancarrow, and Kwok 2001: 54).

When asked about their favorite foods, our twenty-four subjects mentioned fourteen distinct items, including main dishes, sides, and snacks. Some of those foods, including guava, mamey, mango, and plantains, dovetail with desirable food items listed in Benjamin, Collins, and Scott’s seminal study, No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1989: 103). Participants’ range of responses reveal not only the diverse food system operating in Cuba, but also the importance of understanding regional variation in food access (Vázquez Sánchez, Rangel Rivero, Peña Alcolea, Díaz Rodríguez, et al. 2018; Vázquez Sánchez, Rangel Rivero, Peña Alcolea, Díaz Rodríguez, et al. 2020). Occupation and gender roles, two important factors in understanding identity, also play an important part in food preferences.

In Cuba, occupation can influence food preference depending on how one’s job relates to food production. Wages vary based on experience and type of employment, but salaries remain low overall, which impacts purchasing power (Ludlam 2012; Binns 2017). This phenomenon is especially true in areas like Santi Spíritus Province, where residents have limited contact with foreign tourists, who usually pay for goods and services with CUCs, and receive few remittances from abroad. As a result, local residents tend to use money only to purchase goods and services when necessary. The lack of money, however, complicates our understanding of food preferences and its role in class formation, which presumes that consumers purchase food and have little to no contact with food production. For example, our interview subjects from Yaguajay, with one exception, did not fish for a living, but held other jobs. These occupations varied in terms of wages and educational requirements, but Yaguajay’s proximity to the ocean meant that almost all of them had participated in fishing as a recreational activity since childhood and consumed fish on a regular basis. Historically, most coastal residents ate fish because of its accessibility; however, in the late twentieth century, the government established fish farms to increase availability in inland regions and promote healthier eating (Pozo Fernández 2012: 57; Fornet Piña 2015: 8). Ironically, continuous supply issues mean that annual fish consumption has dropped significantly since before the Special Period from 16 kg/person in 1989 to 4.3 kg/person in 2014 (Castro Morales 2019).

Twenty-first century cookbook writers have also recognized the importance of documenting the diversity of Cuba’s fish dishes from coastal communities and have published several regional cookbooks (e.g. Cortés Cruz 2015; Fenty Reina and Hernández Veitia 2016). Fried fish dishes, the most popular way to serve fish among our interview subjects, are prominent in many cookbooks. Cecilio Rodolfo Cortés Cruz’s La cocina en Cienfuegos provides a simple recipe, minuta de pescado, which she notes is popular not only in Cienfuegos, but also in other parts of the country. This recipe uses any fish and is seasoned with salt, lemon juice, and ketchup (85–86). A similar recipe appears in Laura Gil Recio and Bartolo Cardenas Alpízar’s Cocina criolla cubana, which focuses on Cuban cuisine more broadly, but swaps out ketchup for vinegar (27). Although the actual health benefits of fish decline through frying, these recipes have the potential to promote fish consumption, which could contribute to the healthier overall diets of Cuban fishers compared to farmers (Vázquez Sánchez et al. 2020).

What is surprising is how La Picadora’s male farmers almost universally preferred pork, beans, and rice, a meal that has deep roots in Cuba (Garth 2020: 67 and 160). These men’s ages (from 18 to 72) and educational attainment (from third grade to college) varied widely, but their identity as men and farmers clearly informed what they liked to eat. Additionally, unlike fishers in Yaguajay, they had recently begun to acquire CUCs thanks to their contact with foreign tourists visiting the La Picadora agroecotourism program. Residents potentially could use this money to purchase food, but instead they spend it on facility improvements, including fruit trees (Moon, Rhode Ward, Vázquez Rodríguez, and Foyo 2021: 30). Because these farmers both grow and purchase food, they demonstrate that food producers as well as consumers recognize the importance of food preferences to their identity.

Figure 6:

Chicharrones, or pork rinds, served at La Picadora.

Photograph by Jennifer Rhode Ward © 2018

Figure 6:

Chicharrones, or pork rinds, served at La Picadora.

Photograph by Jennifer Rhode Ward © 2018

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Figure 7:

Flan served at La Picadora to tourists.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

Figure 7:

Flan served at La Picadora to tourists.

Photograph by Krystyn R. Moon © 2018

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The combination of pork, rice, and beans signifies Cuba’s earliest attempts to construct a national identity, which did not focus on bourgeois city dwellers but white criollo farmers. Costumbrismo writers generated the earliest articulations of Cuban identity in the mid-nineteenth century and associated these foods with this subset of Cubans (Betancourt 1985: 297–300; Quintín Suzarte 1985: 409–416). Additionally, Shannon Dawdy argues that Cuba’s earliest cookbooks are part of the costumbrismo tradition, doing the important cultural work of distinguishing Cuba from Spain (Dawdy 2002: 51–52). Eugenio de Coloma y Garces’s Manual del cocinero cubano includes pork recipes named after either rural areas (puerco ahumado del monte, carne de puerco frita a lo montuno-pinero, and tocineta de monte a lo pinero) or farmers (lechón tostado a lo guajiro), along with rice and bean recipes that participants in this case study would recognize (de Coloma y Garces 1857: 60–62 and 123). Twenty-first century cookbook writers continue to categorize these recipes as central to Cuban cuisine, which affirms a particular national narrative tied to small-scale agriculture that not only have our farmers embraced but also transcends the capitalist/communist divide (Ross 2016: x).

What is absent from our conversations with fishers and farmers also signifies the persistence of certain foodways that pre-date the revolution. For example, our participants’ diets continue to exclude uncooked vegetables. No Free Lunch, which examined food consumption in the early 1980s, notes that most respondents either ignored or mentioned vegetables with disdain (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1989: 103–107). Even Nelson Lowry, who conducted sociological research on rural life in Cuba in the 1940s, commented that “[t]he ‘green and yellow’ vegetables which are important sources of vitamins are almost totally absent from the rural diet” (Lowry 1950: 209). When we asked one of our respondents about his favorite foods, he was emphatic: “No vegetables” (Subject #22, interview, May 7, 2018). These results might reflect a broader pattern of low vegetable consumption in modern Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean (Pita, Jiménez, Basabe, García, et al. 2015; Lanyau-Domínguez, Macías-Matos, de Jesús, María 2017; Vandebroek and Voeks 2019). A recent study in Sancti Spíritus also found low vegetable consumption among adults (López-Dávila, Houbraken, De Rop, Claus, et al. 2021). In our work, we saw two exceptions, and occupation and education might have influenced responses. One vegetable eater was a nurse who probably had nutritional training, while the other had a degree in physical education. The first of these subjects regularly ate salads, a choice that she attributed to interactions with tourists at La Picadora (Subject #14, interview, May 8, 2018; Subject #20, interview, May 7, 2018).

Although not specifically queried, only a few subjects mentioned healthy eating, suggesting that nutrition was not a paramount concern (Vázquez Sánchez et al. 2020). Nutrition, however, did directly influence a handful of subjects’ food preferences. One part-time fisher said that he limited his range of food due to diabetes (Subject #23, interview, May 7, 2018). Another part-time fisher noted that fish consumption was healthy (Subject #22, interview, May 7, 2018). Since the late twentieth century, the Cuban government has promoted healthier eating habits even when food was scarce. Current dietary guidelines prioritize the consumption of cereals and viandas, followed by protein-rich foods and vegetables (Montagnese et al. 2017: 52). Scholars have noted the overall improvement in nutrition in Cuba since the 1980s with the introduction of agromercados and organopónicos (Dawdy 2002: 75; Rodríguez 2013: 107); however, twenty-first century cookbook writers have voiced concern about the country’s eating habits, especially the intake of fats, salts, and sugars (Fornet Piña 2015: 7–8; Pozo Fernández 2012: 61; Fernández Monte 2019: 11). Government initiatives aimed at shifting consumption patterns to improve overall health echo these issues (Gorry 2009).

In addition to regional variations based on proximity to food production, gender plays a significant role in food preferences. None of the women we interviewed discussed what cookbook writers and scholars have described as traditional Cuban fare. In addition, female answers varied significantly from those of men. A handful of women also pointed out that their home cooking reflected their spouses’ food preferences. One of our female respondents, who enjoys fishing with her family, said that she loves fish so much that she would eat it every day. Her spouse, however, does not; as a consequence, she does not cook fish as often as she would like (Subject #15, interview, May 7, 2018). In La Picadora, another female subject prefers meat in tomato sauce or salad, but cooks what is perceived to be traditional Cuban foods for her family and tourists (Subject #14, interview, May 8, 2018).

Women at La Picadora admitted that their daily tasks included acquiring and preparing food for both their families and tourists. When men did participate in food production, they slaughtered and roasted a pig on the last day of a tourist group’s stay. There were other exceptions. One interview subject mentioned that her spouse sometimes made coffee and cooked breakfast (Subject #1, personal conversation, May 6, 2018). Another woman discussed how her son cooked when it was convenient for him (Subject #14, interview, May 8, 2018). In these cases, food preparation was not part of their daily responsibilities within the household or community.

The foodway patterns among women at La Picadora and Yaguajay speak to larger trends in Cuba. While the Cuban Revolution actively promoted the entry of women into the formal economy and made education more available, rural, married women were the least likely to work outside the home. Instead, they continued to focus on household chores and small-scale gardening to feed their families (Holgado Fernández 2002: 93–95; Smith and Padula 1996: 102–103). One interviewee described her role in sustaining her family as “I am the basement of the household” (Subject #14, interview, May 8, 2018). Despite the persistence of women cooking at home, men dominate paid positions in the culinary arts. One farmer at La Picadora even trained as a cook in the army, but cooking at home remained the domain of his wife and daughters (Subject #13, interview, May 7, 2018).

In addition to gender roles, economic circumstances and supply impact food access in Cuba and what residents prefer to eat. Cubans speak of la lucha, the struggle, in which creating meals is a time-consuming process because of limited resources (Garth 2020: 3). Some foods, however, are nearly ubiquitous because they are on la libreta or commonly grown by residents. These items include rice, beans, and viandas, which cookbook writers and others describe as part of cubanidad (Garth 2020: 14 and 37). Locally grown fruit also remains abundant. Eggs, which are inexpensive and readily available, are ingredients in several meals; however, our interviewees did not mention them at all. Cooks offered flans and batter-based items, but never eggs alone. Here again, experiences with food scarcity impact perceptions of eggs. The authors of No Free Lunch note that their interview subjects commented in the 1980s: “when there’s nothing else to eat, we’ll eat eggs” (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1989: 106). One of Garth’s 2020 subjects called eggs with rice plato de puta, or a “slut’s meal,” speaking to both class and gender perceptions of eggs (30).

Restricted availability influences other patterns of food consumption too. For some foods, availability relates to the region in which a person lives, as many foods in Cuba have hyperlocal distribution as part of food sovereignty efforts (Leitgeib et al. 2016). Garth (2020) also notes the desired and ongoing relationship between food and location (10). Fish consumption in Yaguajay is an example of the effects of local availability on diet. The post-revolutionary government promoted fish, although not considered part of a traditional Cuban diet, due to its near omnipresence and health benefits (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1989: 106), and it is now part of la libreta (Garth 2020: 14). However, it is not always preferred. Benjamin, Collins, and Scott (1989) quote a local food influencer saying, “‘Most Cubans think fish is only to be eaten as a last resort!’” Cubans consume a range of meats but historically prefer pork and beef (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1989: 105; Fornet Piña 2015: 8). Beef, however, is not on la libreta (Garth 2020: 14), and is not available to most Cubans. In fact, none of our participants mentioned beef as a preferred food. The effects of economics on access and thus food preference dictate some consumption patterns in these two communities. One La Picadora subject, after mentioning his preferred foods, ended with, “but of course we eat what is on the table” (Subject #12, interview, May 6, 2018).

Inherent in these conversations about Cuban cuisine and access is the question of authenticity. Krishnendu Ray and others have argued that the articulation of authenticity reflects the power of tastemakers to decide what dishes are (and are not) representative of a community or people (Ray 2016: 164–174). While our interview subjects spoke about food preferences, their comments engage the broader dialogue about what makes Cuban food Cuban and who participates in those decisions. Cuba’s tourism industry, which hosts large numbers of foreigners mostly in Havana or beach resorts, places a high importance on supposedly authentic Cuban fare (Kline, Bulla, Rubright, Green, et al. 2015: 32). Government websites such as Trip Cuba (https://www.tripcuba.org/cuisine-in-cuba) also highlight specific dishes; however, with the exception of roasted pork, beans, and rice, the dishes listed do not correlate with what our subjects preferred to eat. In fact, many Cubans do not have access to the ingredients required for some of these dishes. Ropa vieja and tasajo a la cubana include beef, which none of our subjects at La Picadora and Yaguajay talked about eating. Mostly, urban paladares that feed tourists in major cities serve beef (Deere and Royce 2019: 684).

The responses of our interview subjects show a mixture of food preferences that both align and subvert images of an authentic Cuban cuisine promoted by the government, cookbook writers, and other tastemakers (Roland 2010: 4). Garth notes that Santiagueros consume pizza and spaghetti for caloric reasons but they do not prefer them because they believe that they are not “Cuban” food (Garth 2019: 13). In a few cases, our interview subjects preferred to eat dishes that other Cubans considered not only unauthentic, but also “trash” food (Garth 2019: 3). For instance, one of the cooks at La Picadora admitted that her favorite dish was spaghetti with cheese, which she never made for tourists (Subject #1, personal conversation, May 6, 2018).

Additionally, outside influences confound the relationship between food preferences, identity, and authenticity in this study. In La Picadora, tourists frequently visit the community for periods of five to ten days and embed themselves in multiple aspects of community life, including food preparation. This experience has given residents exposure to a broader range of foods like squash flowers, banana flambe, and egg dishes (Subject #5, interview, May 5, 2018), or soup and omelets (Subject #9, interview, May 5, 2018). Several residents also commented on the ways in which tourism led to the incorporation of vegetables into people’s diets.

What food scholar Warren Belasco has described as “the invidious distinctions of the culinary authenticity game” (Belasco 2014: 39) persists in Cuba, not only between the government and citizens, but also among Cubans themselves. Although Cuba’s current government has attempted to flatten social inequalities and class differences, “hierarchies of taste” still persist and influence people’s perceptions of themselves, others, and their nation (Belasco 2014: 39).

José Lezama Lima’s novel Paradiso (1968) meditates on the newly independent Cuba of the early twentieth century through the lens of the Revolution. Images of food are woven throughout the text, but it is a world of cosmopolitanism and abundance that defines the ruling elite and not the food that the majority of Cubans consumed. Lezama Lima’s interpretation of the past reflects the notion of taste and class formation of a capitalist Cuba; however, these attitudes and practices did not disappear with the revolution. Today, food preferences among our interview subjects speak to larger social, cultural, and economic forces that influence what people like to eat and facilitate a particular construction of cubanidad that transcends the capitalist/communist divide. While other studies have found that preferences primarily dictate food choice (Wright, Nancarrow, and Kwok 2001), this case study demonstrates the intersectionalities among taste, food availability, and social roles.

Even in understudied central Cuba, where preferences might be less subject to external influences, we see how occupation, gender, and food access inform choices and reflect patterns of consumption. Food consumption in places such as Yaguajay and La Picadora is relatively diverse because residents live in close proximity to food production and augment their diet through farming, fishing, bartering, and gifting. However, what they want to eat and what they have access to are not always the same. It is here where we see divisions among our interview subjects that speak to not only their social and economic position within Cuban society, but also their cultural capital.

The tension between locally-based food sovereignty (Naylor 2019) and globalization (LeoGrande 2017), between preferences and availability, and what makes “Cuban” food Cuban, continues to play out around the nation’s supper tables today.

The Christopher Reynolds Foundation supported this work under Grant #6748, “Cuba Consuming, Consuming Cuba.” The authors thank Greta Trautmann, grant co-recipient, for logistical work, project design input, and helpful comments on the manuscript. We are grateful to La Picadora residents for their hospitality, particularly Titi Rodríguez Sanchez and Esther Denis Pérez, who opened their home to us. Caguanes National Park and their staff, especially Daily Ortegas Zuñiga, helped to recruit small-time fishers and permitted us to use park offices for interviews. The suggestions from our two anonymous reviewers greatly improved this manuscript.

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