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, random pieces of ephemera, and souvenir photographs taken during the heyday of famous nightclubs like the Tropicana. There are also some unusual books dating 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 not to purchase this potentially useful reference, preferring to stay focused on my mission to find historical evidence of Cuban influence on the foodways 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), bakery and confectionery stand that operated in the America Building. Situated on the corner of Galiano and Neptune streets in the vibrant Vedado section of downtown Havana, this eleven-story Art Deco building opened in 1941, featuring the type of symmetrical lines and elegant forms that were then popular. The complex housed sixty-four residential apartments, several businesses like this restaurant on the ground floor, and an 1800-seat theater described as a small version of Radio City Music Hall.
The dishes on the menu below are shown in Spanish and English. In addition to casual American fare, it includes a few local specialties, such as malted shakes made with tropical fruits like mamey and cherimoya, two kinds of croquettes, and a turkey sandwich called an “Elena Russ” (commonly spelled “Ruz” or “Ruiz” today.) According to lore, this iconic Cuban sandwich was christened after a society debutante who whimsically ordered one in the 1930s at El Carmelo, a late-night restaurant where she and her friends went after a dance. It is made by smearing a generous portion of cream cheese on a piece of white toast, strawberry preserves on the other, and assembling it with slices of turkey in the middle. The Cafeteria America was also a late-night haunt, as evidenced by a ham sandwich called a Middle Night, or Medias Noches, suggesting that it was regarded as an after-theater snack. The proprietor was Liy Leng, a Chinese-Cuban whose spanishized name is prominently shown on the first page.
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.”