‘Hon, you want the head for something religious?’

By Aurelio Pedroso

The fact that in Havana, a port city with one of the three of the world’s most beautiful boulevards – I refer to the seawall Malecón, seven-plus kilometers long – it is almost impossible to find a fish head to make the broth for a paella is enough to bring on a condition that a cardiologist might call a “piscatory myocardium.”

Best not try. It will be the start of a litany of shortages of the ingredients for that dish we like so much, a recipe we owe to the poor Valencian immigrants who bequeathed it to us.

The hard-currency stores recently have reduced the prices of items that few of us islanders pay due attention to: mussels, cuttlefish in olive oil, and even scallops, in easy-to-open cans (price: about US$1) imported from Spain.

Such generosity has a catch: the expiration date is 2010. Worst of all, the rumor goes, they are the last supplies in store because the supplier is packing his bags to leave the country.

Although not frequently because of market shortages, people are getting into the habit of looking for sales and closeouts. Moreover, a sales technique that had long disappeared in our stores is making a comeback: if you buy such-and-such a product, you’ll get an added bonus, some sort of little gift. I just saw it advertised in the perfumery at the famous “diplo-store” on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

For now, rice poses no great problems. A one-pound package from Valencia costs about a dollar. Expiration date: next February.

In addition to the tension over finding a fish head, the trick is to prepare the paella as soon as possible thereafter, lest the feast becomes an indigestion caused by outdated ingredients, with associated stomach disorders and the inevitable complaints to the ad-hoc cook.

The next ingredients, lobsters and shrimp, are purchased at state-run fish stores called Mercomar. You’ll find a lot of seafood there, and while you won’t find heads of grouper or snapper, you’ll see listings for “shark, sliced, various species.” That sends a subliminal message to the Chinese who shop there that our island is surrounded by ferocious and blood-thirsty squalus. I like that.

I must mention that in these municipal stores they sell fish croquettes that are life-savers for low-income families, of which there are many, judging from the demand. And the demand is so great that buyers stand in long lines for the reddish croquettes. A nicely packaged box of 10 can be purchased for 5 Cuban pesos. At the La Copa store in Playa, one sales clerk recently made a historic statement about them: “Folks, even though they don’t taste like fish, they’re made of fish.”

Next ingredient is saffron, a spice expensive anywhere in the world and most expensive in Cuba. It can also be obtained through legal means. The cost of the purchase must be contributed by at least five couples among the partygoers. There’s no other way. That’s how big meals or parties are organized during the holidays, to bring together relatives or friends.

There’s no better place to shop for a fish head than a marina in San Cristóbal de La Habana. Unless you know some fisherman, the search is complicated and risky, because the law says the marinas are centers for sports fishing, not commercial fishing. A sports fisherman caught selling yellowtail snappers could lose his hook, line, sinker and even his boat.

As it turned out, I didn’t arouse much suspicion by my naiveté as I arrived in a marina I will not identify, looking for a simple fish head. In response to someone’s shout, a woman nearly 40, looking ill-treated by life, led me through a labyrinth of walkways to a tumbledown shack with a fragile-looking door. Inside stood a freezer with a lock that would have challenged the world’s finest locksmith.

I made my request. The woman looked at me fixedly for several seconds and asked me in subsonic tones:

“Hon, you want the head for something religious”?

The immediate result was that I was speechless. Then I flashed her a conspiratorial smile and told her the reason I needed the fish head.

So she sold me a grouper so small that it was, in fact, useless for the purpose. I left the labyrinth with the frozen fish wrapped in a newspaper, worrying about “the religious something.”

Later, I talked with a card reader and spiritual adviser I’ve known for years, one of the finest in the city. Some say her accuracy is outstanding. She told me that some Afro-Cuban religions offer their deities smoked fish, which must be purchased with scales and guts.

The bottom line is, I’m still unable to find a decent fish head so the paella has been postponed. The head is missing in an island, which, by definition, is a body of land surrounded by water.

As city historian Eusebio Leal said in one of his lectures, everything good and bad in the history of Cuba has to do with the sea. And he’s right.

Aurelio Pedroso, a Cuban journalist, is member of the Progreso Weekly team.

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