John F. Kennedy's familiar Massachusetts drawl opens the sixth season of Anthony Bourdain's award-winning travelogue Parts Unknown — perhaps not surprisingly, given that the show's premiere episode takes place in Cuba. "The missile crisis," Bourdain intones of the Cuba of his youth. "Duck and cover. Hide under your desks, kids. Cover yourselves with wet newspaper, 'cause we're all gonna die." But President Obama's late-2014 announcement "normalizing" relations between the U.S. and Cuba frames Bourdain's entire visit, as the CNN host/flaneur ruminates on the changes that might soon come to the island nation, where American dollars will inevitably start flooding into the country.
"There aren’t many places in the word that look like this. It is utterly enchanting. It’s very seductive."
"However you feel about the government, however you feel about the last 55 years, there aren't many places in the world that look like this," Bourdain says. "It is utterly enchanting. It's very seductive." And, as he emphasizes multiple times throughout the episode, it might look completely different few as five years from now. (The possibility of a new and impending branch of the trendy W Hotel is a recurring theme; compare this commentary to Bourdain's 2011 episode of No Reservations, which focused most often on baseball.)
As made obvious in previous seasons, Parts Unknown has deftly shifted its focus away from food and more toward the loaded conversations Bourdain has with locals over a meal. But even though Bourdain professes his nostalgia for the "old Cuba" while experiencing it in the present, the premiere episode is not all doom-and-gloom. While visiting Havana and Santiago, Bourdain feasts on lechon cubano and corn-and-pumpkin pig head soup at a backyard cookout; he's invited into the home of a journalist for cabbage stew and sour-orange-marinated pork. There's rum, beer, lobster, and "silky" black beans. And in a joyous segment, Bourdain cedes a whole section of the episode to 93-year-old dynamo/singer Juana Bacallao, who still performs nightly to the delight of her multi-generational fans.
Here now are the 15 best quips from Parts Unknown's visit to Cuba:
1) On Cuba's proximity to the U.S.: "Cuba's been sitting here for what, 55 years. Half an hour away, basically giving the biggest superpower in the world the stiff middle finger."
2) On finding an unexpected culinary delight: "Humble fishing village. Traditional fishing family — we're gonna eat fucking sushi. What's going on in this country, man?"
3) On how external influences are filtering into Cuba: "Sushi: A certain sign of impending apocalypse."
4) On the statue of tourism: "Tourists have been coming to Cuba for some time, predominantly Europeans, many of them men of a certain age looking for — how should we say? — company."
5) On the cool factor of a new Havana nightclub: "Questlove is scheduled to DJ here tomorrow night... what is going on here?"
6) To Cuban entrepreneurs, on the upcoming influx of tourist cash: "I guess I'm asking, ‘How you do keep it real when you'll all probably be millionaires in a few years?'"
7) On Havana's charms: "Havana still looks like you want it to look. Or maybe, how I want it to look."
8) On Havana's fledging Chinatown: "It's like a cargo-cult version of Chinese food here. Dumplings. A Sichuan chicken dish that's about as Sichuan as well, I am."
9) On the possibility of hipsters ruining everything: "There will be wealthy hipsters, women in tiny black dresses drinking ironic riffs on the mojito in the lobby of a spanking-new W Hotel with untz untz untz in the background. And that's within five years."
10) On the local street racing scene: "All of Cuba seems waiting for something — for whatever it is that happens next. Today, that's the roar of Detroit's finest, circa 1959 and before, of course. American dream machines, tricked out, babied, pampered, jury-rigged, or simply held together with duct tape and bailing wire."
11) On unorthodox cooking containers: "For dessert: Flan, cooked in a cut-down beer can."
12) On American tourists: "Half an hour away... they can basically take a boat over for lunch."
13) On what American tourists want: "Good rum, cold beer, good fish, good lobster. You'll be need a blender for pina coladas."
14) On Santiago nightlife: "Nighttime is party time, where everybody it appears, at least, from where I was there, hit the streets. Mom, dad, sis, even grandma get, well, crazy."
15) On the future: "What next for Cuba? Something is coming. It will come, from out there, but also from within Cuba. It's already happening — but what is it? Everybody knows, everybody can feel it, it smells like freedom. But will it be victory?"