Ahorn | Tuesday February 27th, 2018
An old Cuban proverb says, “love comes in through the kitchen door.” Film critic Andrew Horn recognizes this warm-hearted openness in Asori Soto’s “Cuban Food Stories”.
There used to be a Cuban restaurant near where I live that was operated by a small collective where no one person was the dedicated cook. Whoever happened to be cooking that day had their own way of doing things, which could also depend upon their mood. It was therefore possible to order the same dish every time you went and most every time it would be different. And god. I know, I did it.
Since the food was made to order, it took some time to prepare, so it was not a place you would go to get a quick bite and leave. And as a result of waiting around for the food, one often ended up talking to the guys, or sometime other customers, and it seemed as much like a hang-out as a restaurant.
Watching Asori Soto’s “Cuban Food Stories” was kind like that.
Soto, who was born in Cuba but grew up in the US, tells us that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their support for Cuba’s economy collapsed as well, and like Britain after WWII, the new economy of scarcity meant that Cuban cuisine suffered a major decline for lack of proper ingredients.
But in the years following, things have been starting to look up, and Soto takes us on a road trip around the island to find out, not only the ways in which Cuban food culture has been coming back, but also where it’s been hiding out all these years.
This is all told through portraits of people he meets along the way including a former nuclear physicist who became a fisherman when the power plant he was working on was canceled; a successful hairdresser who fell in love with a farmer and gave it all up to live in the mountains becoming a local legend as great cook; or a man who started selling street food and expanded to a business that travels all over the island selling at various carnivals and festivals. We hear from people living off the land, growing their own coffee, growing vegetables, smoking meat, some with family, some communally and often self sustaining. We visit a town abandoned by industry coming back as a tourist getaway, a rural community-run cooking school passing on the old traditions, and a newly privatized Havana restaurant serving a menu from the recipes of the owner’s grandmother.
At one point Soto quotes a Cuban saying, “love comes in through the kitchen door” and in the film it seems like he inviting us through that kitchen door to give us a look at the many different areas and many different facets of contemporary Cuban life that have as much to do with tradition, as with trying to bring that tradition into the modern age.
If the film sometimes seems like a travelogue, it also feels as if Soto is sincere in trying to show us a picture of hope and in a joy in the simple things in life. In so doing he perhaps gives us an encouraging – and more nutritious – corrective to that grand bouffe of ostentation we saw in another Berlinale film this year, “Generation Wealth”.