Hey Chris, can you pass me some sauce?

After Columbus landed in the Americas, he brought a lot of things back to the Continent. There was knowledge of the New World, sure, but let’s not forget wheat, potatoes, rum, Coppertone, and pool-safe plastic stemware (ok, so I made up the last two). And perhaps the best discovery came from Haiti, where he encountered locals roasting meat on a wooden framework over a fire…now commonly known as a barbecue. Columbus has gotten some bad press lately–but if I were on his PR team, I’d be talking up the barbecue thing. A lot.

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Photo credit: Netdna-cdn.com

Barbecue in the present day generally refers to slowly smoking meat over a long period of time. Slow-cook seems like the culinary balance for the kitchen microwave. Perhaps that’s what inspired comic Steven Wright to share that he once put instant coffee in the microwave and almost went back in time.

No matter how much time it takes, true barbecue chefs/connoisseurs always seem to be changing things up in search of perfection. It starts with the sauce, of course, but preparation, length of time, and cooking temperature are all in play. My friend Kevin sometimes cooked over the course of a few days, getting up through the night to stoke the coals (now that’s commitment!).

Appetites for barbecue in the US are boundless, as demonstrated by numerous magazines, cookbooks, a TV channel (bbqtv.com), and perhaps a quick view of my waistline. And Google tells me that each American spends an average of more than $500 annually on barbecue. That’s a $100 billion dollar industry, or roughly 2500 times what Columbus spent to get to the New World. Maybe Columbus should have brought back more meat and less wheat?

In Virginia, conversations about the best barbecue often start and stop with Pierce’s Pitt in Williamsburg. Pierce’s started as a modest little stand in 1971, and the unusual spelling of “Pitt” was due to a sign painter’s mistake. But no matter how you spell it, the place has become a must-stop for folks passing through–and it’s pretty popular with the locals, too.

I visited Pierce’s mid-afternoon last Sunday and the place was packed with buses, cars, locals, and tourists. You can smell the barbecue as soon as you step out of your car, and there is now an entire smokehouse building out back that is much larger than the original restaurant. Everything is slow-roasted over oak wood, and the sauce recipe continues to be handed down from generation to generation.

I know at least a dozen people that stop at Pierce’s any time they are within 25 miles of Williamsburg, and I think I just met a few hundred more during my most recent visit. Frequent guests include Al Roker, Bruce Hornsby, Willard Scott, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, Governor Mark Warner, and Senator Tim Kaine. I’m not quite as famous, but I always stop through and grab a quart of pulled pork and a bottle of sauce to bring home.

As for Christopher Columbus, he seems like a less controversial figure when you are well fed. The critics are of course right that he didn’t “discover” America (after all, people had already been living in the “New World” for thousands of years). But if you asked me what I wish I had discovered in my travels, I’m going with barbecue.

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Pierce’s “little” smokehouse out back

Politics and Prose

When I was a Junior in high school, I had Mrs. O’Neill for Government. As I remember it, my friend Bump Stevens and I spent most of our time talking in the back of the room and asking nonsensical questions like “so when does Gideon get his trumpet back?” I think I mostly daydreamed through the segment on communism vs democracy, a regrettable choice now.

As we toured Havana a few weeks back, I wished I’d paid more attention in class. But even so, it was easy to notice significant differences in Cuba, ranging from the subtle to the obvious. Two such differences are the absence of product advertisements and the abundance of political billboards.

We were barely outside of the Havana airport terminal when we got our first taste, with a giant billboard that said “Bloqueo: el genocidio mas largo de la historia.” Translated, that means “Blockade: the largest genocide in history” (in Cuba, the US embargo is commonly referred to as the “blockade”). There are two very different sides to the embargo, of course, but that’s not something that gets discussed down here.

As for our visit, I’m guessing that the influx of tourism is a little overwhelming for the locals, as if you were on a hunger strike and then went for all-you-can-eat pizza. And yet increased tourism seems to have fueled a new optimism, resulting in sayings like “Cubans don’t want bread; they want the bakery.”

In addition to touring much of the city, our visit included bookend visits to the residence of the US Ambassador and to the Museo de la Revolucion. Visiting these two places back to back is perhaps the political equivalent of jumping out of a hot tub and rolling in snow.

At the Ambassador’s residence, we were lucky enough to have an audience with US Ambassador DeLaurentis, and then we spent the next morning in the Museo, which was the Presidential Palace under Batista through 1959. For reasons too numerous to list, those visits were an absolutely remarkable contrast.

 Of course, the Cuban people are not the government, and the locals that we encountered were generally helpful and even gregarious. Some (but not all) benefited economically from our visit, but many were just curious and friendly. As I reflect on our trip, those are the folks that I tend to think about.

With my limited Spanish and with just a few days on the ground, I can’t begin to claim that I understand all that is going on in Cuba. However, some things were just hard to miss, like how the building optimism in Cuba is tempered by the government. And still another paradox is that the country seems deeply afraid of the consequences of taking foreign investment, even as it needs an influx of cash that can really only come from offshore.

Wow, I’m learning that this government stuff is complicated. Mrs. O’Neill, if you are reading this, can I re-take my final?

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Arte cubano

I wrote about the cuisine in Cuba in a previous entry–but I’ve heard art described as food for the soul. The art in Cuba has had a prominent place at least since the Cuban Revolution that ended in 1959, and probably much earlier. In any case, it is clear that the post-revolution government saw value in using art to communicate its message.

A popular story is that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara finished a round of golf at the Havana Country Club in 1960 and Castro observed “you know, golf really isn’t very revolutionary.” So they converted the grounds of the course into an art school (if you’ve seen Souzz play golf, you’d probably think that was a good move).

In any case, art is everywhere in Cuba, and our visit to Havana last week included a number of museums, galleries, and performances, each with its own charm. Here are a few highlights:

  • Museo Nacional de Bellas – This beautiful building built in 1913 houses the best collection of Cuban art on the planet, as well it should. Our tour guide was Lucilia Fernandez, who shared that she was named after Lucille Ball (who of course was married to Cuban performer Desi Arnaz for a time in the 1950s). The art at the museum was in many ways a timeline of the history of Cuba–including the ups and downs of wars and slavery, as well as happier times in the early part of the twentieth century.
  • Instituto Superior de Arte – This is the art school that Castro and Che Guevara asked to be created at the expense of a golf course. It offers degrees in Music, Visual Arts, Theatre Arts, Dance Arts and Audiovisual Communication Media. We toured a number of its buildings and saw a lot of student artists refining their craft.
  • Nostalgicars – One of the few private businesses permitted by the government, Nostalgicars offers a glimpse into Cuba’s limited forms of capitalism. It restores and renovates beautiful old cars without the benefit of American replacement parts, and the results are stunning. If/when Cuba truly opens up, expect to see a lot of these rolling masterpieces on the beachfront drives of Miami.
  • Havana Compass – This performance group combines traces of Spanish and modern dance with African-Cuban Jazz. This was a high-energy show that is starting to tour internationally, including places as far and wide as South Korea and Argentina. Havana Compass made its U.S. debut in Tampa a few weeks ago to a packed house, and it was easy to see why.
  • Jose Fuster House – The influence of Spanish artist Antoni Gaudi is alive and well in Havana, as Jose Fuster has built a masterpiece of tile in an otherwise nondescript fishing village on the shores of the Atlantic. There are tile images and sculptures across a full city block, and Fuster has turned an ordinary neighborhood into a fountain of color that attracts visitors from far and wide.
  • Camerata Romeu – An all women group of musicians who play stringed instruments, Camerata Romeu was founded in 1993 by Director Zenaida Romeu. These highly skilled musicians play without sheet music and use percussion in the form of slapping their hands against their instruments. The overall sound is pure in a way that is hard to describe, and the performance was breathtaking. I wouldn’t know a violin from a badminton racket, and yet I found myself completely mesmerized. Souzz literally had to drag me out of the venue.

In addition to the highlights above, some of the art here is hard to really put into a category.

If art really is the ultimate form of expression, then Cuba is one of the most expressive places that I’ve been. Sure, the infrastructure here could use some love and care, but the creative energy is palpable. Of course, I prefer to express myself through obtuse movie references and seldom read blogs, so I might not blend in so well.

Where a Cuban Sandwich is Just a Sandwich

We are having a great visit to Havana, Cuba, where Souzz had a work trip and I tagged along. While Cuba has been off limits to Americans for a long time, U.S. tourism on the island has been ramping up since late 2014 when the U.S. and Cuba announced that they were moving towards “normalized” relations. That’s a relative term, of course, as there doesn’t seem to be much that is normal yet between these two countries. Visitors from the U.S. currently must meet certain criteria; Souzz’s trip was a part of an educational exchange, where American and Cuban professionals share information about their respective disciplines (certainly a good thing for all involved).

As is true with any adventure, Souzz and I weren’t quite sure what to expect here. After all, it has been a 50-year stretch of two countries giving each other the cold (war) shoulder—including an embargo on U.S. imports since 1962. But once again, it turns out that people are just people, no matter where you go.

From a tourist’s perspective, Havana has quickly turned itself into an inviting destination (or perhaps it was all along, but we just didn’t know). The Cuban government is starting to open things up, and there is now a burgeoning restaurant scene. Tourism-related services are also starting to emerge in Havana.

Havana is a city of 2 million, and it is the oldest and largest city in the Caribbean—dating back to the 1500s. It has amazing architecture, 500 year old forts, and a lively arts and music scene. Walking the streets here, it is easy to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday back in the 1940s.

As for the food, that was just one element of this trip, and I’m still digesting a lot of other lessons and observations. There’s enough going on here to fill up several blog entries, and I’ll share some more thoughts in the coming days. But I’ll start with what’s on the table.

Coming in, we expected a somewhat simple cuisine–especially considering that there’s

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photo by Jorge Royan

been a rationing system in Cuba since the 1990s (imagine being permitted to buy just five eggs per month, as well as limited quantities of stipends like sugar, rice, and oil). Stories of shortages of certain foods, as well as basic medicines and vitamins, are real and ongoing. That said, people here seem to take it in stride, at least as far as we could tell. The restaurant scene largely insulates tourists from these shortages, which is both good and bad.

As for our experience, the dishes we’ve sampled on the island are carefully prepared and delicious. Whether lunch or dinner, the meal generally includes a meat/seafood dish with rice and beans, as well as locally  grown vegetables like yucca, squash, sweet potato, avocado, or eggplant.

As one might expect, portions are smaller than the U.S. (read: normal and not super-sized), service is generally slower, and meals tend to feel like more of a communal experience than a drive-through. Add in the fact that you are often sitting in a 300-year old building full of amazing art and listening to live Cuban music, and you have a recipe for a very memorable dining experience.

It’s worth noting that bottled water is also common for visitors, as the city’s water system is still a work in progress (water is often supplied by trucks in the areas of the city that are dense with restaurants).

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A water truck in Old Havana

In addition to the food, most every meal at a restaurant seems to start with a Mojito or perhaps a Cuba Libre (rum and coke…well, rum and Ciego Montero tuKola, as Coca-Cola is off limits due to the embargo). As for wine, most of the wine consumed here is sold by the glass and comes from Chile. Cuba does produce its own wine, but one local told us (only half-jokingly) that it is only suitable for salad dressing.

Seafood is on most menus, but it is not as common as we expected. Later we learned that the relative dearth of seafood may be due to the tight restrictions on fishing licenses…restrictions that could be borne out of concerns by the government that boats in the harbor could head north to the U.S. Ummm, wow.

Throughout our visit, we encountered Cubans that were friendly and curious, albeit somewhat cautious–as nobody knows what happens next, and there are more questions than answers. Will normalized relations lead to a lift of the embargo? Can the country make economic progress and still preserve its culture? Or will there be a shiny casino and a t-shirt shop where a 300-year old building used to be?

Aaah, yes, many questions. But whatever happens next, the country showed itself as a beautiful place with a charming culture—despite our two nations’ complicated history.

This is a work trip for Souzz, of course, but it is mostly tourism for me. During the course of our visit, we’ve made every effort to be respectful–even as a tourist experience here is the essence of contradiction. Each day we are mindful of what is on our table, as opposed to what is likely on the tables of the wait staff and the chef and the taxi driver. What I suspect we all share is hope for a better day.

Burning Dessert

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Sara enjoying dessert

A few years back, Souzz and I made flaming Baked Alaska on a packrafting trip in West Virginia with our good friend Sara. The trip was Sara’s Bon Voyage before she moved to Alaska, and we wanted to send her off in style.

Naturally we chose a backcountry meal that required dry ice, a dutch oven, and a hand-crank mixer. It may have been our most outrageous camping meal ever, and to this day it serves as proof that even the stupidest and most futile gesture can yield a good meal. It also gave us a taste for more.

Baked Alaska supposedly was created as a novelty dessert to celebrate the Alaska Purchase way back in 1867. A combination of ice cream, cake, and meringue, it appeared in fancy restaurants off and on for the next 100 years or so before peaking in popularity during the 1960s as a dinner party treat.

That was of course a time when flaming dishes like bananas foster, crepes suzette, and cherries jubilee burst on the scene…and probably a time when a lot of drapes were accidentally lit on fire by careless hosts while people sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes at the dinner table.

Since then, the dish has slowly faded into obscurity, with cruise ship mass-marketed dessert menus perhaps the lone holdover (along with packboat campouts). But when it is done well, it is still a worthy dish, and one with a lot of interesting variations. For instance, there is a “reversed” version called Frozen Florida (warm liqueur inside, cold meringue outside), and there is a sponge cake version popular in Hong Kong called Flame on the Iceberg.

A more contemporary adaptation comes by way of the restaurant at Aleyska, a ski resort in Alaska (of course), just south of Anchorage. The pastry chef at Alyeska, Chef Scott Fausz, uses mousse (two different kinds) instead of ice cream, which makes for a lighter dessert that is much more more popular with today’s crowd. Baked Alyeska also includes a layer of ganache under the meringue. As you might imagine, putting it together requires a bit of a time commitment (suggestion: wear comfortable shoes and bring a bag lunch).

Alyeska’s recipe actually spans two days, as we soon learned, although much of that time is spent watching the freezer. The mousses (one chocolate, one raspberry) and layers of chocolate cake are assembled and frozen before the ganache and meringue are added (the mousse/cake step alone took us a solid two hours).

The entire recipe is a bit unusual, calling for gelatin sheets (I didn’t even know what those were) and meringue powder (we couldn’t find that locally, so we just made a regular meringue). Oh, and the gelatin sheets must be bloomed” before using, which turns out to be just a fancy culinary term for “soaking them in water.”

Once the dome of mousse and cake was frozen, we drizzled on the ganache and then coated the whole assembly thoroughly with meringue. We then browned the almost-finished product with a torch and let it sit for a few hours.

Afterwards, we both agreed that making this dish in the backcountry would be completely absurd, as even doing it in our home kitchen was a challenge. Sara is on her own on this one.

 

Baked-alaska.paradeMost of what makes this dish fun is the mix of textures and the interesting flavor combinations. Add in 150 years of history, including a bizarre cruise ship tradition called a Baked Alaska Parade, and you have a dessert, a story, and a trip through time–all rolled into one.

It was almost enough to have me searching for a Manhattan and a pack of smokes.