Let this be duly noted at the onset: Anita Snow's stint as a hunger artist is nothing but a charade, an imposture and a fraud. To all those attributes let us add too unoriginality and callousness to a degree seldom encountered in that most cynical of all enterprises known as American journalism. The idea, of course, did not originate with Ms. Snow; if her mind ever actually hosted an original idea it would likely implode because it is not used to any kind of expansion. No, it was a New York City councilman who decided to subsist on the $21.00 which individual Food Stamp recipients are allotted in New York, which seems almost a kingly stipend compared to the $17.00 per month which working-class Cubans earn per month. The councilman complained that the diet he was obliged to follow on $21.00 per week was "unhealthy," but he did not complain that it was insufficient. A lot of pasta, rice and potatoes can be bought for $21.00 a week, more, in fact, than 5 people could eat in a week. It is not the fare to which the councilman is accustumed — bird food ornately served in bird-size portions at posh restaurants where eating is the last thing on people's minds; but it will keep body and soul together with no great exertions other than opening the mailbox and procuring the food itself, which shouldn't take too long in a city where there is a grocery store on every corner. If the food stamp recipient is elderly or handicapped his diet is further supplemented by "Meals on Wheels," which provides three daily hot meals to the homebound; if a child, he is provided with a Wick voucher for additional foods such as milk, cheese and fruit juices, among many others. In short, everyone who is not a bum gets at least $100.00 more in food in addition to the $21.00 food stamp stipend alloted to individual recipients per week.
If a Cuban had such resources at his disposal from a beneficent state he would consider himself amply and completely provided for. It is only in the U.S. that such public largesse would be regarded as insufficient by a councilman whose sole complaint was that the food gave him indigestion unaccustumed as he was to eating actual food rather than representations of food.
We suspect that food does not play a big part in the life of The New York Times' dilettante of a reporter. Even the meager food basket of rationed items in Cuba — which, incidentally, must be bought and is not given away — is too starchy for her epicurian tastes. There are individuals in U.S. society, starlets, models and ace girl reporters, for whom food is the most significant fact in their lives: it is significant by its absense. To such a palate, or anti-palate, the Cuba ration card is filled with forbidden unprocessed goodies. But those who don't eat and drink with pincers and an eye-dropper will find it almost impossible to subsist on such a meager diet, the provisions of which are obtained only with herculean exertions, though even these are often not enough because the promised foodstuffs are unavailable. Cubans who have no access to dollars and cannot supplement their diet by buying on the black market or in the even more usurous government stores must make do with "monthly" provisions which are scarcely enough for one week.
Snow is keeping a blog diary devoted to her month-long "ordeal." The actual ordeal of Cubans who have subsisted on a government-imposed diet for 45 years has never been reported by The Times perhaps because of the misconception that all Cubans eat alike which is supposed to somehow make-up for the fact that they eat offal.
Before the 1959 Revolution, Cubans were the largest consumers of rice on the continent (and, indeed, outside of Asia) and the third-largest consumers of beef in the Western Hemisphere after the "cattle republics" of Argentina and Uruguay. In 1958, there were as many head of cattle in Cuba as there were people — 6 milion. The population of Cuba has doubled since then, but the number of cattle has fallen to 1 million, which is the reason that beef is not legally sold or consumed on the island anymore and milk is provided only to children under the age of 7 (those over that age obviously don't need it). Cubans, who before Castro imported only the finest grade Chinese rice, now must make do with the lowest grade Vietnamese kind, filled with little pebbles and vermint, which in Vietnam is fed to pigs.
In short, before the Revolution, Cubans consumed 2682 calories per person per day. Based on the items provided in the ration card, daily caloric consumption is now under 800 calories. This has a word — starvation, and starvation should be the subject of Anita Snow's story. Instead, the focus of her story is her own discomfiture at having to conform voluntarily to a diet which she considers sufficient if uninspired. Did I say "sufficient?" No, not sufficient, more than sufficient since she confesses in her blog diary that she was "terrified" by the superabundance of carbohydrates provided on the ration card, so much so in fact that she "gave away most of [her] four pounds of potatoes early on," and, we may add, with no regrets. She even has the gall to compare her case to that of the 2004 documentary Super Size Me whose protagonist ate nothing but McDonald's fare for 30 days. That guy consumed more beef in one month than the average Cuban born after the Revolution has consumed in a lifetime. Ms. Snow, if she is faithful to her alternatively-titled diet, will eat no beef at all in that month and a day's worth of chicken or pork. This deprivation of proteins and "surfeit" of carbohydrates she actually compares to that guy's protein cum carbohydrate bacchanalia at McDonald's.
Ms. Snow, unlike most of humanity, doesn't care for either carbohydrates or proteins. What she is "hungry for constantly is green things" like spinach and lettuce. But she is on a "tight plan" and can't afford her fill of chlorophyll and must make do with sweet potatoes, which she informs us that a friend of hers says "better off Cubans commonly give to their dogs!" (note the exclamation mark). Well, that must be the reason there are no boniatos in Cuba, and why a friend of mine, who recently travelled to Cuba, informed me that she was served a "sweet potato" by her niece which turned out to be a common potato doused in almibar (sugar syrup).
In the middle of her musings about her "predicament" trying to eat from such a horn of plenty as she considers Cuba's ration card to be, she lets slip, or strategically places, quite inconspicuously, what should have been the opening line of her commentary: "During my first week of eating on a food program similar to Cuba's universal ration, plus an average salary for extras..." Well, so she is in fact not eating in concert with Cubans: she is on a plan similar but not identical to the ration plan. So it's a case of apples and oranges (neither of which are available to Cubans). What are the differences between her plan and the plan forced on Cubans by the State? She does not say.
She does admit that in addition to her similar plan she also has at her disposal a Cuban's average weekly salary to spend just on food. Except that Cubans cannot spend their $4.20 average weekly pay on just food, but must also pay rent to Fidel, utilities and, yes, even taxes. She also has her car at her disposal to take her wherever food may suddenly appear in Havana or just as suddenly disappear. But, in solidarity with the Cuban people, she has spurned her car and is following a transportation plan similar to that of Cubans; she takes "taxis that cost about 10 pesos each way to and from the market." Oh yeah, ordinary Cubans do their shopping in taxis.
Ms. Snow is especially enamored of Cuban fruits, which she must think were bioengineered by the Revolution. She raves: "I've lived in Latin America for nearly 15 years, and in all my travels I've never seen some of the exotic fruits I've found in this Caribbean island." Again, please take note of the "some" which is the operative word in the sentence and serves the same purpose here as "similar." She claims that some fruits she has seen in Cuba she has never seen elsewhere in Latin America. Whether that is true or not, it is certainly plausible. By the same token there are hundreds of fruits that grow in South America that are not cultivated in Cuba. One fact does not exclude the other and both are meaningless. And what, pray, does the fruits that she sees have to do with the fruits available to ordinary Cubans? She means to imply, of course, that Cubans have more fruits at their disposal than do other Latin Americans, which is a palpable lie. This is not reporting but disinformation. In Cuba, such a simple thing as an orange is available only through a medical prescription for vitamin deficiency.
Ms. Snow is also a connoisseur, indeed a fetishist, for beans and legumes, and the miraculous Farmer's Market on the outskirts of Havana that she reaches by car or taxi offers her a wondrous variety, though she does lament that she cannot obtain the ham hock required for a recipe she found on the internet. So our little meal planner uses the internet to find recipes when slumming on a diet similar to that of Cubans? Cubans, of course, don't have that luxury because Castro prohibits them from access to the internet lest they learn how the rest of the world lives (or eats). Snow takes Cubans to task for "hating" the dried yellow pea — she means split pea — which are the only ones provided on the ration card. She "discovers" with "a little research" that dried yellow peas "are a favorite in Scandanavia!" (again, the exclamation mark). So now she is implying that Cubans eat better than do Scandinavians because Cubans spurn the precious hockless split pea soup that Scandinavians love. Yes, Cubans do hate yellow split pea having been forced-fed it for 45 years; but they don't spurn it because they can't afford to. They must eat the damn split pea soup even if they hate it because they have nothing else to eat.
But Ms. Snow feels no sympathy for the hapless Cubans. In fact, she considers herself "disadvantaged" compared to them: "The reality is that no matter what salary or spending limit I set (that's another choice she has that Cubans don't), it will not take into account the myriad ways people obtain food here, so when it comes to this experiment of eating as Cubans do, I am at an extreme disadvantage." If she were a beautician, for example, "she might get farm-made cheese from a visitor from the countryside in exchange for a haircut." Really? Farm-made cheese for a few snips from a rusty scissors? Here's an idea: Why doesn't Ms. Snow set up as a beautician and see how many wheels of cheese customers give her; or, better yet, ask her relatives in the States to send her cash remittances, which she says 50 percent of Cubans receive. She doesn't explain, however, why Cubans on the island still depend on the largesse of their Miami relatives to eat 48 years after the Cuban Revolution supposedly freed the island from want.
Ms. Snow reports without questioning it the regime's figure that Cubans consume 3356 calories per person per day [A State Department Report from 1998 notes that "in calorie consumption, Cuba has fallen from third among Latin American countries at 2,730 calories a day to last in 1995 at 2,291 calories a day]. No calculation however slanted will ever yield a figure of 3356, which must be the aggregate of those "myriad [10 thousand] miraculous ways" in which Cubans obtain food which are a mystery to the disadvantaged New York Times reporter.
A Cuban economist pointed out in the 1960s, when the ration card was actually more ample than it is today, that the weekly rations which Spanish colonial law mandated be distributed to Cuban slaves last century far exceeded the Castro regime's rations for its slaves. 19th-century Cuban slaves were alloted 12 lbs of pork or beef jerk (tasajo) a week per individual and a limitless quantity of viands, for example. If their masters cheated them of their lawful rations they actually had the right to sue them before the local magistrate and demand manumission (release from slavery) in compensation. Let's see a Cuban try to do that today.
Ms. Snow says that her Cuban friends — no doubt all government officials laughing at her gullibility — are "taking bets on whether [she'll] make it till July." Don't worry, she'll make it, especially after admitting that she supplements her meals at their well-appointed tables.