This review was published in Food, Culture, and Society online on June 2020.
Even though Cuba is constricted by the US blockade and embargo, and was severed by the fall of the Soviet Union―on which it depended for trade and imports―the island is regarded as an example of sustainable food systems, of doing a lot with so little. It is also known for its low malnutrition rates, for its food security in general. Nevertheless, that does not mean that people do not face hardship in accessing food.
Medical and sociocultural anthropologist, Dr. Hanna Garth, sheds light on such hardship in her first book, Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. This is an ethnography rich with thick description about the politics of adequacy as seen through the lens of household food acquisition in Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city. Garth’s book explores/peers closely at the intersection of the social-cultural meanings of food and food access, with particular focus on the hardship people face―within, and at different scales from the household to the community level―to acquire the foods they want. Food in Cuba opens our eyes to the dynamics people go through to acquire the foods they desire and also reflects on the adequacy of a food system to keep its people fed.
Garth’s book focuses on the politics of adequacy―the determinants and external forces that shape the environment in which the foods that people find adequate and necessary are available (8). Cuba’s socialist food system, and its level of food security and sovereignty, provides the author the space to understand food access beyond calories, supply chains, and production levels. Food in Cuba is based on almost 10 years of ethnographic research in Santiago. Methodologically, the author lived with 22 households, and interacted with almost 100 individuals through deep hanging out and interviews; she performed participaant observations of people’s food acquisition, meal preparations, and family and community dynamics around food adequacy.
Each chapter of Food in Cuba reflects how the politics of adequacy shape the spaces navigated by Santiagueros to acquire the foods they desire. Their daily struggles show glimpses into how a shifting food system and a sociopolitical reality impact their livelihoods. Garth’s detailed descriptions and analyses of food acquisition allow the reader to challenge their understanding of food security and sovereignty.
Chapter 1 uncovers Santiagueros daily struggle―la lucha―to acquire food, and how social characteristics interplay in the degree of lucha that people go through. In that chapter, Garth also discusses how social stratification in Cuba is reflected in the struggle people face to prepare a decent meal. In chapter 2, she further elaborates how that social stratification, and its relation with people’s cubanidad, was crafted through three periods of change: Cuba’s independence from Spain, the reforms that came with the revolution, and the Special Period after the fall of the Soviet Union. Chapter 2 shows how social memory, food nostalgia, and systemic change generate a set of dynamics where “[the] social meanings of foods, new and old, are constantly renegotiated (…)” (46).
Chapters 3 and 4 explain how much of the burden (and emotional dilemmas) of food acquisition fall on women, and the degree to which social networks and capital revolve around social stratification and power dynamics within a system that is not so horizontal. Finally, chapter 5 focuses on the myriad ways food acquisition―and the adequacy of Cuba’s provision system―takes a toll on individuals’ wellbeing.
Food in Cuba lets us know that “[f]ood is not simply food, but a reflection of identity, filled with emotions that color experiences of the changes in the food system (…)” (31). Hanna Garth’s focus on people’s food acquisition clarifies the nuances of food security and food sovereignty. Ultimately, Garth argues that despite the sociopolitical goals of the Cuban state, the attempts to create a ‘horizontal’ system, the lived reality is quite different. Socioeconomic, cultural, and racial characteristics play an important role in, not only food acquisition, but also on people’s wellbeing. This wellbeing is also impacted by not achieving a decent meal; the meal that reflects a cultural heritage and tradition: cubanidad. As such, “[s]truggling for a decent meal is a way of struggling for cubanidad” (160).
Food in Cuba: the pursuit of a decent meal
by Hanna Garth, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2020, 214 pp., ISBN: 978-1-5036-0462-9
Photo credit: Luis Alexis Rodríguez Cruz, 2018 – Photo was taken in Baracoa, Cuba