The First Taste of Cuba
by THOMAS BARBOUR
I FIRST stepped ashore in Cuba at Santiago, having crossed with my wife from Port Antonio, Jamaica, on the little steamer Aviles. We went directly to the Grand Hotel Venus, which occupied — and I hope still does — the corner of the Plaza to the left of the Cathedral. The Casa Granda was on the opposite corner. These two fine old hotels long served visitors most graciously.
The first thing I did was to go for a walk around the Plaza. It was shaded by several enormous laurel trees. Although they are called in Spanish laurel de la India, these trees have nothing to do with any laurel. They belong to that gigantic botanical family of the Moraceae, loosely called the fig trees, this species being Ficus nitida. Their foliage is of a green so dark as to appear almost black when seen from a distance, and they cast a dense shade. Pausing, I found that the trunk of each one of these giants was inhabited by a small population of a rare little lizard, Anolis argenteolus, and I lost no time in catching a few specimens.
This was in 1908, and in those days it was pleasanter to make the trip to Havana in two stretches, breaking the journey at Camagüey. The railway encouraged the stopover because it owned a wonderful hostelry in the shape of the remodeled Spanish cavalry barracks, a fascinating old rookery, kept as clean as a pin and serving excellent meals. In the patio of the hotel there was a long arborway dripping with flowering vines. Here I found some lizards, rather drab to behold, but which I subsequently named as new — Anolis greyi, in honor of Robert M. Grey, who was for many years in charge of the Harvard Garden at Soledad. A far more gorgeous lizard, verdigris green and with a sky-blue head, which I now saw to my joy for the first time, also swarmed about the arbor. This was Anolis porcatus.
We stayed several days at Camagüey and then went on to Havana, where after our visit we took the old steamer Miami, landing at Knight Key, for this was before the railroad had been completed as far south as Key West. We made the steamship crossing by night. The next morning, as we returned to our section in the sleeping car, I noticed across the aisle, sitting at a table set up in his section, a young man of most pleasing mien. He was busily sorting shells. I stepped over and asked if I might help him. He was interested and gave me a pair of forceps. He was sorting out mollusks taken from what he called “pay dirt,” which he had collected a few days before in crevices of the cliffs of the Sierra de Cabra and the Escalera de Jaruco, not far east of Havana.
We fell to chatting and soon found that we had many mutual friends. Thus began my friendship with John B. Henderson, Jr., which lasted until his death.
It was he who told me that if ever I returned to Cuba I should present myself to Dr. Carlos de la Torre. John did more for me than he realized, for I returned to Cuba within a short time and there began an acquaintance with Don Carlos which ripened into intimacy. He is more than twenty years older than Ihe is eighty-seven today — and he it was who introduced me to the Cuban way of living. I am now well adjusted — bien aplatanado, as they say in Cuban Spanish.
De la Torre is one of the most captivating characters with whom I have ever come in contact. He has been a naturalist from his earliest days. He won all sorts of prizes during his career in the University of Havana, including a fellowship to study in the Central University of Madrid. He possesses to an extraordinary degree the photographic power of visualizing form, and has a memory for it quite as remarkable as that of the late Theodore Gill of the Smithsonian, who was the wonder of my boyhood.
Carlos, I must confess, has dabbled from time to time in politics. He has held pretty much every office from Acting President of the Republic (for a short time) to Mayor of Havana and Rector of the University. I don’t think that Carlos today would point with pride to his incumbency in many of these positions which have been thrust upon him in the course of the somewhat erratic progress of Cuban affairs. Many a time he has told me that he was far happier in his laboratory with his shells than he was behind an office desk.
I have often seen him identify tiny land mollusks, of which there are myriad forms in Cuba, without looking at them, by rolling them between his delicate and sensitive finger tips, even with his hand behind his back. I first saw him perform this marvelous feat in the office of the late Dr. Walter Faxon in 1912, when he came to Cambridge to receive an honorary Doctorate of Science from Harvard University.
Carlos was as unpredictable in his habits as the wind: when he would go to bed or when he would arise, when it would occur to him to eat, no one knew. He was beloved by men and women of every walk of life. Interesting as De la Torre was to observe in Havana, he was even more so in the field. Here his activity and his powers of observation were literally incredible. His habits changed completely. At home he lived and worked chiefly at night, but when he was in the country I could never make out whether he rose very early in the morning or whether he simply never went to bed at all. At any rate, he was always on hand, sorting his shells and doing them up in little packets with the most minute information regarding locality tied up in each one.
It never took Carlos very long to persuade the schoolteachers of any town he visited to close the schools so that all the pupils could hunt shells, and they kept coming in in streams hour after hour. Carlos himself rode horseback for miles unnumbered until he was in his seventies. Up hill and down dale he forced his horse to its utmost efforts, for there was nothing easygoing or lethargic in Carlos’s nature, and he didn’t propose that his horse should be easygoing either. I look back over the many excursions that I made with him as among the most enlightening, instructive, and delightful occasions which have ever come my way.
IT WAS in Carlos’s company and at the Café de Paris in Havana that I had my first taste of Cuban prawns. I remember once nearly forty years ago eating a dish of prawn curry at Chefoo, China, and thinking that no other crustaceans in the world could one greet with such pleasure. That was before I knew Cuba and its great fresh-water prawns. The langostinos, as they are called, come out at night and crawl over the rocks on the beds of fresh-water streams; there they are caught and brought into the market, particularly of Matanzas. In North America we seldom associate edible shellfish with fresh water, the chief exception, of course, being the crawfish of Louisiana. In Havana, there is a regular fishery for fresh-water crustacea as well as for the delicious little salt-water shrimps. These little camarones are like the small species fished for in great numbers from New Orleans, Biloxi, Vera Cruz, and many other coast ports around the Caribbean basin.
The flesh of the heavy claws of the moorish crabs is another memorable delicacy. This big red and yellow crab with its great black-tipped claws was once abundant and lived in holes in the shallow marly flats around the shores of Cuba, as well as in the Florida Keys. Now it has become rare and the cangrejo moro is in real danger of extermination. The spiny rock lobsters which I can remember being sold years ago for five or ten cents apiece are now also getting scarce and are in equal need of protection. Fortunately, the government is aware of this fact, and one of the most talented and most recent of our Guggenheim Fellows from Cuba, Dr. Isabel Perez Farfante de Canet, has been specializing in a study of the life history of crustacea with the special intention of recommending legislation to determine when the season should be closed.
The fish markets of Cuba provide a great number of excellent fish. Havana schooners, built with live-cars in their holds, fish extensively around the Yucatán coast, off the Mugeres Islands, and elsewhere in the deep waters of the western Caribbean for groupers and red snappers. At the time of my first visit the pompano, which brings the highest price of any fish taken in North American waters, was not nearly so well considered in Cuba as in Florida. On the other hand, the yellowtail for a long time brought a higher price in Havana than it did in Key West or Miami.
Fish is a favorite food of Cubans, although the popular ways of cooking it are rather limited. No such variety of recipes exists as in France or Brazil. The Cubans ask what can be better than a perfect fish simply fried and served with a well-made tartar sauce! If you have a chance, try the guaguancho, cabrilla, the biajaiba, or a young pargo, as the red snapper is called, and I think you may agree with them. The Havana fish market is a good one and the total consumption of sea food is prodigious.
The little oysters growing on the trunks of the mangrove trees and on the ends of their branches where they droop into the water are very popular and are considered to have a better flavor than oysters brought from the North. Two dozen are the normal serving and the best of them come from Sagua la Grande.
Cuba is a land where the ingenuity in making cooling fruit drinks for use during hot weather has reached a high point of imagination. Refrescos, as they are called, are made from the tamarind, the soursop, sweetsop, almond paste, crushed pineapple, besides all the ordinary citrus fruits. They are very popular and palatable. The occasional addition of a little good rum works no harm.
Table wine from Spain or France is served in the houses of the well-to-do, but Water is used far more often than in other Latin countries, for the Cuban, unlike so many of his neighbors, is surprisingly abstemious. In general, Cubans do not drink to excess. In recent years a number of large breweries have grown up and excellent beer is made in both Havana and Santiago and its use has spread rather beneficially, I believe, to people whose diets are extremely low in vitamins. Rum or, better, cane brandy, called ron in Cuba, is more popular than once it was. Rum made from molasses, as it is made so famously in Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, and Demerara, is relatively little used in Cuba compared to spirits distilled from the fermented cane juice. I need only mention the name “Bacardi” for everyone to know what I mean.
Generally speaking, Cuban cookery is that of Old Spain, with the New World to draw on. The classic dishes served in the best restaurants in Havana and the other larger cities of the island (there are no better places to eat anywhere) are similar to the dishes which one finds in the best restaurants of Spain. Fond as I am of Mexican victuals with their chile peppers, I think that day in and day out I prefer the Cuban bill of fare. Only recently have green vegetables become popular, but now they are grown in great variety. Years ago no one dreamed that vegetables could be grown in Cuba so abundantly. When I first went to Cuba, Mr. Grey, at Soledad, had just grown the first Irish potatoes on the island. This is perhaps Harvard’s greatest contribution to economic botany.
Rice is used daily in almost every household and some is produced locally. In the country, root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, yams, yuca or casaba, and malanga (the root of a species of elephant’s ear related to the taro of the Pacific), are usual and because of them the Cuban diet tends to be overweighted on the starchy side. But by now in Havana the ordinary ingredients of green salads and such vegetables as tomatoes, eggplant, carrots, beets, and onions are to be found in every market. Green vegetables are generally grown by the Chinese, who have superb market gardens on the outskirts of the capital, and who peddle their wares through the streets, lurching along with a long pole over their shoulders, from each end of which is suspended a great flat basket displaying their fresh and tempting produce.
CUBANS are hearty eaters, and more courses are usually served at a meal than is our custom now. Their food habits are like those of our grandparents’ time. Their beef is relatively inexpensive and is excellent. So is pork. The same cannot be said of the local mutton, which is generally stringy and tough — and often goat.
In the old days, codfish shipped down from Newfoundland and cooked in oil to make the popular dish of Bacalao à la Biscaina tasted to the palate of us old-timers stronger and far better flavored than the codfish shipped in today.
The gastronomically adventurous will find many dishes surprisingly good. I suppose the use of squid and octopus will surprise the Northern tourist on his first visit. I remember well my grave doubts the first time I tried them. Now I wish that I might meet them at table here in Boston. I confess that I used to look forward to visiting the excellent restaurants in Havana with as keen enjoyment as I did to the prospect of finding a new lizard.
My two favorite restaurants, taken day in and day out, were, first, La Saragozana, especially for sea food. Here one usually met soft-shell crabs in season, the little mangrove oysters from Sagua, moorish crabs, rock lobsters, and a large choice of excellent fish, deliciously prepared. The other, which I recall with equal pleasure, was El Palacio de Cristal near the new capitol building, where I have dined often. This old restaurant has served memorable food to the gourmets of Havana for well over one hundred years; it is famed for its Patas andaluz, made of beeves’ feet and succulent beyond belief; its fritters of brains and “mountain oysters” are a favorite breakfast dish. (I should perhaps explain that for what we call breakfast the Cubans partake of only coffee and a roll and perhaps a bit of fruit. Their almuerzo comes at eleven-thirty or twelve o’clock and is a heavy meal eaten most leisurely. In former days it was always followed by a siesta.) I always looked forward to the entremés eaten before the soup. These were bits of cold meats and sausages and, to crown all, the Embuchada de la Sierra, a rare pressed meat made of the flesh of wild boar from the mountains near Grenada.
Thirty years ago many businessmen, as well as passengers whose ships were berthed near-by, took this noonday breakfast at Los Dos Hermanos, near the waterfront. Here you could dine up on the roof and, if you came early, you had a chance to watch the pelicans sail by and see the varied activities of the harbor near at hand — at times also at your very nose. At night, the awnings were rolled back, and you dined under the open sky.
Slabs of fish smothered in a soft cornmeal mush, much like polenta, were the specialty of the house here. Baked in paper envelopes, they were deliciously flavored. The fish usually was the biajaiba, called the “silk snapper” in Key West. Almost every evening the old restaurant was visited by a little group of musicians headed by an old Negro, once a trooper in the Tenth Cavalry, who had stayed on in Cuba after the Spanish-American War ended. He played the guitar well and sang with a rich mellow voice. I have many happy memories of this queer and rather dingy old haunt, in appearance not at all unlike the little old Arab hotel, with its mud walls and parapets, on the roof of which one dines in Zanzibar.
The ordering of a meal, especially among creoles in the country, is somewhat different from our ways. In the first place, it was a common custom to set out in a pile before each person all the plates which were to be used, the soup plate surmounting the pile. Then a single knife and fork with glass or metal rest were provided, which were used right through the meal. This custom was, of course, a holdover from the days when cutlery was scarce and very expensive. It certainly saved time with serving the meal and with dishwashing. A tablecloth was perhaps more generally used than in modest households in our country, but the edge of the tablecloth more often served as a napkin, although this usage was far from rare in the back country of New England years ago.
To my way of thinking, the beau monde in Havana dines too late. I get unhappily hungry if I have to wait until nine-thirty for dinner. But waiting is often worth while, and I hope the day may come when rice becomes the refined delicacy with us that it is when cooked by our neighbors, with a touch of saffron and with each well-cooked grain not too soft and coated with the most delicate film of olive oil.
AT THIS point I want to tell a story that illustrates the “fortuitous nature,” as Stejneger once put it, of reptile collecting. During the winter of 1912, Professor and Mrs. J. Lewis Bremer were with my wife and me in Havana. We had been making short trips in various directions from Havana, and then one day I chanced upon an advertisement. I think it was posted in the American Club in Havana. At any rate it pictured the future glories of an agricultural colony on land being sold in the province of Pinar del Río, near a place called Herradura. Much was said about the comforts of a hotel which had been built to accommodate prospective settlers and their friends.
I knew this was a region where comparatively little zoological work had been done recently, and I persuaded the rest of the crowd that we should go there. The hotel turned out to be a dirty shack kicked together of very poor material. The whole region was of the most sterile soil and the settlement project turned out to be a complete swindle. The few settlers who went into the project soon drifted away, and now the colony is dead.
A short distance from the hotel, however, there was a general country store. It was kept by a kindly and pleasant man who hailed from Cartago in Costa Rica. I told him I needed a horse to get about the country. lie found me a good one, which I used for some days. While wandering about, asking questions here and there, I heard that there was one American family well established some distance away on good land. I followed the directions given me and arrived at an enormous thatched house, the largest structure of its kind I have ever seen. (I am sorry that this burned down later, for it was one of the coolest and, in many respects, one of the most delightful dwelling places that I have ever visited in the tropics.) The owner, Professor Earle, was away from home, but Mrs. Earle received me graciously.
My horse was tied just outside her front door, and I was indoors, drinking an enormous beaker of delicious fruit juice which Mrs. Earle prepared for me, when I happened to see a lizard run along the underside of the overhanging thatch, just over the front door. I jumped for it and caught it, luckily securing a perfect specimen, for these Anoline lizards have a great way of parting with their tails very easily when they are handled. The specimen turned out to be a distinct new form, which I named Anolis bremeri for my companion. It has never been seen by any collector from that day to this.
Mrs. Earle was interested in my capture and she proposed to lend me the guidance of an intelligent young Cuban boy, Lucio Alfonso by name, who suggested that we go and see the City of the Toads, as he put it. He took me to an upland clayey pasture near-by, the grass on which had been recently burned over. Scattered thickly over this whole area were the mouths of a great number of small burrows, evidently of two sorts. The openings of some were carefully rimmed with smoothly patted clay, while others were rough and looked unfinished. The rough burrows were inhabited by large tarantulas, which were common here as in so many parts of Cuba. Those with the smooth rims each contained a toad called Bufo empusus. The tube-like burrow was cylindrical and from seven to ten inches deep.
The toad, which always looked larger than the diameter of its burrow, was to be found in a small chamber at the bottom, its curious horn-like, shelly head forming an operculum or lid which closed the burrow. To accomplish this closing most advantageously, the toad sometimes rested on its side or back. The small individuals were frequently to be seen near the surface, their little heads just filling the mouths of the tubes. We observed only one or two adults near the surface.
Gundlach says (and he is confirmed by what the country folk told me) that these toads come forth to sing in unison on warm nights after a rain. There is no apparent rule to guide their appearance, and they are not heard on many nights which are apparently favorable. The guajiros, as country folk are called, told me that they had never met them outside the burrows, probably because they had not visited this particular field by night. This species always occurs in colonies in areas where the soil is suitable for digging the burrows.
Many different sorts of frogs and toads make this curious use of their heads. It is well known that in many the skin of the head becomes involved in the cranial ossification and is adherent, indurated, and rugose. The result is that the frog has only to tip its hard, bony head to close the entrance effectively. It was not known that whole colonies regularly used this method of blocking their burrows, until, after many long hunts for Bufo empusus in Cuba, I chanced upon this open field which Lucio Alfonso showed me.