By ANITA SNOW – Associated Press – May 31, 2007

HAVANA (AP) _ The ration book that determines most Cuban diets _ and that will briefly rule mine _ fits in my palm. Thick brown pages list amounts of foodstuffs to be checked, signed and stamped at “la bodega,” the local government distribution center.

In my eight years as Havana bureau chief for The Associated Press, I’ve developed great friendships and deep respect for the Cuban people. But as a foreigner paid in U.S. dollars, I’ve never lived the way most Cubans do, using their ingenuity to make sure there’s enough to eat at month’s end.

The foundation of the Cuban diet is the communist government’s ration book, or “libreta,” and as a foreigner, I’m not entitled to one. Cubans, meanwhile, are barred by law from selling or trading their deeply subsidized rations, which cost 33 Cuban pesos a month, about $1.30. That’s roughly 10 percent of the average government salary of 350 Cuban pesos, about $16.

But food is so central to life and culture that I won’t fully appreciate the Cuban experience until I eat as they do. So I’ve decided to spend June eating nothing but the rations and other food that Cubans earning an average salary can buy at farmers’ markets using Cuban pesos.

High in carbohydrates, the ration is a safety net for basic food needs, providing just 10 to 15 days of monthly nutritional requirements, depending on eating habits. My plan is to eat only the amounts and kinds of food listed in a friend’s “libreta,” plus whatever extras most Cubans buy at approved stores and markets.

My project comes amid debate over the 45-year-old universal food ration. Many say it’s unfair to give all Cubans the same allotment irrespective of income. Even Fidel Castro has said Cuba is “creating conditions for the libreta to disappear.”

To make sure I consume the same products Cubans get as rations, a friend gave me part of his monthly allotment _ coffee (4 ounces), vegetable oil (2 cups), rice (6 pounds) and dried legumes (10 ounces), including the black beans Cubans love and the split peas they hate.

My friend won’t sell me his rations or trade them for what I could buy elsewhere _ technically illegal but relatively common practices that are increasingly criticized in Cuba. For instance, Cubans who don’t drink coffee or like fish will often sell or trade their rations for something they need, such as more yogurt for a child or extra rice.

My friend also cannot sacrifice the five pounds of sugar his wife uses for family desserts, or spare his monthly animal protein: 10 eggs, a half-pound of chicken, 10 ounces of fish, and about a pound of other meat including a mix of hot dogs, more chicken, a ham-like product called “jamonada” and “picadillo texturizado” _ a bland ground beef-type mixture of mostly soy.

I’ll have to buy the most similar products I can find at the “shopping” _ an overpriced government supermarket with prices in Cuban convertible pesos _ and do my best to make such things as vegetarian chili using only the ingredients average Cubans can get. I’ll also need to find substitutes for other rations my friend can’t spare _ the half-pound of dried pasta, pound of crackers and four pounds of potatoes. (My friend does promise to give me his daily bread rolls _ one for each day.)

Because potatoes are almost impossible to get without buying them “por la izquierda,” or “under the table,” I’ll substitute boniato _ Cuban sweet potatoes bought with regular pesos at farmers’ markets known as agros. I’ll also shop at agros for fresh produce, eggs and more dried legumes, spending only what the average Cuban can afford.

Rations aside, Cubans also eat a lot of other government-subsized food, such as sizeable hot lunches at workplace dining rooms for less than 1.20 regular pesos, or 6 U.S. cents. And while most schoolchildren go home for lunch, kids with working parents get a hot meal as well.

During this month of living on the libreta, I’ll track my spending and post the results in an AP blog. I hope to develop healthier eating habits out of necessity: cutting down on red meat and dairy products, planning meals ahead, buying fresh produce at the agros.

But come July 1, I’ll also be ready for a big, juicy steak.

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