Fried plantains and a Cuban sandwich
Since the United State and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in 2015, the country’s tourism industry has exploded, with special interest from American visitors adding to the boom. Prohibited from traveling to the island nation since 1962, they now seek the nostalgia of driving vintage cars and tasting the mojitos at Hemingway’s hangouts.
Tourists are also seeking out the paladares, private restaurants that grew from small home-cooking venues in the 1990s to full-scale restaurants with excellent chefs, many European trained. These establishments have created a parallel food economy that promotes locally grown vegetables and new food vendors—and one that starkly contrasts that of the state-run and -supplied markets.
Johanna Mendelson Forman, an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service, uses what she terms “conflict cuisines” to examine how the power of diplomacy connects food to diaspora communities. She discusses the evolution and historical importance of Cuban foodways, covering culinary influences including the Spanish colonial period, the era of slave culture, and the rise of the socialist state; the impact of the embargo; and the challenges that the opening means to the growth of the hospitality industry and the future of Cuba.
She also explores how the Cuban cuisine we taste in restaurants mirrors the food memories of those who prepare it. Four waves of Cuban migration have brought different dishes and interpretations of traditional fare. These distinctions—sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic—are there for the tasting in the menus of chefs that reflect the time period of their arrival as refugees. All are based on the recollections of a shared homeland, but each food can tell a personal story by the way it is prepared. Some things are constant, however: great coffee, great music, and a passion for what each generation of arrivals believes is their own taste of home.
The evening includes a cocktail and bite from the newly opened Colada Shop and a sampling of Cuban foods from Mi Cuba Café in Mount Pleasant.