In my travels I have noticed food tours are becoming increasingly prevalent. Ever since we returned from Spain it seems they’re booming. Maybe that’s the case, or maybe I’m more aware of them. That said, last year there was no food tour of my neighborhood. Now there is.
The question is: Why not? Besides language, food is a differentiator among cultures and a common denominator among travelers. Everyone has to eat, and it is the easiest “most adventurous” element of travel.
A good food tour will include history, influences, and cultural relevance in addition to good food. It’s also a great way to cover ground and find good restaurants. Many ‘traditional’ recipes are rooted in a locations heritage so food tours are also a great way to learn something about your host city or country.
Still, with so many food tours available, look for the ones that promise something beyond food. That’s one reason why I chose the Little Havana Food Tour. It really is two tours in one.
I started my tour at Agustin Gainza Gallery. The working gallery is owned by someone said to be one of the earliest defectors from Cuba, Mr. Gainza. He was a young conservatory artist when he left and continues to paint with a colorful “refined voluptuousness” of dreamscape scenes from the United States. His works are typically done in a series such as the umbrella series or the black monias series, his most famous. Check out his portfolio for samples.
Our guide, Ralph, made arrangements for Mr. Gainza, and his wife who runs the gallery, to speak with us at the start of the tour. He was a humble and charming man, who greeted each of us in turn and told us a little about his paintings.
Seasoned travelers may understandably be cynical about this. Of course, the tour starts in a gallery where you are encouraged to buy something. That was my initial thought, too. But we were never encouraged to buy anything. The visit was a starting point for a food tour, but as a brief cultural immersion it quickly set the tone and to some degree helped to transport us to a different, Cuban Miami. It was an honor to meet someone who actually left everything—an entire life—in Cuba to come to begin again. It was an opportunity to understand the pressures to do this, and the hardships of starting over, beyond the history to the emotional experience.
Of course I bought some small pieces. However, art aside, I think hearing his story helps to ensure that part of Cuba’s history isn’t forgotten.
After stopping at El Pub, we visited the Cuban Tobacco Cigar Company. This is a fifth generation shop; the third generation statesmen sits outside smoking and clearly enjoying…you guessed it, a big cigar. He happily poses for photos with visitors. The Cuban Tobacco Company hand rolls all its cigars on premise.
Interesting fact about these cigars and Cuban cigars. The cigars sold at the shop are all leaves grown from Cuban seeds. There is a loop-hole in the U.S. embargo. Cuban tobacco seeds are supposedly purchased by the U.S. government from the Castro Regime. The seeds are then sold to Costa Rica or Nicaragua to grow tobacco. And that is how this shop in Miami can sell “Cuban” cigars.
Another historical point: the practice of buying the seeds and growing them is diminishing so shops like this are in danger of becoming relics. Although by then we’ll probably lift the Cuban embargo anyway.
We also had the opportunity on the tour to visit Tower Theater. Opened in 1926, this theater’s claim to fame is that it was the first theater in America to show Hollywood movies with Spanish subtitles. “Old timers” used to wait outside for their family, playing dominos to pass the time. You can’t play dominos outside the theater anymore. But, across the street is “domino park,” an area where about 50 men gather and play dominos. And, as I said in my previous post, Miami dominos is practically a contact sport.
The tour included much more than this. But if I tell you everything, there is no surprise for you when you make a reservation. Which you should absolutely do when you visit Miami. If you missed my first post, the tour is billed at $59 and 2.5 hours long. However, our tour was much closer to 3.5 hours and there is a tip on top of the $59 (and worth every penny). Ralph was a great guide, knew the area in and out, and was a wealth of great stories.