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    In a country that’s dealt with decades of rationing, ice cream is the
    public luxury. Sit down for your 15-scoop serving

    Havana—beautiful, decaying, perfumed by diesel fumes and sweet sea
    air—is a challenging place for an outsider to come to grips with, even
    after repeated visits: Why has someone left the carefully arranged head
    and feet of a dismembered goat outside a Catholic church? Why are the
    taxis nicknamed almendrones (literally, “big almonds”)? And, perhaps
    most puzzlingly, why do Cuban adults eat so much ice cream?
    Starting around 10 a.m. and going well into the evening, Havana,
    especially its Old and Central quarters, is filled with people—an old
    lady with smooth, nut brown skin; a young man with an
    Elvis-meets-Reggaeton hairstyle; a teenaged girl in
    microshorts—consuming great quantities of helado with remarkable
    dedication. Some eat out on the street, but most spoon up their
    pint-size sundaes in one of the city’s busy ice cream parlors, gorgeous
    but weather-beaten, where it’s not unusual to line up for an hour and a
    half to get in.
    Cuban ice cream parlors are curious places. Arlequí­n, a medium-size
    store on a busy, pedestrianized street in Central Havana, is done up as
    if a child’s birthday party were about to start, its walls illustrated
    with huge cartoon characters that seem drawn from some trippy fairy
    tale. Yet for all the frivolity of the decor, the mood inside is oddly
    subdued, as though the liveliness of Havana had been held back at the
    door. Ice cream shops may be the only places in the city where there’s
    no music, and the volume of conversation barely rises above the murmur
    of a library. The waitresses, dressed in 1950s soda fountain outfits
    (jaunty little hats, cute monogrammed aprons), are taciturn. I sat at a
    table with a couple of teenaged boys sharing earbuds, and a
    jolly-looking group of friends in their 60s, and between them they
    barely spoke a word.
    It’s a strange contradiction, particularly to a foreigner, but after a
    few days packed solid with ice cream eating, I started to understand it.
    As one man told me as we waited in a long, snaking line, “In Cuba, ice
    cream is social.” It’s just a particular kind of social: people who
    still subsist on rationed goods, collectively enjoying the rare
    experience of having as much as they want of something, surrounded by
    their compatriots, all alone together.
    Copellia is the city’s best-known ice cream parlor. Fidel Castro
    commissioned it in the early days of the Revolution, and while Havana is
    full of buildings that evoke faded glory and eroded optimism, Copellia
    is a particularly vivid example. Castro was inspired to create the shop,
    which bears strong resemblance to a modernist cathedral, after his first
    official visits to the United States, where he was turned on to American
    ice cream and its abundance of flavors. As with baseball, Castro seems
    to have been both impressed by Cuba’s imperialist neighbor and
    determined to surpass it. Built on the site of a former hospital,
    Coppelia was made to accommodate 1,000 guests at a time and served up 26
    different flavors of ice cream in its early years. Today, beneath its
    soaring arches and stained glass windows you’re lucky to be able to
    choose among three, due to the shortages Cuba has been dealing with
    since various expansions of the American embargo, and the collapse of
    the Soviet Union.
    But the number of available flavors doesn’t seem to deter Habaneros. The
    usual order is an ensalada—an oval-shaped yellow plastic bowl containing
    five scoops, perhaps with caramel sauce and crushed cookies on top—and
    most people order three of them. These 15 scoops will be polished off in
    about 15 minutes, after which another ensalada might be ordered and
    consumed with equal speed. Many customers bring plastic buckets, ranging
    in capacity from two to five pints, and before leaving order more ice
    cream to go, squashing as many scoops as possible into their containers.
    As I found out when I went to Heladería Ward, a large ice cream parlor
    with 30-foot ceilings out by the Coliseo de la Ciudad Deportiva sports
    stadium, people look at you askance if you only order a single ensalada.
    Ask for the next size down—tres gracias, three scoops—and your
    tablemates will assume there’s been a misunderstanding and try to
    correct your order.
    Unlike various staple goods, such as toilet paper and cooking oil, ice
    cream in Havana is very, very cheap. An ensalada costs the equivalent of
    20 U.S. cents. Unsurprisingly, the quality is not always high: The
    coconut ice cream at Soda Obispo, a popular store in La Habana Vieja
    (Old Havana), is delicious, full of strands of fresh fruit; but just
    down the street is a busy hole-in-the-wall joint whose vanilla tastes
    worryingly like pink bubblegum. But deliciousness is only part of the
    point. During the Special Period (the era of terrible scarcity in Cuba
    that began with the decline of the Soviet Union), “ice cream was made
    with water instead of milk, and it still sold well,” said Maria, who
    has worked behind the counter at Soda Obispo for decades. In the large
    back room there I found Wilber, a stocky man in a once-white tank top,
    who has been making the ice cream there for 15 years. Over the din of
    his machines, he explained that today his milk—”all full fat”—comes from
    New Zealand, Mexico, and Uruguay.
    “The government buys it from those countries, then sells it to us for an
    affordable price,” he said. At some level, the Cuban state has
    apparently decided that a population with limited access to many
    essentials deserves, at the very least, affordable ice cream. At the
    beginning of the Special Period, Cuba lost suppliers of both powdered
    milk (East Germany, during reunification) and butter (an economically
    depressed Soviet Union). Without money to buy these products elsewhere,
    the government had to decide whether the labor of its small number of
    cows would go toward the production of butter or milk for ice cream. Ice
    cream won.
    One possible reason for this was offered up to me by a man I met who
    runs a casa particular where people can rent rooms and where I once
    stayed, and who also sells pirated DVDs and software in Central Havana.
    “People like me, with their own businesses, go to comedy clubs in
    Vedado,” he said, referring to a more upscale neighborhood. “We’ll pay
    the entrance fee, have some beers, and hang out there. But people
    earning a regular salary in national pesos can’t afford that.” For the
    average Havana resident living on a regular state salary, a few beers in
    a bar would add up to a week’s wages. An ice cream parlor may be the
    only place regular people can afford to eat or drink with others.
    The best ice cream I ate in Havana came from a tiny store in La Habana
    Vieja called El Naranjal. It was a modest-size vanilla ice cream
    sandwich. Acquiring it took about a minute and cost the equivalent of 60
    U.S. cents, which would have been affordable to the Cubans walking past
    me as I left the store. But outside on the street, passing packed ice
    cream parlors, I understood why my sandwich’s deliciousness was only
    part of the Cuban ice cream experience. I finished it alone, then headed
    back to my room.

    Source: Inside Cuba’s Intense Ice Cream Obsession | SAVEUR –

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