“To be honest with you, we didn’t know how big this was going to be the first year. We didn’t know we were going to get a couple hundred people, a few thousand, ten thousand. Surprisingly enough, we had tens of thousands of people show up the first year.”
—George Herrera, co-founder of Festival Cubano
A haze, thick like fog and heavy with the fragrance of charred meat, shimmered in sunbeam and shade along the trails of Eiis Park a little over a week ago. Perfectly decent people wandered around with the dilated pupils of predators under such conditions. It’s this transformation that keeps candle makers from making anything steak or garlic scented. When we smell these smells, we expect food; passive smelling might be an option, but it would be uncomfortable. We drool, our senses heighten, we are Pavlov’s dog.
Along with the scorch and sizzle of shish kabob were screams of trumpets and other brass and woodwinds, the throbbing pulse of batá drums complicated with the hollows of guiros and cowbell—all inspiring thoughts in my head of the carnage that could potentially take place if it weren’t for the music. That and many, many porta potties help keep the peace on this weekend of what was the 3rd annual Festival Cubano.
Literally, hundreds of thousands of people traveled from all over the country, drawn by more than food or music but the culture of a place as real to many of us as our favorite fairytales yet as inaccessible as outer space. At least since the travel restrictions set in place on February 8th, 1963, Cuba has maintained this fantastical and verboten existence in our American experience. I was reminded that these very restrictions have been relaxed as the first booths I happened upon were occupied by vendors advertising travel to Cuba for those with relatives in Cuba.
It’s a strange time we live in with the majority of Americans in favor of lifting the ban and all sanctions. This is especially so as we do more and more business with communist China and yet Cuba is held hostage by the ghosts of our past. In the meantime, we apparently go beserk when presented with a festival celebrating this place of forced mystery. Thankfully, the Festival Cubano founders Sandra and her brother, Ranier, Castro and George Herrera sensed the pent up angst so many of us have of this remarkable country and dared to make this happen. We were able to interview Sandra and George for all the dramatic details in an earlier interview.
Across the aisle from the Cuban travel booths was a debut of sorts, the Chicago Cuba Project. Apparently, no one has bothered to document the lives of Cubans living in Chicago. Another debut was involved caramel: Flan-Boyan. And this was closer to my aims, aims and goals of tasting and note taking and photographing my way through the Festival Cubano.
I wish I could say that through a disciplined series of fasts and fastidious exercise, prayer and breathing techniques, I was fully prepared to sample from most of the vendors. Oh, I wish… Unfortunately, I made it only as far as a made-from-scratch piña colada, a ropa vieja and freshly-cut-and-fried potato chips drenched in lime juice and hot sauce. I regretted not having room for the Cuban corn with its mojo drippings of garlic butter, lime and oregano. I even regretted not having the cotton candy. And that’s not even Cuban…or is it!
In one of the sexiest food picture books around – Scanwiches – author Jon Chonko remarks, “In a country where there is a Hot Dog variation for every region, and a sandwich like the Club has been through dizzying stages of experimentation, it’s remarkable that the Cuban would emerge from the American melting pot intact. The fact that it has is a testament to how perfectly conceived the sandwich is.” I passed several vendors churning out their Cuban sandwiches. I eyed their wares in an attempt to see an improvisational twist of sorts. I found nothing. Just simple bread-and-butter pickles. Unremarkable mustard. Bread, some of it sprayed with PAM. Nonetheless, they were lines and throngs of folks waiting to feast.
In a class once upon a time, we were posed with the question: What’s British in London’s British Museum? As you might suspect, it was a trick question; there’s very little that’s “British.” From the Greek Elgin Marbles, Roman vases, Egyptian mummies, Bronze Age relics, alabaster stone tablets from ancient Iraqi kings, Chinese scrolls—they all find themselves under this British roof. So, too, the Festival Cubano calls its own the foods and wares and traditions of many cultures. After all, it’s in a town known for its deep dish pizza, its sausage and its hotdogs. Given the incredible turnout and momentum surrounding the Festival Cubano, perhaps it’s time to add to that list…