Wednesday, June 29, 2016


In a country that's dealt with decades of rationing, ice cream is the
public luxury. Sit down for your 15-scoop serving

Havana—beautiful, decaying, perfumed by diesel fumes and sweet sea
air—is a challenging place for an outsider to come to grips with, even
after repeated visits: Why has someone left the carefully arranged head
and feet of a dismembered goat outside a Catholic church? Why are the
taxis nicknamed almendrones (literally, "big almonds")? And, perhaps
most puzzlingly, why do Cuban adults eat so much ice cream?
Starting around 10 a.m. and going well into the evening, Havana,
especially its Old and Central quarters, is filled with people—an old
lady with smooth, nut brown skin; a young man with an
Elvis-meets-Reggaeton hairstyle; a teenaged girl in
microshorts—consuming great quantities of helado with remarkable
dedication. Some eat out on the street, but most spoon up their
pint-size sundaes in one of the city's busy ice cream parlors, gorgeous
but weather-beaten, where it's not unusual to line up for an hour and a
half to get in.
Cuban ice cream parlors are curious places. Arlequí­n, a medium-size
store on a busy, pedestrianized street in Central Havana, is done up as
if a child's birthday party were about to start, its walls illustrated
with huge cartoon characters that seem drawn from some trippy fairy
tale. Yet for all the frivolity of the decor, the mood inside is oddly
subdued, as though the liveliness of Havana had been held back at the
door. Ice cream shops may be the only places in the city where there's
no music, and the volume of conversation barely rises above the murmur
of a library. The waitresses, dressed in 1950s soda fountain outfits
(jaunty little hats, cute monogrammed aprons), are taciturn. I sat at a
table with a couple of teenaged boys sharing earbuds, and a
jolly-looking group of friends in their 60s, and between them they
barely spoke a word.
It's a strange contradiction, particularly to a foreigner, but after a
few days packed solid with ice cream eating, I started to understand it.
As one man told me as we waited in a long, snaking line, "In Cuba, ice
cream is social." It's just a particular kind of social: people who
still subsist on rationed goods, collectively enjoying the rare
experience of having as much as they want of something, surrounded by
their compatriots, all alone together.
Copellia is the city's best-known ice cream parlor. Fidel Castro
commissioned it in the early days of the Revolution, and while Havana is
full of buildings that evoke faded glory and eroded optimism, Copellia
is a particularly vivid example. Castro was inspired to create the shop,
which bears strong resemblance to a modernist cathedral, after his first
official visits to the United States, where he was turned on to American
ice cream and its abundance of flavors. As with baseball, Castro seems
to have been both impressed by Cuba's imperialist neighbor and
determined to surpass it. Built on the site of a former hospital,
Coppelia was made to accommodate 1,000 guests at a time and served up 26
different flavors of ice cream in its early years. Today, beneath its
soaring arches and stained glass windows you're lucky to be able to
choose among three, due to the shortages Cuba has been dealing with
since various expansions of the American embargo, and the collapse of
the Soviet Union.
But the number of available flavors doesn't seem to deter Habaneros. The
usual order is an ensalada—an oval-shaped yellow plastic bowl containing
five scoops, perhaps with caramel sauce and crushed cookies on top—and
most people order three of them. These 15 scoops will be polished off in
about 15 minutes, after which another ensalada might be ordered and
consumed with equal speed. Many customers bring plastic buckets, ranging
in capacity from two to five pints, and before leaving order more ice
cream to go, squashing as many scoops as possible into their containers.
As I found out when I went to Heladería Ward, a large ice cream parlor
with 30-foot ceilings out by the Coliseo de la Ciudad Deportiva sports
stadium, people look at you askance if you only order a single ensalada.
Ask for the next size down—tres gracias, three scoops—and your
tablemates will assume there's been a misunderstanding and try to
correct your order.
Unlike various staple goods, such as toilet paper and cooking oil, ice
cream in Havana is very, very cheap. An ensalada costs the equivalent of
20 U.S. cents. Unsurprisingly, the quality is not always high: The
coconut ice cream at Soda Obispo, a popular store in La Habana Vieja
(Old Havana), is delicious, full of strands of fresh fruit; but just
down the street is a busy hole-in-the-wall joint whose vanilla tastes
worryingly like pink bubblegum. But deliciousness is only part of the
point. During the Special Period (the era of terrible scarcity in Cuba
that began with the decline of the Soviet Union), "ice cream was made
with water instead of milk, and it still sold well," said Maria, who
has worked behind the counter at Soda Obispo for decades. In the large
back room there I found Wilber, a stocky man in a once-white tank top,
who has been making the ice cream there for 15 years. Over the din of
his machines, he explained that today his milk—"all full fat"—comes from
New Zealand, Mexico, and Uruguay.
"The government buys it from those countries, then sells it to us for an
affordable price," he said. At some level, the Cuban state has
apparently decided that a population with limited access to many
essentials deserves, at the very least, affordable ice cream. At the
beginning of the Special Period, Cuba lost suppliers of both powdered
milk (East Germany, during reunification) and butter (an economically
depressed Soviet Union). Without money to buy these products elsewhere,
the government had to decide whether the labor of its small number of
cows would go toward the production of butter or milk for ice cream. Ice
cream won.
One possible reason for this was offered up to me by a man I met who
runs a casa particular where people can rent rooms and where I once
stayed, and who also sells pirated DVDs and software in Central Havana.
"People like me, with their own businesses, go to comedy clubs in
Vedado," he said, referring to a more upscale neighborhood. "We'll pay
the entrance fee, have some beers, and hang out there. But people
earning a regular salary in national pesos can't afford that." For the
average Havana resident living on a regular state salary, a few beers in
a bar would add up to a week's wages. An ice cream parlor may be the
only place regular people can afford to eat or drink with others.
The best ice cream I ate in Havana came from a tiny store in La Habana
Vieja called El Naranjal. It was a modest-size vanilla ice cream
sandwich. Acquiring it took about a minute and cost the equivalent of 60
U.S. cents, which would have been affordable to the Cubans walking past
me as I left the store. But outside on the street, passing packed ice
cream parlors, I understood why my sandwich's deliciousness was only
part of the Cuban ice cream experience. I finished it alone, then headed
back to my room.

Source: Inside Cuba's Intense Ice Cream Obsession | SAVEUR -

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