With fragments of wood from Hurricane Mathew, crafted by his own hands, Arístides Smith has built a ranch in front of the Baracoa pier, where his vegan restaurant stands.
The hurricane had destroyed his previous eatery, which featured a garden with live polymita snails and trained Cuban emerald hummingbirds. I sat on the terrace, on a stone bench that was good for my osteoarthritis, to savor Smith's vegan fare on one of the wooden stumps that serve as a table.
I am not a vegetarian. Far from it. But one goes there to try a variety of small dishes, served in a rustic way, and emerges as if blessed. If you prefer meat, you can try a rectangular banana that tastes like a steak. The area's culinary delights, chief among them its guapén (a fruit superior to the taro, the potato or the sweet potato) are seasoned with other local mysteries, such that one has to concentrate not on determining the curious taste, but on the delicate and indecipherable combinations.
Smith boasts that he does not repeat a single dish from one day to the next. And I believe it. This man, who has worked in journalism, video, and photography (some of which can be admired on the ranch's walls), and is also a Santería priest, was born to create. He needs money to live, like everyone else. He wants to prosper, and that's good. But this restaurant does not exist for those reasons.
Smith has traveled half the world and set up, amidst the penury of the recently destroyed Baracoa, a vegan restaurant of a level not found in much larger cities in the country. And he could have foregone the polymitas, and the humming birds. And the art, and his defense of the environment, against the authorities. And he is generous with his cooking tips: he didn't even know me, and immediately gave me some (“sweeten it with the ambrosia of this flower...”) And he is dedicated to teaching young people.
We are all grateful to him for that, from the heart, but the main thing at Baracoando is not the food, nor the restaurant’s rustic and inspired furniture, nor its photos. Smith himself is what matters. One finds himself here in the presence of a person with the Power of Creation. Yes, I realize that we are not (or rather, you are not) living during a time of capital letters. But if you feel “light,” as is the fashion, you can also find a lot of that in Smith. He is an open, delicate, affectionate man, with great self respect, but he is not arrogant. He is studying to become a certified chef, imagine that. And, young people, take note: Smith is a healthy 62 years old.
We have to help the Smiths out there
It seems like the country is crumbling. An overwhelming sense of malaise, spawned by the failure of those at the top, is drowning those below. But, again and again, the totalitarian temptations of Western man fail: socialism has failed everywhere, and Smith and I are sixty-somethings, defying, with our youthful energy, such pervasive misery.
If someone really sympathizes with this defiance, he should help the Smiths out there. Let's reject the slogans endorsing help from one State to another, to help self-employed people in general, which will be handled by the owners of the country, in general, for the benefit of its generals. No. Like I said a few years ago to that sympathetic diplomat of the Obama Administration, the self-employed are not going about to generate a market economy or any national business class. But I am sure that Aristides Smith is not an isolated case. These men endowed with the power of creation must be helped personally, and anyone can do that, without turning to the President or Parliament.
If every Cuban exile who really wants to recover his homeland, if every well-meaning foreigner who believes that it his duty to help those who suffer, personally helped a creator in Cuba, we would immediately see amazing results, and we would create new national leaders capable of promoting capitalism, not as an end in itself, but as the foundation for a potential Cuban democracy.
So far global blindness has promoted a shift to capitalism without democracy, a one-party state, with inept Communists aping the Vietnamese or Chinese as the only way to maintain their privileges; and that in a few decades will become more or less democratic. This maneuver may actually work out fine, because what matters to the global blindness is capitalism, not democracy. And there is so much misery and hopelessness that any group in power that offers the people cheap beans may end up remaining in power, even if to eat them they must bite their tongues. After all, they are already quite quiet!
Without Smith's permission I will, then, make a proposal; one which, by the way, goes beyond the benefits of civility, politics or business. Smith is a man of culture, not only for his photos or videos, but especially, his cooking. A young Chinese cook is interviewed on national television by the usual journalist oozing a cheap nationalism, about the differences between Chinese and Cuban cuisine. Answer: in China cooking is about culture, in Cuba cooking is about eating. We never had anything that resembled Chinese cuisine, or the French one, which we imitated for more than 100 years.
The absence of a national cuisine as a culture adds to other shortcomings and failures of our civilization. Anthropological degradation, inevitable with socialism, does not augur for us an immediate ascent to the heights of civilized life. But we must be aware, to encourage any attempt in this direction. Chef Smith could create a book with his recipes, and the principles guiding his work, whatever he wants, and he would be contributing to creating high culture in Cuba. And that book should be produced and sold outside the country. There are famous chefs who say they live off their books, not their restaurants. Whoever helps him will be aiding a man who deserves it.
A Smith of ours created, by pure chance, the lobster with coffee sauce; and received the highest international accolades. Aristides Smith is an open man, who is not chained to vegan or vegetarian food, and with whom it is easy identify. Years ago Cintio Vitier told me in Carmelo de Línea, where a young man mistreated us: Cubans don't like to serve. This Smith likes to serve, because he knows that he serves glory, and participates in his guests' meals, registering every reaction of pleasure or disgust, every word.