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Fried Eggs and Rice

In his monumental history of Cuba, the late Hugh Thomas painted a picture of a complex, deeply rooted society on the island that, over the course of its long history, suffered through many crises and confronted many enemies, including its own flaws and weaknesses. Like any society, Cuba managed to struggle from one crisis to the next, always adding to its character and the character of its people. And that character, scarred, tattered, broken and rebuilt, formed the basis of the Cuban culture.

In more than 1,000 pages, Thomas covers an immense amount of information, starting with the British victory at Guanabacoa in 1762 that led to the capture of Havana. The list of characters and notable personages is bewildering, and yet somehow Thomas manages to keep everything straight and moving inevitably towards Cuba's arrival as an independent--though deeply flawed--nation. What is most interesting is the way Cuban culture shows great perseverance over so long a period of time, and how traditions-even the simplest ones--continued to define the unique character of Cuba. One of those that Thomas mentions briefly, but importantly, is a singular aspect of Cuban culture, the affinity for a simple meal of fried eggs and rice.

It was a staple for Cubans for most of the 20th Century, a simple yet filling meal that was not too heavy or too light. Preceded or followed by black beans, it was the go-to repast for almost any time of the day or night. Describing Cuba in 1909, Thomas wrote: "Food was still Spanish rather than North American: soup twice a day, always four courses, and almost always, as the second course, fried eggs and rice."

Of course, that's not the case any longer. Eggs are rationed, five per person per month, and though it is possible to buy additional eggs--when they can be found--the expense, in Cuban convertible pesos, makes dining on fried eggs and rice a rare occasion that some Cubans have rarely enjoyed What happens to the deep culture of a people when they are faced with interruptions to their traditional ways that are triggered not by natural disasters but by the policies of their own government? Why shouldn't Cuba's 11.5 million people be able to enjoy fried eggs and rice whenever they want? Why can most only dream of drinking a cold glass of milk, or a hot cup of coffee? Why shouldn't those who study at the University to earn their degrees be able to find challenging and fulfilling positions in their fields? When I see the streets of the city filled with so many people who seem to not have any place to go or anything to do, I wonder how a system developed to so change a country that even something as simple, and as rooted in tradition, as fried eggs and rice can become a dream that cannot be reached.

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