Sep 17, 2021

A Conversation with Dr. Hanna Garth

Talking to the author of 'Food in Cuba' about how agriculture works on the island, what makes for "a decent meal," and more.

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Alicia Kennedy
Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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I was wildly excited to get to chat with Dr. Hanna Garth, professor of anthropology at Princeton University, when I had just finished reading her brilliant book Food in Cuba: In Pursuit of a Decent Meal, which has already seeped deeply into my thinking. It reframes what we consider adequacy versus cultural identity and social needs, and shows precisely how deep our human need for not just having our nutritional but our cultural needs met goes. It’s simply fabulous, and Garth’s empathy and rigor make for a really riveting read.

The intersection of food’s political and pleasurable role has been a point of her life and research for years. In this conversation, we talk about how food media could better address nutrition, how Cuba came to rely on imported food, and more. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Hanna. Thank you so much for being here today. 

Hanna: Hi, thank you for having me. 

Alicia: First of all, I just wanted to say, Food in Cuba has been such a great book to read for a million reasons. Academic writing can be so difficult, as we all know, and you really create characters and scenes. And you draw the reader in, and you do that work to bring the reader into a place where they can really engage with what you're saying. And I just wanted to say thank you for that. [Laughs.]

Hanna: Thank you for saying that. That's so nice to hear. That was one of my goals with this book, was to be able to have non-academic people feel that they could be pulled into the book and get a lot out of it, even if they don't care at all about the nitty-gritty or the academic concepts.

Alicia: Right, right. 

No, you really do a great job. And I've been reading so much academic work ’cause I'm working on my own book. And I've had to read so many books about meat that are just very, very dry.

And I’m like, ‘Just give me something.’

But anyway. [Laughs.] Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Hanna: Yes. 

So I grew up in a relatively small town in Wisconsin. So, I'm from the Midwest. And I lived in town, but it was kind of a rural community. So a lot of farmers in the area. 

And in my household, we ate what I thought of and probably still think of as standard American lower middle to middle class fare. So for lunches, we would have Kraft mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches with Campbell's tomato soup, ham and cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My dad always made lunches ’cause he was—he worked nights and he was at home with me during the day. So he would always include carrot slices and apple slices next to those things to have a little variety. 

And dinners, we would have probably more traditional Midwestern stuff. So I don't know if you know about tater tot hotdish or hotdish. So it's basically just cans of a bunch of stuff poured together into a casserole dish, and then put tater tots on top of it and cheese and bake it. So it's really bad for you. But it's pretty delicious. 

So yeah, we would have stuff like that. And I remember both of my parents making fried chicken. They made it in different ways. My dad would make a beef stew. We would have tuna casserole, a lot of casseroles. Spaghetti with Bolognese sauce 

And we mostly ate at home. And we didn't really go out to eat very much. And when we did, it was to the same three or four local restaurants. That was basically what I ate growing up.

Alicia: I love hearing about casseroles, because I don't—I grew up on Long Island. So it was more Irish, Italian, Greek people. And so, I didn't grow up with a casserole. So I'm always like, baked ziti is the closest thing I understand to being a casserole. But I love to hear about them, because it's like this fascinating world that I never got to experience. [Laughs.]

But what made you interested in food as an area of study?

Hanna: Yeah.

Well, so it's something that has been kind of always a part of my life. So like I said, I grew up in a town that although we lived in town, it was surrounded by rural farming communities. And for instance, there on the local news every night, there's a farm and agricultural report. And it was common for people to be talking about things like the price of milk or the price that a farmer could get for selling milk and the price of a gallon of milk in the store. Or for people to talk about, like, ‘How is the corn crop doing this year? Is it too short or too high? Is there going to be a flood that's gonna ruin the crop?’

So those kinds of conversations and that kind of thinking was always part of my life growing up. And although we lived in a town we, for instance, I purchased my — my parents bought my clothes when I was a kid at a store that also sold tractors. So, an idea of how farming was an integral part of my life. 

And then also my mother and my grandmother were really into gardening. My grandmother gardened for subsistence, so she was hardcore about making sure that she took care of her garden all summer long so that she could have enough food to last through the winter. And I experienced helping her a little bit with the garden. I wasn't that active in it, but sort of thinking about connections between food cultivation and what we eat. 

I became interested in thinking about it more intellectually, kind of more as a personal interest. I started reading these food books that were coming out in the 2000s. So books by Michael Pollan, his book, Omnivore's Dilemma was really influential for me. This book calledAnimal, Vegetable, Miraclewas also really influential. I also started reading chef's biographies at the time. So I was particularly interested in women chefs and how women were sort of breaking into this masculine space to sort of take over in a different way. 

It wasn't really until I started graduate school that I realized that these things that I was personally interested in and passionate about could be the thing that I studied for my doctoral work. And once that all clicked together, I was like, ‘I want to pursue a PhD. And I want to study food and study how people sort of integrate food into their lives.’

But then also, I was really interested in food access and food inequality. There were times when I was growing up when my family went through periods where we didn't have a lot of money. Sometimes we would have no money, and he would go to the change pile and count the, count out coins. And then we would go to the day-old bread store and buy—you could buy a loaf of bread there for like 50 cents or 25 cents, and then go somewhere else and buy a pack of bologna. And he knew where you could find a pack of baloney for like $1, $1.25. And that would be our household’s lunch for the day. 

And as a kid, I was like, ‘That was just kind of a normal thing.’ And it wasn't until I got older that I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that was kind of intense. That's food insecurity.’ But also, I was always really impressed with how resourceful my dad was in sort of getting it together and making sure we had something to eat. That's the kind of question that I became interested in studying.

Alicia: Right.

And your writing really balances the frustrations of various food systems, but also that joy that people need to take in food in order to have a full life. And I noticed in your Twitter bio, you identify as a foodie. How do you personally balance your—that need for personal pleasure in food, that joy in food, and the way food has such a strong political and economic status and role?

Hanna: Yeah.

One thing that I've found in my own life, and it—with the families that I've worked with in Cuba and the families that I'm now working with in Los Angeles is that food across those settings is really important for people to connect with other people. So to connect with their family, whether that's their immediate family, people who live in their household, or to connect with their ancestors, their grandparents, great-grandparents, to connect with what, how they understand their ethnicity, their race, their nationality. 

And so what I argue in basically all of my work is that food is never just about caloric intake and nutrients, but it's always inflected with some kind of social and cultural meaning and importance. So for me, I understand that the ways that I connect to food are—so food’s political role is about my ability to be able to access the food that I connect to in this social way. And so, I take a lot of pleasure in making my grandmother's fried chicken recipe, but also making slight variations on it to make it my own and to make it more suited to the taste of my family. So this is the kind of thing that I feel balances this food as political and my identity as a foodie. 

I’ll also say that one of the things we did growing up was, I—although I lived in this small town, every once in a while, I don't know, maybe four or five times a year, we would go into Minneapolis, which was the closest city. And for my family, one of the really important things we did on those trips was to eat at restaurants that had foods that were unavailable in my town. So we would eat at Greek restaurants, Ethiopian restaurants, all kinds of Asian restaurants that we didn't have like Korean, Vietnamese, Thai. And for me, food then became this sort of vehicle of global connection, of cross-cultural appreciation of other kinds of ways of eating, other flavors on your palate that you don't experience in the food that you eat every day. 

And so, that's part of my foodieness. I'm always seeking out delicious food and delicious flavors, no matter where those things come from.

Alicia: Right, right. 

And you have a master's in public health I read, as well as your PhD in anthropology. And this gives you that, what you were just expressing, such a unique and multifaceted perspective on food. 

And in food media, in particular, we often shy away from discussing nutrition, despite how it's very significant when we're also discussing access, discussing systemic discrimination, food system inequities. Because there's this concern that if we talk about anything about nutrition, we're going to get into fatphobia. We're going to get into classism. I've been struggling myself with figuring out, ‘How do I address these sorts of things that are so significant without falling into getting criticism on that level?’ And I mean, I think it's possible, obviously.

But how, in your work, have you been able to address nutrition as an important matter around social equity and food when health is so personal for people?

Hanna: Yeah, I think that's a really good question. And I appreciate your vulnerability, how, it just—it opens you up to a particular kind of scrutiny. 

So, ok, people think of nutrition as a ‘real science.’ But nutrition science actually is something that's constantly evolving and constantly changing. If we look back in the past just a little bit, we can see how wrong we were just like 20, 30, 50 years ago, about food consumption. 

And we can also see how much the food industry has influenced nutrition as a science. So we have early nutritional studies that were funded, paid for by food lobbying groups. So they might have been paid for by the dairy industry, they might have been paid for by meat producers. Those early studies really, really influenced the ways that we went for nutrition. So something as simple as thinking that red meat consumption would cause heart disease. That's something that's being torn apart right now. And it's something that we're starting to see that the science really was not very clear on. Or dietary fat consumption, for instance. 

I think about nutrition as something that is ever evolving and changing and that we're learning more and more about it. And that it's actually really important to understand the settings of people's everyday lives and what people are actually consuming, and how that contributes sort of back to our understanding of nutrition. 

So, I think it's just cool or tragic, depending on how you think of it, to see that nutrition is actually open to scrutiny. It's not this ‘you must follow the food pyramid’ or ‘the food plate,’ whatever the USDA is telling people now. 

But at the same time, I think it's also really important to have to be empowered with a little bit of basic nutritional knowledge. So to understand what our basic macronutrients are. So, what is a protein? What is a fat? What is a carbohydrate? And to think about the building blocks that we need in order to function on a daily basis. If I'm sort of assessing what someone's eating, I might make note that this—someone's eating a lot of carbohydrates, and they're maybe not getting enough dietary fat or protein in their everyday food consumption. 

Those are the kinds of things that then I can connect that with social equity issues and access issues related to health. Most of us know that eating refined carbohydrates is the cheapest and quickest way to fill ourselves up. But often, refined carbohydrates don't provide us with all of the nutrients that we need for basic functioning from anything from the ability to use our muscles to the ability to use our brains properly. 

So when I start to see families that have, that are unable to purchase the variety of macronutrients that they really should be having in order to be able to function, then I can talk about how the syst—the structural systems are in place that are making it so that they can only afford to subsist on and barely function on the cheapest foods that are available in our system. And that is linked to a whole long history of lobbying in our federal government, the way that our farming and price supports are structured, as well as what people are calling food apartheid, so a separate and unequal type of food system. 

Alicia: Right. 

That's so great to have that. [Laughs.] And to kind of switch gears towards your books, specifically Food In Cuba, specifically Food and Identity in the Caribbean, which you edited. To start off, why did you choose to focus on Cuba as the site of your field research?

Hanna: Yeah. 

So, there's two prongs to the answer to that. One is personal and one is academic. The personal part is that Cuba was the first place that I traveled to outside of the United States. I traveled there the summer after I graduated from high school. I went there. I had become sort of enamored with socialism and the idea that this was a wonderful place where people had access to free education and low cost housing and free food. 

And then when I got there, and I started talking to people, people were like, ‘No, it's terrible here. We wish we were in the United States, where you have these other opportunities.’ And I, as a young person, was just very perplexed by that. It was confusing to me. And so, I kept sort of pursuing this question of why people who have access to all of these things that I didn't have free access to, and they—why they focused on the difficulties and the complexities of those systems and why they sort of wish that they had something else. So, that's the personal pull for why I kept doing the research. 

And then, the academic reason is that it's fascinating that Cuba is the only place in the world that still has a food rationing system for every single resident. So they provide a basic amount of food for everyone, regardless of your status as a wage earner. You don't have to qualify for food stamps or EBT,. You just are given basic, what you would basic—what we would call a basic breadbasket. And so that, in and of itself, is an interesting question. It's the only place that still does that. And it does a lot to prevent severe forms of malnutrition and hunger. And so, that was what drew me to doing research there.

Alicia: Right. 

And you've also worked more broadly on food and identity in the Caribbean and Latin America. Why are these places of particular interest? I know, you're going to be coming to Puerto Rico soon, too. [Laughs.]

Hanna: Yeah.

Well, I mean, I think I'm interested in particular sets of colonial histories that have impacted the region. So a shared problem of being the location of extractive capitalism for European colonialism, and then for American occupation. That's a very long history, but that long history has a really complicated and ongoing impact on basic things like food access across the region. So that shared historical foundation has led to both these complexities in food access, but also similarities in terms of cuisine. 

So I'm fascinated by little nuances between the islands of different things that have become the traditional dish or more widely consumed, even if it's something as just the different way that a plantain is prepared. So it's that kind of cross between the foodie in me and the social scientist in me is what makes me interested in the whole region.

Alicia: I love the idea of looking at it more gastronomically, and those impacts too, obviously. 

And in reading your book, Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal, it gave me so much to think about. Because I had this—of course, so many other people on the left—this idealized vision of what Cuba, what eating and being in Cuba would be like. And living in Puerto Rico, we—there's so much writing about how 85% of food is imported. And I've done this writing, too, but before I lived here, and then when I live here, I experience so much abundance of foods and just so much sharing and generosity in food. And whether people have just their own garden, or they have a farm, there's just—there's so much food here, grown here. It's just really that contrast between the official kind of line and the actual lived experience has been such an interesting thing to understand. 

And because Cuba, as you wrote, is so dependent on imports. I really was shocked by that. Yeah, I just, I thought it would be this—a similar sort of situation to Puerto Rico, at least in terms of smaller farming. Because there's that poem from the 1800s, two wings of the same bird. 

So, can you explain sort of why Cuba has been dependent on imports and what agriculture does look like on the island? And how that shapes what people eat? What is agriculture like? Is their agriculture outside of state control? 

Hanna: Yeah. 

What is it, two wings on the same bird?

Alicia: Of the same bird? 

Hanna: Ok. two wings of the same bird. 

I think it's true. There's so many similarities between Puerto Rico and Cuba. And one thing, right, were that they both started as these sugar growing plantations, societies based on chattel slavery of enslaved Africans. And that they were seen as places that were producing sugar, producing sweetness for the rest of the world. 

Then sugar brought a lot of money. So it made sense to build an economic system off of sugar, but also that whole economic system was supported by free enslaved labor. So Cuba continued to heavily produce sugar, basically, all the way until really now. 

Between the late 1800s and the 1950s, Cuba had sort of preferential trade agreements with the United States. They produced a lot of sugar that was exported to the United States. And then when Cuba became socialist and the United States embargoed trade, shortly thereafter, they made geopolitical agreements with the Soviet Union. And so, they were able to preferentially trade sugar for all kinds of goods, anywhere from weapons to canned foods. 

And when I say preferential trade, I mean that the Soviet Union gave them a better price than the price on the market. So that reliance, because the early socialist system was built on that reliance, and it really was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union, or a little bit in the 1980s, that Cuba started to try to develop a more robust agricultural system. 

People in Cuba and elsewhere say that it's really because of that reliance, that Cuba's domestic agricultural production system was never fully developed. And then the problem was that when they tried to develop the agricultural system, it was the 1990s. It was their worst—possibly now, their second worst—economic crisis. And so, there were no inputs. There was no fuel. There were not tractors there. It was too difficult to develop domestic agriculture at that time.

Between the 1990s, and now, there have been all kinds of efforts to increase domestic agricultural production. And a lot of those things have happened. But they haven't happened maybe in the way that we might imagine. 

So one example is that Cuba has increased their ability to process food on the island. So instead of importing fully processed goods, they import raw goods and then process them themselves. Instead of buying pasta, they buy wheat, and they turn it into pasta. Or instead of buying oil, they buy soy and they process it into oil. So that's been a huge form of development, domestic development that they've done for themselves to decrease the cost of their imports. 

And then they've also developed a domestic poultry industry. More of the eggs that are consumed in Cuba come from Cuban chickens, and more of the chicken that's consumed in Cuba comes from Cuba. Meat is still heavily imported, actually. 

So when they give you the numbers of what the imports are in Cuba, it does fluctuate anywhere between 65 percent to 85 percent of what's consumed on the island is imported. And that's mostly staples and meat. But all the foods that we think of as the sort of tropical abundance foods like fruit, certain vegetables, tubers, which are viandas, really very important to Cuban cuisine. Those are produced domestically. Those are also abundant. 

So when people talk about ‘There is no food in Cuba’ or ‘There's not enough food.’ They're not talking about a lack of mangoes or plantains. Those things are all over the place. They're seasonal, though. So you can’t get a mango when it's not mango season, of course. Or you can't get an avocado if it’s not avocado season. But all those kinds of things are produced domestically. 

The state agricultural production system has fluctuated a lot over the last 20 to 30 years in terms of whether farmers are allowed to—So farmers have to sell a certain amount of food to the government. And then once they meet that quota, sometimes at different historical periods, they're allowed to sell that food directly to consumers. Or other times, they've sort of clamped down on this and not allowed farmers to sell directly to consumers. 

And part of that has to do with whether or not the farmers are asking—whether or not the farmers are using a supply and demand sale system. And then the price of those foods goes up. So Cuba systematically wants to prevent this sort of capitalist forms of price inflation. Usually, with selling surplus agricultural products, that doesn't happen, because everything is so seasonal. 

So, it's hard. If you're selling avocados during avocado season on a supply and demand price system, they're not going to be overpriced, right? But if you've got the first avocados of the season, or the last avocados of the season, you can get really good prices for those if you're using supply and demand system. 

And they've done all kinds of other things to sort of shift how people are able to access food depending on the political moment that Cuba’s in and depending on the abundance of food that they're able to buy on the global market. 

Alicia: Right, right. Interesting. [Laughs.]

Hanna: Sorry, that might be too-

Alicia: No, I loved it. No, I love it. No, that's really useful to understand. 

[Laughs.] I was just curious, reading your book where I was, I guess I was curious about the viandas. [Laughs.]

Hanna: Viandas are generally produced domestically. There are a lot of fluctuations seasonally that people will find really frustrating. So there will be periods where there's only one, there's only malanga and you can't find any other kind of tuber. And people get really frustrated. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are kind of—they're kind of luxury goods. They're a little bit more rare. And sometimes, the season of potato and sweet potato is very short. And people get very few in the year, and they find that really frustrating. 

Alicia: Oh, wow. Wow. 

It's interesting, ‘cause yucca is definitely all year here. There are things that are seasonal, but also it's funny, because there's so many—obviously, probably the same in Cuba. I'm not as familiar with the terrain.

But the microclimates here mean that one farmer who's a little higher up will have kale for only a little while and then one farmer who's more in another microclimate will have kale all year, and it's just you have to know where to go to get the, which thing that is all—it's just really interesting how the the microclimates create that sort of situation of like, ‘This might be overabundant all year, but this thing you're going to have to grab one week that it's available.’ And people don't think of the tropics as having really climates. They're just like, ‘Pineapple and mango all the time. [Laughs.]

Hanna: Yeah, there's definitely microclimates and seasons in Cuba as well.

There's been climate change effects on agriculture. So in eastern Cuba, where I work, it's been in a drought for the last five or six years, although recently there was more rain. So that drought really did affect agricultural production, because there aren't—there are not robust systems of irrigation, right, because there hasn't historically been drought. So, it has a really big impact.

Alicia: No, for sure. 

And I wanted to ask, because I think it's such a significant framework, about the decent meal. Can you explain that concept a little bit to people who haven't read your book yet?

Hanna: Yeah. 

So, I'll tell a story, I guess. One of the families that I was trying to work with early in my research was explaining to me, they kept saying, ‘There is no food in Cuba. We don't have any food. We don't eat food in this household.’ I was visiting them, and I was seeing them eating food. So I was like, ‘I'm confused. Why are you telling me there's no food when you're literally eating food?’ The woman from the household was like, ‘No, no, no, no, this isn't food. I'm eating spaghetti with some marinara sauce on it to fill myself up. But that's not food. I have some rice that I just put a fried egg on top of, but that's not a meal.’

And so it took a while for people to explain this to me over and over again, that when they said they didn't need any food, or they hadn't had food in a long time, what they meant was that they hadn't had what they consider to be a decent meal or real food. So that, for them, means a full meal that has all of the categories of different nutrients and different types of food that they're, that they believe they're supposed to have, based on historical, familial, social understandings of what is appropriate to eat. 

So in the case of where I work, a decent meal would always have rice, beans—the beans can be any kind of beans—some kind of meat. Preferably, a lot of meat. [Laughter.] Tubers or viendas prepared in any way, but they just need to be present. And then, some kind of salad or vegetable, could just be like a couple tomatoes, some avocado, a little bit of lettuce, whatever. But it has to have some sort of vegetable accompaniment. And then, to eat all of those things in a particular way and make sure that they're sort of plated in this particular way.

So in Cuba when people eat not real food, they call it sancocho, which here means like dog food. Means like pig slop. So your food should not look like sancocho.

Alicia: Oh, wow. 

Hanna: I know that's very different from other places,

Alicia: Yeah. [Laughs.] No, that's so interesting. Yeah. 

Hanna: It became really important for me to understand that, because if I didn't understand what it was that people thought of as a real meal or a decent meal, I might have just taken them in the literal sense that there was no food or they hadn't eaten any food. And I might have assumed that they were starving or having nutritional deficiencies. They might be having nutritional deficiencies, but they're definitely not starving. So, there's other stuff to eat that's available, but they just don't consider that to be real food. 

Alicia: Right, right.

That is interesting, especially the sancocho because that's so different from my understanding of sancocho is this really hearty and a sign of love. That's interesting. 

So what are you working on now? What's next for you in your work and research?

Hanna: Well, yeah, so I'm really excited about my next projects. I'm starting two new projects right now. 

One is building off of the work that I've been doing in Los Angeles. And it will be looking at families that used emergency food programming during the pandemic. And after those programs have been taken away, how those families are readjusting to having to purchase food, when maybe their home economic situation hasn't changed but the emergency food supply has gone away. So I'm just putting in, getting the permission to start doing the interviews for that work. And I'll be doing that over the next couple of years. 

And then I'm also going to be starting a project that will be based in Puerto Rico, but will be multi-sided throughout the Caribbean, which will be looking at fish. So local fish consumption, and local artisan, fisher people. 

So, one of the things that constantly comes up when I talk about my research in Cuba, audience members always ask, ‘Well, it's an island. It's surrounded by water. Why don't they just eat more fish?’ And there's multiple reasons for the answer of that question. But I just really want to dig deeper into histories of fish consumption, culturally appropriate fish consumption, and then some of the really climate change and environmental impacts that have caused a reduction in the availability of edible fish in the region.

Alicia: Oh, that's so great. That's really fascinating. And that's gonna—because it's true. People here are like, ‘Where's the seafood?’ And it's there. And there are a lot of chefs preparing whole fish and everything that's local. People assume a culture of just abundant fish everywhere, and shellfish and everything. And it's like, ‘Well, there's like-’ There's so many reasons why that is not the case. 

One thing that's really indirect because I don't eat fish, but I eat oysters. And so the local oysters here, it's a very interesting case of the microclimates in the ocean itself, where it's in this—in the southwest, the oysters are really small, but really good and high salinity. And if you get them in the northeast, they're bigger, but they taste, to me, terrible. [Laughs.] Because there's no salinity, and it's just—oh, it's just the pure texture of an oyster. It really needs a lot of pique and everything. I'm going to be fascinated to watch what your work is in that. 

And today, you're going to be the first person to get a new final question for these interviews. [Laughs.] So I wanted to ask, how do you define, for yourself, abundance?

Hanna: Abundance? 

For me personally, abundance would mean never having to worry or fear that it’s, it won't be there. So just always knowing that something is there. And so, I think that could be applied to material things, but also, sentiments, or time, which obviously, time is not going to be abundant for forever. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Awesome. 

Well, thank you so much, Hanna. This has been really great. 

Hanna: Yeah, thanks. This has been great.