I’m trying to read more fiction this year, and on an unrelated note, I’ve also been trying to cook more. Stove-top cooking isn’t really my thing; I much prefer the science behind baking. But when I came across Next Year in Havana, it brought back memories of my trip to Cuba. And ropa vieja.
I had never thought much about visiting Cuba until I got an email from school opening up the business research trip to first-years. I stressed about it for maybe 12 hours (that’s my MO, stressing about everything), then submitted my application before I could chicken out. Since I had no expectations (all I knew about Cuba was what was in the history books and also from I Love Lucy), it ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Next Year in Havana
Traveling has opened my eyes to the fact that there is more than one truth, more than one reality. History is written, and rewritten, by the winners. And being in the US, we are only exposed to one truth. The rest of the world doesn’t see things the way we do. At the same time, other countries are insulated in their views of reality as well; I’ve experienced some form of racism every place I’ve visited, and the locals didn’t think twice about their behavior.
But this isn’t about that. (Not entirely, anyway.) Next Year in Havana is two parallel stories, set some 60 years apart, of a granddaughter and her grandmother. The grandmother, Elisa, is living through the months leading up to the ousting of Batista, through the initial establishment of Castro’s regime, and finally to the family’s exile to Miami. Her granddaughter, Marisol, visits Cuba for the first time, her grandmother’s ashes in hand, to fulfill her final wish.
Ropa vieja appears only once in the book. It’s a shredded meat dish, simmered for hours in a blend of tomatoes and spices. Every time we had it in Cuba, it was served with rice, black beans, and yucca (a delicious root vegetable eaten in Cuba).
This might not be the most authentic recipe, but from the five different times we had ropa vieja in Havana, the ingredients looked most like what I ate. The original recipe called for a slow cooker, but I couldn’t find mine so I made it on the stove.
2lbs beef flank steak
1 can beef broth (14.5oz)
1 can tomato sauce (8oz)
1 small onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can tomato paste (6oz)
cumin, salt, pepper
Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over med-high heat.
Brown flank steak on each side, about 4min per side.
Transfer steak into pot (or slow cooker).
Add broth and tomato sauce, turn heat to high.
Stir fry onion and bell pepper in skillet with leftover fat.
Add rest of ingredients to pot, stir til blended.
When pot comes to boil, turn heat down to low-med and simmer for 4hrs.
Shred meat and serve with rice and black beans.
I used the whole can of broth (the original recipe called for one cup but what was I going to do with the rest?) and I eyeballed the spices. I also didn’t have any yucca; if I make this recipe again, I would definitely want to make some yucca to serve with the beans and rice.
While I recognized some of the points the author makes regarding the state of the country (like the fluctuating availability of food, the two-currency system, people being political), I had trouble reading this as a work of fiction, because I kept comparing the descriptions to my experience. I also couldn’t help thinking it was a very American point-of-view (which makes sense, since it was published in the US). On our trip, we met with business leaders in nine different industries, and a couple were obviously pro-Castro. While this wouldn’t have served the narrative, this book might be the only account of Cuba a reader has. There’s no other side of the story.
Also, I didn’t realize it was a romance. To be fair, I didn’t know much about the plot beyond it being about Cuba. So it took me a good chunk of the book (about 1/3 of the way in) to get into the story, because I wasn’t in the frame of mind to read a romance. But once I got over that, I really enjoyed the book, even though the relationship wasn’t the most believable.
I would recommend Next Year in Havana to anyone interested in Cuba. The author made a point about tourists romanticizing Cuba, and I also found that to be the case. If you plan to visit, you shouldn’t walk in treating it like a Caribbean vacation. The standard of quality, even at the resorts, will be restricted by circumstance. I’m not sure I would recommend this book if you were looking for a romance to read. But as with life, if you come in with no expectations, you will enjoy it much more.
Check out the rest of my trip to Cuba here.