This is The Digest, a new FiveThirtyEight column exploring the science, history and economics of food. We’re still working out the essential ingredients to make this just right — we welcome your feedback and suggestions! You can email me, leave a note in the comments, or find me on Twitter. Now, on to this week’s four-course meal.
Ins and outs
As relations between the U.S. and Cuba have thawed, the arrival of Airbnb and a U.S. hotel chain to Cuba has made headlines. (Starbucks in the land of café cubano serves up a particular image of U.S. cultural imperialism.) But Cuba’s economy was already undergoing a massive overhaul after the government eased restrictions on private ownership of businesses in 2011. That goes for where people eat, too. Dining out in Cuba has begun a transition from mostly informal dining in people’s living rooms to more professionalized spots, including dozens of high-end restaurants in the island nation’s capital.
It’s hard to imagine exactly how this many restaurants function on a daily basis.1 Cuba has struggled with food shortages since the fall of the Soviet Union, and grocery shopping can be a multiple destination endeavor, even for those with money. Improved relations with the U.S. are expected to increase the quantity and variety of food available on the island, but food exports weren’t completely shut off by the embargo — the U.S. has been exporting food to Cuba for the better part of 15 years. After nearly 40 years of embargo, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (which passed in 2000, with exports beginning at the end of 2001) allowed direct commercial export of food and agricultural products from the U.S. to Cuba.
Chicken and soybean oil cakes2 have been the top two imports by dollar amount each of the past three years, but in the years after the law passed, wheat, corn and rice (in addition to poultry) often topped the list. The past couple of years, Cuba has purchased grains from the European Union, Brazil and Vietnam, among others, leaving things like whiskey and fresh fruit to creep up on the list of U.S. exports.
While exports peaked in 2008, the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonprofit organization that has put data on food and agriculture exports to Cuba together nearly every month for the past 15 years, says in its most recent report that was due to an increase in prices in the U.S. Imports from the U.S. have decreased in recent years for a variety of reasons, including the increasing influence of China and Venezuela on the Cuban economy.
Listening to council President John Kavulich explain the process of collecting the data, I realized that it’s as much an exercise in documenting trade as it is navigating the overlapping space on the Venn diagram of U.S. and Cuban bureaucracy. The council gathers data from various U.S. and Cuban government agencies, shipping companies, ports, and various other sources and then subtracts the products going to the U.S. military prison and naval base at Guantanamo Bay and the U.S. interests section,3 as well as any charitable food donations (since they aren’t purchases). Still, Kavulich said the council ends up with an accurate dollar amount for U.S. food and agriculture exports to Cuba. “Let me put it this way: We put the numbers to the dollar, so we’re fairly confident of our numbers,” Kavulich said.
I asked Kavulich, who spends numerous hours each month with the data, what stands out about the monthly reports to him. “Although the numbers have been somewhat like a roller coaster, with peaks and valleys, they haven’t been zero in 15 years,” Kavulich said. “Despite Cuba’s chronic shortage of foreign exchange and political interference with the purchasing process, despite changes in laws and regulations in the last 15 years, Cuba has never stopped buying.” It will be interesting to see what food, and how much, is exported to Cuba as that political interference diminishes.
My dog is a bit weird when it comes to what he eats and drinks. For the first two years I had him (he was a rescue from the street in New Delhi, India, where I lived at the time), he was desperately afraid of water. He goes crazy with joy when in proximity of the scent of cardamom. If allowed, he would subsist on nothing but milk and cheese, I’m pretty sure.4
Despite my dog’s oddities, I was still surprised when he recently decided that he no longer wanted to partake in one particular kind of kibble in his dry food mix.
He’s taken to knocking his food all over the floor, picking out the kibbles he likes, and leaving the rest for his humans to clean up. Is there something about the shape, I’ve wondered, or did these tiny brown morsels not agree with his discerning canine palate?
We creatures experience flavor through a combination of things — taste is one, but smell and looks matter too. Our various senses both work differently and play different roles in different animals. While dogs’ sense of smell can be thousands of times stronger than humans’, they have far fewer taste buds than we do; the smell of decomposing protein that’s nausea-inducing to us is a delight for them. Cats can’t taste sweetness and are true carnivores (unlike dogs, which do consume plant-based foods in the wild). For birds, smell and taste matter little, but temperature is highly important. Hamsters are more sensitive to sweet stimuli than salty.
And yet, as writer Mary Roach explained in her 2013 book “Gulp,” we feed our pets what we like. Roach chronicled how we moved from feeding dogs tinned horse meat to dried kibbles during World War II. At first, this change came out of wartime necessity but persisted because having flavor choices appealed to humans, as did the rather odorless dried kibbles, which are bathed in a powdered coating with enough flavor and smell to make them palatable for dogs.
Most likely, my dog is taking issue with something about the flavor or smell of the powdered coating on that particular kind of kibble, because that kibble is likely a similar combination of animal fats, grains and nutrients as all the others in the mix. Rather than publicly grumbling about the splatter patterns he leaves on the floor every morning, it’s probably time to find him a new brand of dry food.
- Salty politics: According to the 2015 federal dietary guidelines, we shouldn’t eat more than 2,300 milligrams of salt each day, and the Food and Drug Administration is pushing commercial food companies to meet voluntary sodium reduction targets. This month, Mars — which owns a variety of brands, including Snickers and Uncle Ben’s — became the first major food company to back the FDA’s proposal. Meanwhile, the Salt Institute, an industry group, is pushing back on the guidelines, pointing to conflicting and flimsy evidence about what amount of salt is bad for human health.
- With many great trends come great acts of fraud, and food is no exception. The Tampa Bay Times published an an incredible piece by food critic Laura Reiley about something that’s been right in front of our locavorian noses — many restaurants claim to serve “local” food but provide very little of the sort. Civil Eats explains that similar things are happening at “local” farmers markets.
- There’s a documentary out about Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. He inadvertently started his career by trying to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles while working as a proofreader. The thing about Pico Boulevard is that there are hundreds of restaurants dotting the 14.4 miles that stretch from downtown LA to Santa Monica, and places were constantly opening and closing, making it a near impossible feat. But it was no fool’s errand, for it brought us one of the most prolific and empathetic food writers who has ever walked the Earth.
If you need me the rest of the week, I’ll be staring at recipe GIFs on Reddit.