using what you’ve got

The October issue of Harpers has a wonderfully food-obsessed letter by Patrick Symmes, who spent a month in Havana living on an official Cuban journalist’s salary–$15. Though, as a foreigner, he lacks the ration book that would have made his life easier, he makes the connections he needs to procure most of what the ration book would have provided, without breaking the bank.

Good thing, too, as the rations aren’t nearly enough to live on for a month: 1 pound grain; 1 piece fish; 1 pound crude sugar; 4 pounds refined sugar. Everybody has some kind of source on the side.

But seriously, what to do with all that sugar? You can only put so much in your budget-busting coffee, can only cook so much expensive fruit in simple syrup. No way an American palate could figure out what to do with the rest, and even Cubans must find it a challenge. A Cuban contact told him the secret.

When your stash of foreign whiskey has run out and you find yourself “hard-pressed to enjoy [1,700-calorie-a-day] Cuba without a drink,” you start looking for yeast, purified water, and the clean tubing that will turn your government-issued pressure cooker (given out as part of an energy-saving scheme) into a still. Distillation complete, Symmes writes, “this pattern continued for the last week of my residence[: i]nstant stomachache, mild drunk; headache. The two or three hours in the middle were well worth it.”

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