New Year’s Revolution: The Cuban Diet

After this season of excess, I plan to follow a modified version of Patrick Symmes recent model for weight loss and fiscal restrain.

After this season of excess, I plan to follow a modified version of Patrick Symmes recent model for weight loss and fiscal restrain. I call it The Cuban Diet and it is based on his month-long effort to live as an average Cuban, in Cuba, as recorded in his October 2010 article in Harper’s Magazine: Thirty Days as a Cuban: pinching pesos and dropping pounds in Havana.

I love reading stories like this. North Americans venture forth to live as the other more-than-half the world live — and they survive to tell the tale.

Symmes gave himself the average income of a Cuban intellectual — $15 a month. That would be his to buy everything he needed to survive. Naturally he was counting on getting the monthly ration of food that reportedly all Cubans get.

Per person, that ration is four pounds refined sugar, one pound crude sugar, one pound grain, one piece fish and three rolls, all carefully noted in a little ration booklet. There are separate depots where you get specific items — for instance eggs. He also got 10 eggs. For the month. And most Cubans typically supplement their diet with four to five pounds of poor quality rice per month. About a tin can full of rice a day.

Symmes had begun his Cuban diet while still in New York — living mostly off rice and beans — and he’d expected to also get a monthly allotment of five pounds of black beans, as generally reported by outside food agencies about Cubans. He was mortified to discover that ration was now only eight ounces of beans. A month.

He lost 10 pounds in the first 18 days.

He’d managed to rent a sparse apartment (with money outside his $15 budget) — but was shocked to find: “One problem is food, but another is how do you pay your light bill, the gas, the rent? Electricity has gone up four to seven times in cost compared with before”— a quarter of the typical salary.”

Symmes discovered that clothes are available only through trading; most Cubans have two pairs of pants. That’s all.

I found myself curling up with fear as he recounted his efforts to manage his money in the face of hunger. The visceral desperation he described made me feel ashamed of the excess and waste we have here.

He’d made another mistake in his financial calculations. Apparently in order to survive, most Cubans have an ‘extra’ — a side job of some kind, like black-market trade in heisted goods or prostitution.

Symmes recounts how he becomes light-headed with hunger and fatigue.

Exhausted from walking everywhere to save money, he sees a Pizza sign — and impulsively decides to buy one and then supersizes it with chorizo sausage topping.

After the purchase, he realizes his stupidity. He could have bought pounds of rice for the same amount that he’s spent on this tiny crust of dough smeared with ketchup and sausage. He cries.

Like Cubans, from the huge monthly ration of sugar he brews up some white lightning to dull the pain of hunger.

I wondered if this is how the poor also live in Canada. Is it how one remains poor? Light-headed from hunger, impulsivity reigns. Perhaps struggling between two or three jobs, your energy drained — unrestored by the poor food you can afford — or chosen by impulse or ignorance?

Or no job, no energy to find one. In Canada, the distances far too great to walk for job search; too expensive or time consuming by bus?

I recall my days at local inter-agency meetings when the food bank requested more boxes of mac and cheese dinner. Despite its paucity of nutritional value, it is something poor people know how to make. It comes in a kit.

In Canada, they often say the poor eat the most fast food. It is available, seems to be inexpensive, but the nutritional quality is so low it’s almost guaranteed to keep you hungry. And maybe poor.

After a month, Symmes flies home. Cubans told him “we have distribution schemes to feed the poor, to give benefits. But that’s another way of domination, keeping people eternally poor. Free my hands, I’ll start a business and feed myself.”

He also writes: “The problem in Cuba isn’t food, or clothes. It’s the total lack of civil liberty, and therefore of economic liberty, which is why you have to have the libreta [ration book] in the first place.”

By contrast, we have civil liberty here and we still have many poor — and they are surrounded by the excessive indulgence of the rest of us.

As in a recent Advocate article about fashion — could we all live with just a 100 things? Or like the Cubans, on just beans and rice? One egg every three days? Nothing wasted. Food prices are rising. We might have to.

Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka-based freelance writer.