Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. Hanna Garth, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020, 214 pp.
Exhausted and hungry after a full day of ethnographic research in a rural Dominican town, I once complained to an interlocutor that I didn’t have enough time to cook my meals and do the work of participant observation. “Comida no es nada” [Food is nothing], he responded, “you could eat in any house here.” He waved an arm toward this neighborhood where many families pulled down plantains from trees in their backyards or ate chickens that roamed their patios. Hanna Garth paints a starkly different experience of Caribbean foodways in Santiago de Cuba, where food is everything. Food in Cuba traces the lives of urban Cuban families as they struggle daily to gather ingredients in a quickly crumbling socialist welfare state where the basics are guaranteed, yet food adequacy is lacking. Garth’s ethnographic account urges readers to consider food scarcity beyond the conditions of famine and starvation. Food acquisition is a time-consuming labor that falls mostly on women in Santiago de Cuba as they attempt to work full- time jobs, gather increasingly scarce ingredients, and prepare a decent meal by the standards of both good Cubanidad and “virtuous womanhood.”
The book offers a broad picture of how people navigate the struggle to bring together a decent meal in households of different socioeconomic statuses, among people of different skin colors, and in communities with different connections to food distribution networks. While Havana might sit in the limelight of national imaginaries, economies, and resources, this ethnography illuminates daily life in Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, and a place marginalized in relation to national structures of food access. Spending three to four weeks each in 22 households across Santiago’s urban neighborhoods, Garth provides a broad view of food acquisition and the relationship between adequacy and inequality. Spending 12˗18 hours a day observing the routines of a diverse set of households, Garth is witness to the long treks across the city in search of ingredients, the anxiety provoked by food inadequacies, as well as the moments of breakdown people experience when alimentary dignity cannot be attained.
The labor of acquiring and food in Santiago falls largely on the shoulders of women, and as Garth demonstrates, the intersections of race, class, and gender determine how much time and with how much success people search for meaningful ingredients. Through many brief ethnographic windows into the lives of Santiagueros, Garth shows us the process of putting a decent meal on the table, while demonstrating how this process is also a lens for understandings of the self, the community, and even the state. As Santiagueros traverse the city in search of increasingly scarce ingredients, fresh corn becomes a symbol of generational care, rice the currency of community relations, and sugar a badge of anti-imperialism. When access to preferred and deeply affective ingredients is not possible, Cubans feel the stress on their sense of self, their obligations to family, and their notions of what it means to live in a post-Soviet Cuba.
In a region increasingly understood through the lens of crises—hurricanes, earthquakes, epidemics, immigration, or region-wide environmental vulnerabilities—scholars and students of medical anthropology and Caribbean studies will find a deeply humanizing account in Garth’s ethnography of adequacy. Beyond the frame of caloric content, the politics of adequacy is a means through which Cubans assert their right to “alimentary dignity,” political subjectivity, and respectability.
I found my own throat tighten with anxiety while reading the chapter on breakdowns, where Garth describes moments of rupture when the stressful pursuit of a decent meal results in panic or outbursts of desperation. It is here where Garth so deftly drives home the point that access to certain foods “goes beyond physical health vis-à-vis sufficient nutrition, to include existential nourishment of the mind and the whole being” (p. 143). As Santiagueros insist, alimentary dignity is an essential ingredient of mental health and well-being. Garth beautifully demonstrates how such notions of health deserve both analytical rigor and political weight in discussions of the body, the self, and the state in marginalized Caribbean communities.
Beyond its implications for scholarship on food, health, and structures of inequality, Food in Cuba lends itself well to the classroom. Clearly written and structurally sound, this ethnography of (in)adequacy fits well into courses on food security, medical anthropology, or Caribbean and Latin American studies, where students would benefit from both select chapters or the book in its entirety. Garth’s expertly framed arguments contribute to questions of health beyond nutrients, gendered Caribbean foodways, or the entanglements of eating and inequality.
Perhaps the book’s only fault is that it doesn’t leave you feeling hungry enough. I wanted to know what such deeply affective ingredients taste like, how they smell, and what it feels like or sounds like to eat among Cubans for whom meals mean so much. Garth hints at how Cubans feel the difference between juicy summer corn and dry kernels of inadequate seasons with all their senses. In the conclusion we get a glimpse of Garth’s own culinary experience as her friends put together the elusive decent meal when she returns to visit the field. But with this book’s focus on food acquisition, Garth pays less attention to the bodily experience of actually consuming the meals so meticulously mustered. But perhaps that’s a story for next time. Adequacy is not negotiable for Santiagueros acquiring, preparing, and eating food from under a rapidly shifting political fabric. Rather, the frame of adequacy gives voice to those expressing culinary discontent in systems of food distribution that are increasingly industrial and unequal. What Garth masterfully shows here is that our notions of health and well-being as they relate to food must take into consideration the affective experiences of acquiring, preparing, and consuming food, as well as its ability to locate communities within broader political, cultural, and economic flows. What do we miss when we measure food insecurity based on caloric counts? As this book shows, what we miss is the very meaning of the meal and all its ingredients.