Kindly contributed by Julia Cooke, author of The Other Side of Paradise, Life in the New Cuba, a series of personable essays focused on a unique cast of characters, from the punks to the prostitutes to the Santeria practitioners who make up the youth culture of the island nation. Cooke charts the lives, thoughts and dreams of her subjects as she lives among them.
I don’t remember how we got to the Trinidad restaurant or really what we had for our main course. The dishes were staple criollo food: small shrimp, scent of garlic. My mother and I had been on a road trip through Cuba for a week, and this was among our final stops. I’d been living in Havana for eight months or so, and I’d fallen into the habit of not booking anything in advance; all of the best casas were full, but we found a spot anyway. All of the best paladares, in-home restaurants, were also full. Perhaps it was the woman who ran the casa we stayed in, or the young girl who cleaned the rooms, or even the man we spoke to at the beach that day. Someone gave us an address and we went to the restaurant.
The word “restaurant” is misleading. We sat alone in his garden, my mother and I and candles that the tall, bulky man in an Ed Hardy t-shirt lit to combat with tiny glowing warmth the terrible fluorescent lighting radiating, along with the cooking smells, from the kitchen. The trees that grew up around the heavy, chipping cast-iron patio furniture were lush and improbable, rooted as they were in land interrupted by concrete paths and patios. But our host had banana trees, palms, blushing flowers. He moved slowly, he anticipated what we wanted before we wanted it, bottles of water and napkins and a side of plantain fufu, but he took his time with everything. He lay out two sticky plastic placemats and we ate. After dinner, he brought out a small plastic canister of vanilla Nestle ice cream and pulled three small bananas down from a tree. He cut them meticulously into two bowls in front of us. “I’d never had anything so creamy before in my life,” my mother says now. When she tasted a Cuban banana, her eyes widened, her mouth puckered, she cocked her head and looked at the bowl, the tree, my face, back to the bowl and to the banana inside of it.
I had gotten used to them, and so I had forgotten. Cuban bananas are thin-skinned, sensitive, go from underripe to pungent brown in a day, are reduced to mush a day later. But the return: a banana that tastes like banana ice cream, a banana that slides along the tongue, a banana of which my mother still says, wonderingly, “It was amazing.” Our host that night smiled and pulled four more off the tree and set them in front of my mother. Reverently, now as slow as he, my mother peeled one more at the no-name non-restaurant, broke it into thirds, and ate each piece with her eyes closed and the fluorescent glare of the kitchen light on her eyelids.