Cuban Food Stories (2018) - full transcript

Cuban Food Stories is a documentary that follows the various culinary delights made in Cuba, often showing how they're made.

I left Cuba for the first time

when I was five years old.

My parents jobs sent my family to New York.

When we returned to Cuba in 1991,

I was 11 years old and my
father took us on a road trip

around the island to
reconnect with our roots.

Soon after, with the
collapse of the Soviet union,

everything changed.

Cuba's relationship with
food became complicated.

I remember family reunions,
birthdays and parties.

I remember people playing
dominoes in the streets,

loud noises, laughter.

I remember grandiose buildings,

reminders of a golden
era that was no longer.

This is the street where I was born.

This is the house where I grew up.

I can picture endless nights
on the porch with my friends.

They loved to talk about Soviet cartoons

and everything I missed while abroad.

In return, I told them
stories of Mickey Mouse

and Disney World.

As we went through middle school,

the country entered a
profound economic crisis,

ironically named the special period.

Cubans lost everything.

While my parents worked
tirelessly to save the revolution,

I dreamed about returning to New York

and becoming a filmmaker.

And so, in February
2008, I left Cuba for good.

I still remember the waves,

crashing gently against
the shore of Havana.

The elderly bathing in the morning,

as the sun kisses the city with light.

I have so many memories, and yet,

my memories about food are very vague.

During the nineties we
were so caught up in survival,

that food became simply fuel.

All around the country,
ingredients disappeared.

Beef was replaced by soybeans.

Cooking oil was replaced by water.

And the list went on and on.

Nationwide, recipes started changing.

All the excitement for cooking was gone.

Perhaps that's the reason why as an adult

food is such an important part of my life.

The food we cook not only makes us human,

but it's a primal element in understanding

who we are as a culture.

So I returned to Cuba to
find those missing flavors.

I embarked on a quest to discover

what Cubans of all classes
do to overcome hardship

and keep their culinary heritage alive.

A new road trip to reconnect with my roots.

I didn't set out to make a documentary

about the well-known Cuban sandwich

or the rice and black beans.

Instead, this would be a journey through

the unknown Cuban food stories.

The first stop was Juragua,

a tiny but enchanting fisherman village.

Juragua sits by the
ruins of a nuclear city,

home to the biggest economic collaboration

between the revolution and the USSR.

A failed nuclear power plant.

During the eighties,
the entire town mobilized

and worked around the clock to create

the first nuclear power
plant in the Caribbean.

They built the reactor facilities.

And then in turn you
see for the scientists,

roads, hospitals.

But the nuclear plant was never completed.

Now, everything sits in ruins.

For the people of Juragua,

nuclear city's just a ghost of the past.

Ernesto followed his parent's dreams.

He was not going to be a fisherman.

Instead, the revolution
sent him to college for free.

It was there that he met his wife.

They both became nuclear physicists.

But after many years of studies,

with no nuclear plant in Cuba,

Ernesto had no choice
but to return to the sea.

When I was a kid,

my parents sent me to
the Escambray Mountains

to help cure my asthma.

People always believed that these mountains

had magical healing powers.

I heard that one of the best cooks in Cuba

was living in these mountains.

I didn't have an address, just a name.

So we stopped at a
timbiriche, a Cuban food stall,

and we got some coconut
along with our directions.

The coconut was topped
with honey and a little bit of run,

because hey, why not?

It's already 10:00 AM
here in the countryside.

With no internet or GPS,
getting directions can be tricky.

Three kilometers after the big tree,

turn left a minute after the bus stop.

So we went from timbiriche to timbiriche,

til we arrived at a simple
and beautiful house.

This was paradise.

Here we found Migdalia and Gilberto.

They met each other over 20 years ago.

Migdalia used to be the
most famous hairdresser

in the big town where she was from.

Gilberto was a mountain man.

His only possessions,

a small shack in the
mountains by a cascade,

his plot of land and his
hands to work the earth.

It was love at first sight.

Her friends tried to convince her

not to move to the middle of nowhere,

but they were in love
and had a beautiful farm

which they could call home.

When she moved in, they had no kitchen,

no electricity, no running water.

Gilberto worked the land
and Migdalia dedicated herself

to renovating the house.

No one ever taught her how to cook.

When they moved in together,

she barely knew how to boil an egg.

But there is a saying in Cuba.

Love enters through the kitchen.

So she taught herself how to cook,

made sure that love entered
their kitchen and stayed.

To this day, their rule still stands.

Gilberto works the land
and Migdalia runs the house.

About eight years ago,
some medical students

snuck onto their property
to swim in the waterfall.

Instead of kicking them out,

she invited them for lunch with her family,

having seen that the only
had some bread to eat.

They were captivated.

As simple as it was, they had never tried

something so authentic.

They started encouraging everyone they knew

to go to try Migdalia's food.

Soon, she became famous.

She doesn't have a formal restaurant.

There's no menu.

But if you're around at lunchtime,

you can stop by and you
might be lucky enough

to try her delicious creole cuisine.

She's too shy to put a
set price on her food,

but donations are always welcome.

We got lucky and she
cooked a fabulous meal for us.

A very traditional Cuban feast.

Rice and black beans dormidos,

the slow braised and succulent fried pork,

garlic tostones, fried
plantains, yuca with mojo sauce,

and a delicious pork
belly polenta to top it all off.

The aroma began to remind
me of my early childhood days

in the kitchen with my grandma Caridad.

Long before the collapse
of the Soviet union,

Grandma also loved the smoky
flavors of cooking with wood.

We had lunch in the most beautiful setting,

right by the waterfall.

With every bite of Migdalia's food,

I could feel the lost memories of these

old mountain flavors starting to return.

Surrounded by the Escambray
Mountains on one side

and the Caribbean Sea and the other,

is the city of Trinidad.

Trinidad looks like the cliche
poster city of the Caribbean.

It started as a settlement of aristocrats,

with palaces built on cobblestone roads.

All of it paid for by their
nearby sugarcane plantations.

But when the island's economy changed

due to the industrial revolution,

the mountains became a
barrier that isolated the city.

Without a train through the hills,

the wealthy inhabitants began to

take their wealth and leave.

Decades of isolation have left Trinidad

a city frozen in time.

Now, the city's primary
industry is tourism.

In 1997, the government
began to grant licenses

for casas particulares,

private accommodations that
function as bed and breakfasts,

catering mainly to foreign visitors.

This is one of the oldest
forms of private business

in revolutionary Cuba,

and the casas particulares in Trinidad

are some of the best in the country.

This is not the first time
that I find myself in Trinidad.

When I was an art student,

we used to come
backpacking here all the time.

Back then, what we could
afford was water with brown sugar

and bread with oil and salt.

So I was curious to find out how the impact

of international tourism had
changed the local cuisine.

Behind every door in Trinidad

hides a very different story.

Many people here have
been so poor for so long

that they lost most of
their culinary traditions.

But behind Yohan's
doors, life is different.

Everything from his pork
ribs with local honey marinade,

the lobster with avocado rice,

the red snapper on banana leaves,

the shrimp with pineapple and rum,

and the the fruit ceviche and flan,

shows a passionate family commitment

to keeping their heritage alive.

It's been 12 years since the last time

I came to Las Parrandas de Remedios,

a Christmas festival that has become

the most passionate
celebration on the island.

My father used to tell me stories

about all the great street food vendors

at the carnivals of his childhood.

He even remembers some of them by name.

But those are not my memories.

In the revolutionary society
that my father helped build,

those preferred vendors
were no longer allowed.

In my lifetime, there were
massive shortages of everything

and the state imposes so many regulations

that at the carnival all you could get

was some bad beer and wake
up with a massive hangover.

But times are changing, and I wondered,

who is shaping the new street food memories

for thousands of Cubans?

On the plaza, the party's getting started.

The plaza has no
computers or fancy controllers,

just improvised systems made by locals.

For Felito, this is turning out to be

his biggest night of the year.

But then the unthinkable happens.

A power outage in the vendor section.

Word comes that the electric company

can not fix the problem
until the carnival is over.

Power outages are not new to us.

When I was growing up we had so many

that we stopped keeping track.

Since nobody had generators or gas,

we only counted the few
hours we did have power,

calling them alumbrones,

brief moments of illumination.

We could hear the chanting, the cheering,

and the fireworks in the distance.

The party was not going to stop.

For Felito, his main
vault meter is just cut.

You can smell the smoked meats,

the crispy fried chicken,

and the rosca de reyes from far away.

Like a jazz band leader,

Felito runs every detail of his kitchen.

The carnival is now going at full speed.

For almost two centuries,

the town has been divided into two clans,

El Carmen and El Salvador.

On this night, the
competition for the best show

will be fierce.

The townspeople of
Remedios spend an entire year

preparing for this showdown.

They set aside all political views

and work together for the same goal.

This is something that is
not common in the island.

All of the handmade costumes,
the makeshift fireworks,

the improvised and
handcrafted lighting design,

and extravagant floats
are made by the locals,

paid out of pocket and with the support of

both Cuban experts and government funds.

Tonight, they don't care
where it all comes from.

They're all just celebrating together

and fighting for their clans,
their friends, their families.

Back at the shop, it's already 3:00 AM.

Things are winding down
and it's starting to rain.

On the plaza, the rain
forces the parade to stop.

The sun is already coming out.

But the fireworks battle rages on.

At the end, one of the clans
will win this wild celebration.

But there is no jury.

The winners will know
they won when the losers

will walk home with their heads down,

their only comfort knowing that next year

they will fight again and
maybe bring the victory home.

I kept thinking about Felito's
intoxicating happiness.

Sure, the carnival street food vendors

still have ways to go.

But year after year they make it better.

Who knows, maybe in
five years we will realize

that this was the spark
that ignited them all.

Gibara is very close to my heart.

Nearby is where my mother was born.

I spent many afternoons
looking at this bay,

trying to understand how the fishermen

could walk so far out into the water.

My grandpa used to tell me it
was because they were giants.

But the life of a giant
can be poor and lonely.

Every day they go out to catch

whatever the bay has to offer.

Usually just enough to survive.

Gibara is one of those peculiar

and contradictory Cuban towns.

A surreal fisherman village
where the government,

always afraid of people
fleeing the island by the sea,

might restrict the use of
boats on any given day.

Habana carries the scars of unattended age,

although we call it pride.

There was a time when
the traditional shellfish

street food vendors were
found all over the city,

but the government has
taken all the licenses away.

Today, only three remain.

Here, in the small culinary school,

I discovered a profound
and passionate desire

for keeping the local traditions alive.

Once a month, the grandmas
and the best cooks in town

come here to teach the younger generation

about the traditional home
made Habana cuisine.

Just like the grandmothers learned

from their moms and grandmas.

A tradition that's passed down the line.

For these classes, the students
and the staff of the school

spend all night in the bay to catch

what they're going to cook the next day.

They understand that their
cuisine is unique to the island,

and that keeping these flavors alive,

it will bring back authenticity to the food

and prosperity to their town.

They've made a stuffed blue crab,

rice with coquina clams,

Gibarian Paella,

oyster cocktails,

crab enchilada,

and a seafood polenta like
I have never tried before.

But the hard times keep coming to Gibara.

A couple of months after we filmed,

the culinary school was
shut down indefinitely.

The state wanted to use the location

for a government run cafeteria instead.

This is our humble homage
to the people of Gibara.

It was about time to have
a good cafecito in Cuba.

So I decided to head southeast
and go into Sierra Maestra,

the biggest mountain range on the island.

From these mountains,
Fidel Castro orchestrated

the Cuban revolution.

Here, they have always
cultivated the best coffee in Cuba.

Always forgotten by the status quo,

the people of these
lands give food and shelter

to the insurgency led by Castro.

Today, not many people
come this far into la Sierra.

You have to cross rivers
and a variety of terrain

to get here.

Lucky for us, my cousin Roberto drives

a military grade Russian truck.

So he gave us a lift to his
good friend's coffee plantation.

As we leave the Sierra,

Emmanuel's coffee and
Gerardo's poems travel with us.

This is Baracoa, the first city in Cuba.

The most fascinating
landscapes on the island

are found here.

A few months after we filmed,

hurricane Matthew ripped
up most of this historic town.

It will be many years before they get

fully back on their feet.

These are the stories of the
charming people of this land.

We leave the beach and we go

deep into the mountains to a place

where no commerce have ever been.

In the Toa river,

we tried exquisite regional dishes

like river shrimp in coconut milk,

and bacan, a like a local version of tamale

made with plantains and pork chunk.

Dishes that I would have never suspected

were a part of a rural Cuban cuisine.

I felt humbled and grateful to be

a part of their family for one day.

As Gerardo gave us a ride in his cayuco,

I could not help but feel
a little sad to be leaving.

So much kindness along the way,

and our trip was almost over.

Tomorrow we will be in Pinar del Río,

where another special celebration awaits.

Being here reminds me of many new years

with my family and friends.

We always wished for
great things to happen,

but every year we just kept waiting.

Would I feel something different today?

There is now renewed hope in the future.

As if the bad things are
starting to burn away.

We're back in Havana, our last stop.

But Havana is not the same city

that I left all those years ago.

After many uneventful decades,

the last couple of years have been

an emotional rollercoaster
for the people of Cuba.

The relationship with the longtime enemy

has gone from nonexistent
to something is happening

to a recently very complicated status.

On a government level,
the island is going through

a major transitional period.

All of this has ignited a new
wave of international tourism

and a new community of Cuban entrepreneurs

are experiencing an exciting creative boom.

I started this trip
feeling like an outsider,

searching for missing links

to our culinary culture and traditions,

hoping to rescue flavors and
stories before they fade away.

Along the way, the people
we met opened their houses,

kitchens, and hearts.

They share all they have
with love and generosity.

Regardless of differences
in political views

and economic position,

we all speak the language of food

and share the passion for our heritage.

The Cuba I rediscovered is not the country

that my parents and their
generation gave their life for.

It's also not the country
that the opposition sees.

It's a country with many
inequalities and critical problems

that only those in power can control.

But Cubans all over the world have to stop

treating each other like enemies.

We have to look for shared
values and build upon them.

It is up to us to tolerate
our different views

and break the barriers that have divided

so many generations and families.

The future for Cuba is uncertain,

but if there is one thing we know for sure,

it's that together, we can
create a shared future in Cuba,

a country moving forward,
making constant progress,

like the endless waves crashing
against the Havana sea wall.