Despite humble origins on the steppes of Mongolia or in Germany, the hamburger as we know it is a distinctly North American phenomenon. The ground beef 'n' bun combo we adore rates with rock n' roll, baseball, apple pie, and gratuitous shopping as one of the true-blue trademarks of the USA.
Having highlighted the burgers of Vietnam, Japan, and Finland, among other international bucks on our beloved site, I was wracked with curiosity over whether there was any place on Earth where hamburgers could not be found. Whether it's a veggie Mickey D's in Mumbai or a grass-fed one-pounder in Buenos Aires, burgers are surely represented in It's a Small Worldesque dimensions. The aforementioned chain's aggressive expansion even connotes corporate imperialism to many in the international arena.
But what about Cuba? The defiant land that resists Western imperialism for unfortunate dictatorial communism to the dismay of so many, has nary a commercial enterprise on its tropical pelt. With a U.S.imposed embargo along with a state financial structure guaranteed to keep most Cubans from venturing into the surrounding world and most private enterprise out, could hamburgers have penetrated the lush natural paradise and decaying colonial hell that slumbers 90 miles below Miami?
With a little research, I learned there are more than 1,000 pizzerias on the island, but according to the University of WashingtonTacoma, "Typical 'American' foods like hamburgers and fries are not common in Cuba." In John T. Edge's instant classic Hamburgers & Fries, the author includes a chapter called "Fidel's Fritas," about the Cuban street food arguably based on our hamburgers. Fritas are a classic native combination of beef and nuts now widely available in the U.S. in Miami. Frita vendors were a way of life in Cuba, at least pre-revolution.
What if I took a "hypothetical" trip to Cuba? What might I find? Landing in Havana, I was whisked into Old Havana, the scene of calamitous revolution, seemingly still occurring; a full-on assault of colonial grandeur from all-sides that is broken, graying, and sagging. A city of infinite beauty with Spanish monuments, cathedrals, and meandering coastlines, dotted with Soviet-era structures, unique homes, and Che murals. It's a wonderland of new faces: beautiful, smooth, and ancient, showcasing the stunning intertwinings of Africa, Spain, Asia, and the Americas.
The kindest people I've ever met surround me, many with virtually nothing, offering the shirts off their backs and spare beds in their houses, assuring me that our human connections are bigger than the problems between our governments. The countryside is even more gentle and serenely beautiful, with fresh rivers to swim in, rural discos for sharing rum and salsa dancing, and fun, intelligent characters desperate to hitch a ride. But burgers? ¿Que bola, man?
After a debaucherous, rum-fueled, Montecristo-singed night with esteemed local artist Ernesto Villanueva, I awoke to the distinct image of hamburgers on La Calle Obispo, where Ernesto keeps his studio. We must have passed them after some Cuba libres in his studio on the way to some mojitos at the touristy Hemingway favorite El Floridita. Ernesto started the night saying he was off the sauce. Dinner and several Latin jazz clubs later, winding down with cigars and Scotch at former Meyer Lansky haunt La Nacional, I'm surprised the burger sighting stuck with me.
Hungover and devouring a typically subpar breakfast (Cuba ain't known for the food, folks), I ran up the street, holding it all down until I made it to the burger stand. As a steady Saturday traffic of street-fútbol players, secretaries, shirtless children, Santeria priestesses, fine young ladies, and fine young families passed by, I noticed the nice woman from the previous day had been replaced by a meaner looking hombre. But that stack of burgers was as plain as day, in a huge pyramid, like something out of Wimpy's fantasies: yellow buns catching eyes in all directions. Nameless, popular, sparse, and kind of grimy, all I could glean from the set-up was that they opened at 9 a.m. and kept selling 'til they were out.
The burgers were being snatched up, even though the "space" was a little, uh, fly-filled. Still, willing to risk all manner of possible digestive consequences for our readers, I plunged forward and paid* one peso, about a buck, for the hamburguesa.
It was a very thick patty with only a tomato for support. Skeptical, I took a bite and found the patty was surprisingly soft and sort of pink-hued. The burger was kind of good. It was filled with a lot of noticeable spice, with tons of flavors infused in the patty. Knowing better, but in a sweaty, delirious post-loaded state, I took several more bites before leaving it where someone in worse condition than I could enjoy it. The taste of the burger lingered in my mouth, mingling spice and comfort from those big bites.
The burger stayed in my mind for days. I kept tasting that strange texture and unique blend of zesty seasoning. It started to dawn on me: It was a little pink; could it have been something other than beef?
Driving to the country among a caravan of preserved Pontiacs, Ford trucks, and Caddies, I passed several more makeshift stands like this near José Martí International Airport, each promoting their own hamburgers. Having had my fill of exotic burger for the day, I never had a chance to see what they were cooking.
In countryside Las Terrazas and smaller cities such as Cienfuegos and Trinidad, I maxed and, yes, relaxed, one day strangely spotting a camel in a horse-filled field. It was then, while giving a ride to a cute young hitchhiker, that the thought crossed my mind. You really didn't see too many cows in Cuba. And horse meat had been a standard for some years. What exactly had been in those burgers?
After several days there, during which I had an amazing visit with Dr. Alberto Granado, Che's real-life companion on his famous South American motorcycle trip, I returned to Old Havana to out what was in that not-so-bad burger. The answer was ¡cerdo! I had eaten a pork burger. Pretty goodI'd love to know what they could do with an Angus.
Upon further inspection, I found a small chain of burger restaurants called Pan.com. Don't try going to the website, it's something else, since Cubans aren't allowed to see the Internet, but I guess it makes for a catchy name.
Having a few other things to do in Cuba besides eat burgers, I had to save Pan.com for the next (hypothetical) trip to Cuba. It was wonderful to see that, in addition to being able to play béisbol with Cubans, the nicest people on Earth, burgers were another language we would someday be sharing along with the gifts of dance and music.
Though Castro's passing could potentially alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people, a part of me fears for the day this pristine island becomes Starbucks-strewn and McDonald's-fed. Keeping the pig burgers could possibly be better than joining neighboring Cancun's tight embrace of Planet Hollywoodstyle whackness. I encourage everyone to see Cuba before its unpredictable future plays out, making sure to bring pens, toys, and clothing to its people.
* Remember this is hypothetical, you know, in case your Dad is the president or something.