mr. grant’s rant: the cuban pickle crisis

Who can give a damn about Lenin and Marx once they’ve been dazzled by huge, walking cans of Spam, Tony the Tiger, or the California Dancing Raisins?”



It’s difficult to find much in the way of food for thought these days, aside from the headlines and newscasts currently commandeered by the Bush administration’s all-out push for a “splendid little war” with Saddam Hussein. The saber-rattling has reached a finely orchestrated fever pitch in the days since the Bushies launched their war-PR blitz—the day after the one-year anniversary of 9/11, no less—and it looks like George Jr. will get his chance to wade vicariously into the bloody fray and avenge the Gulf War egg on Poppy Bush’s face. We’d might as well expect the Bush/media lap dance to remain at center stage for the immediate future.

But in the midst of all of this, a curious event has managed to capture a good deal of media exposure: the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition, a huge trade show with nearly 300 American food companies taking part, started a five-day mega-marketing onslaught in Havana, Cuba, on September 26.

Yes, that’s Cuba, our recalcitrant commie neighbors located a mere 90 miles to the south of Florida, the same country that has been under a U.S. economic blockade since it was slapped on the island by President Kennedy over 40 years ago. And still firmly in control of Cuba is one Fidel Castro, now 76 years old and continuing in his role as a burr in the collective butts of ten United States presidents (four dead, five ex-, one sitting—and squirming just as angrily as his predecessors as the burr works its way into his chafing rump). A law passed by Congress in 2000 relaxed the embargo enough to allow for a small amount of food and medicine to be sold, on a cash-only basis, to the Cuban government, creating the loophole that allows the trade show to take place with the blessing of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Bush has been huffily dismissing the event and refuses to end the embargo outright “until Cuba embraces democratic and economic reforms.” Florida governor Jeb Bush added his two cents by writing a letter to Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura asking him not to attend the event, to no avail—Ventura was there, standing with other dignitaries on the same stage as Fidel, hoping to get a chance to ask him who really shot JFK (I’m not making that up), before tearing into the free turkey jerky and Little Smokies.

But I think Bush and everyone else is completely missing the enormous potential of this toothsome extravaganza. Don’t they realize that a torrent of highly processed, deep-fat fried, chemically enhanced American food products could be what it takes to finally get rid of Castro once and for all? Are they blind to the fact that the fat-laden fruits of American feed conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland, Hormel Foods Corporation, Tyson Chicken, ConAgra, United Food & Pharmaceutical, and Northaven Bean Growers could so unravel the very fabric of Cuban society that political chaos and Bush’s coveted “regime change” panacea would be the only logical outcome? Mark my words, decades from now, schoolchildren could very well be reading about how the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition of 2002 set off the “Cuban Pickle Crisis.”

It’s not as if the United States hasn’t tried to bump Fidel off before. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s CIA was so irked by Castro’s commie ways they reportedly assigned various underworld thugs the task of taking him out with poisoned cigars, or by dosing his food with botulism—unsuccessfully. Then came the hopelessly bungled Bay of Pigs invasion, which gave JFK a humiliating kick to the crotch that he never forgot, much less forgave, coming as it did squarely from the spit-polished black toe of Castro’s boot. Kennedy’s spooks are said to have tried the poison route; failing that, they decided to construct a “booby-trapped seashell” (again, I’m not making this up) that would blow his bearded, cigar-chomping head off if placed in his favorite snorkeling spot. In two of the most hilariously understated lines ever written, Edward J. Epstein writes in his June 2000 article in George magazine: “The workshop [CIA], however, decided that the construction of a lethal sea-shell that would not explode accidentally or be lost was technically too difficult. The CIA went back to the drawing board.” Lethally rigged wetsuits, poisoned pens, and seemingly unimaginative sniper plots all went the way of other bona-fide boners cooked up in the “workshop.”

Whether Castro was too smart for such insane cowboy shenanigans or just plain lucky is hard to say; but this time he may have met his match. It all sounds innocent enough; a win-win situation for cash-strapped U.S. farmers, food industry visionaries, and perpetually belt-tightening Cuban citizens. But the real intent of the food fair is glaringly clear in a press release by E.J. Krause & Associates, Inc., a Maryland-based exhibition management company assisting with the show:

“Alimport [ministry of foreign trade in Cuba] will use the U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition to identify millions of U.S. dollars in new purchases, especially branded food products; and many of the contracts for these new purchases will be signed during the exhibition. We view the U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition as an opportunity for U.S. companies to continue to create brand awareness and brand preference before the 11.2 million citizens of Cuba.”

It can’t be more black-and-white than that—”branded food products” being the likes of Spam, Aunt Jemimah Pancake products, Land O’ Lakes butter, Sarah Lee cheesecakes, pies, and cookies, M&Ms, Hormel bacon and sausages, Quaker Instant Oatmeal Dinosaur Eggs, Eggo Chocolate Chip Frozen Waffles, Banquet Fried Chicken and Chicken Pot Pies, Slim Jims, Lunch Makers—a cornucopia of fat-loaded, sugary, resplendently packaged fare that is sure to dazzle even the most hardened socialist masses. And once the people of Cuba have gorged themselves on limitless, toothpick-skewered samples of these fine products, “brand awareness” will work its magic: they’ll soon be demanding boatloads of their favorite top-shelf items, drilled into their subconscious minds by the fleet of mascots roaming the exhibition hall. Who can give a damn about Lenin and Marx once they’ve been dazzled by huge, walking cans of Spam, Tony the Tiger, or the California Dancing Raisins?

Castro himself has been roaming the halls as well, flanked by the usual retinue of ministers, photographers, and reporters. One photo shows him standing at a vendor’s booth, holding the top bun of a hamburger, staring dolefully down at the gray, embalmed beef patty, surrounded by pickles, lettuce, flavorless tomato slices, and chili-cheese curly fries. The look on his face betrays more about his true feelings than you’ll ever garner from one of his marathon, rambling speeches. Fidel Castro, el Caballo (“the Horse”), survivor of guerrilla warfare, bungled invasions, pea-brained assassination attempts, and a protracted attempt to starve out his populace, may well see the writing on the wall as he beholds the greasy specter before him. Opening the floodgates to a deluge of corndogs, gravy-injected french toast sticks, krab legs, buffalo wings, beer-battered carp nuggets, and colon-laced ground meat patties could prove to be Fidel’s downfall, a Pandora’s box of ominous portent.Once the delights of Cuban cuisine—with its emphasis on slow-paced, communal eating—have been swallowed up by the stupefying bombast of U.S. brand name awareness campaigns; once 11 million Cuban citizens cram their gullets full of overprocessed, genetically engineered foodstuffs; once Fidel himself fattens up on a steady diet of hot dogs, chicken pot pies, Froot Loops, and biscuits & gravy; once he and the Cuban nation join the 50 million Americans men, women, and children who are obese to the point of blowing out their cardiovascular systems; then, and only then, will the fervent wish of every American president since 1959 come to pass.

E tu, Aunt Jemimah.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Two
October 2002

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