Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cafeteria America

ca. 1955 

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.”


Deana Sidney said...

Such a wise post. I love the Cuban deco architecture and the old cars that go on and on. It must have been a great trip. That is one amazing menu. I wonder if the food was good?

Gary Gillman said...

Graceful post, with a melancholy edge suitable to the material.

The Elena Russ is a new one for me. At first the strawberry jam struck a discordant note, but when you think of it, not really: surely it's a counterpart to cranberry in its role as soul mate to turkey.

The sandwich in part resembles the Louisville Hot Brown, of which there was a cold version, whose origins connect also the social set looking for an early morning fillip. I would think something connects the two dishes, probably the deb circuit then included Cuba and perhaps Ms. Elena Russ picked up the idea through U.S. friends.


Jan Whitaker said...

Great post. I like the Sandwich Hamburguesa and Anykind Cakes.

Jay said...

Really interesting post. By the way, the "Y Cia" is "& Company." Curious about Sr. Leng, and what sort of Chinese-Cuban community exists today.

Anonymous said...

I love the writing.... Especially the part about simple pleasures (now gone).

Piex (all kinds): there's capitalism for ya.

Ivonne de la Vega said...

Omg that cafeteria and also Pullman Salon in Consulado and Neptuno st was from my grandpa’ father. He came to Cuba running away from China revolution and with a lot of work create his business he start selling frituritas ( a fried recipe from flour and some adding flavor). Then in the early of 60’s he moved to USA because the government of Cuba began with the expropriation of business and one of those were Cafeteria America and the Pullman. I think my father still keeps the ceiling lamps from the Cafeteria. His spanish name was Agustin Leng and one of his son my grandfather Wahsan Leng.