During a recent visit to Havana, I hailed a taxi (a 1958 Ford) and rumbled over to the Plaza de Armas to look for some old menus. Every day dozens of private booksellers set up their stalls in this leafy square, selling used books, ephemera, and souvenir photographs taken in famous nightclubs like the Tropicana during its heyday. Some of the books date back to the nineteenth century. One such rarity that caught my eye was a finely-bound volume containing copies of Frank’s Illustrated Weekly for the month of July 1870. As tempting as it was, I decided to forgo this treasure and stay focused on my mission to find historical evidence of Cuban influence on the food customs of the United States, or conversely, the spread of American culture abroad. And as luck would have it, I soon discovered a menu from the Cafeteria America. Coming from the period just before the revolution in 1959, it illustrated the simple pleasures of everyday life once enjoyed by the middle- and upper-classes in Cuba.
The Cafeteria America was a coffee shop (called a “cafeteria” in Spanish) and bakery that operated in the America Building. Located on the corner of Galiano and Neptune streets in the Vedado section of Havana, this eleven-story edifice features the symmetrical lines and elegant forms of Art Deco design. When it opened in 1941, the complex contained businesses on the ground floor, sixty-four residential apartments, and an 1800-seat theater described as a small version of Radio City Music Hall.
The menu below is printed in Spanish and English. The name of the Chinese-Cuban proprietor, Liy Leng, is prominently shown on the first page. In addition to typical American dishes, the bill of fare includes local specialties, such as malted shakes made with tropical fruits like mamey and cherimoya. There are two kinds of croquettes and an iconic Cuban sandwich called an “Elena Russ.” Commonly spelled “Ruz” or “Ruiz” today, it was supposedly christened after a society debutante who whimsically ordered one in the 1930s at a late-night haunt called El Carmelo. The sandwich features a generous smear of cream cheese on a slice of white toast, strawberry preserves on the other, and slices of turkey in the middle. The Cafeteria America also offered a ham sandwich called a Medias Noches (Middle of the Night), indicating it was an after-theater snack.
Travel writer Paul Theroux observed that “nothing induces concentration or stimulates memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture.” Cuba, with its ancient automobiles and crumbling architecture, easily fits within these parameters, turning a trip there into a thought-provoking experience. Unlike most major cities, Havana has made few additions to its skyline over the last fifty-five years and many of its edifices are now disintegrating; restoration projects proceed at a painfully slow pace, if at all. Still, the animal spirits of capitalism are beginning to stir on the island nation, and while this awakening may be less robust than one observed in China thirty years ago, economic reforms could be enacted more quickly than some expect, for as the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin once remarked, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”