Imagine you’ve been held in a Cuban prison for five years. You’ve subsisted on meager rations of canned goods, beans and the occasional care package from home. You’ve been dreaming of high-piled Jewish deli sandwiches so much that you can almost taste them.
Now imagine that you have finally won your release and are safely in an airplane on your way back home. You’re sitting face-to-face with the corned beef sandwich of your dreams, your mouth watering and as you’re about to take that first bite… “Mr. Gross, there’s a call for you.”
“It’s the President, sir.”
Do you take the call from the man who helped to secure your freedom, or do you take a bite of that mountainous, lean, tender cured beef calling your name?
Obviously, you take the call from POTUS. That’s what Alan Gross did. He notes, however, that President Obama said, without missing a beat, that he could “hear” a bit of mustard on his lips.
It’s been about a year and a half since that day on Air Force One. While being held in a Cuban prison for five years without proper nutrition, Gross lost 110 pounds and many of his teeth. He had been arrested while working as a government contractor for USAID trying to bring Internet access to the island’s Jewish community. He was released on December 17, 2014 to the great joy of his wife, Judy, and their two daughters.
Gross sums up his assessment of the food he received during his time in the prison in one word: “Crappy.” He and his cellmates didn’t have any kind of protein that first year. They mostly survived on fruits and vegetables, until Cuba’s citrus crops became blighted. Then they relied on care packages from home and from US Embassy consular visits. Gross’ cellmates’ families would always bring food when they came to visit.
After a while, members of Congress were able to visit, such as members of the Maryland delegation, including Chris Van Hollen, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Senator Jeff Flake, among others. In fact, Congressman Sam Farr went so far as to bring in five salamis when he visited.
Things really started to look up when Tim Rieser, an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy was having lunch with Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski at Attman’s Deli in Baltimore. Gross remembers that Rieser called and put the Senator Mikulski on. They joked about whether he liked corned beef or pastrami. (He’s a “pastrami man,” as the senator puts it.)
It was also around this time that Gross’ wife and their lawyer began sending cans of Atlantic salmon to the facility where he was being held. Gross says that he kept the cans for Friday night Shabbat dinner, explaining to his cellmates, “Every day is the same. We need to have something to separate the weeks. In my family, it’s called Shabbat.” They would use the top of the cans to slice the fresh tomatoes brought by the others’ families. Together, in that Cuban prison, they were able to share a meal and honor Shabbat.
Gross has kept in touch with his cellmates since his release, particularly Rolando Garcia. The two of them vowed that when they got out of prison, they would have a reunion at the famous Cuban restaurant Versailles in Miami, which they were finally able to do last December. Garcia, who was raised Catholic, fasted with Gross on Yom Kippur when they were imprisoned.
Now that Gross is back home in Washington, DC, he’s put back on some of the weight and has had his teeth fixed to show off his life-affirming smile. He walks about five miles a day to stay in shape. For breakfast now, he enjoys making a poached egg (“Bring water to boil with a half-capful of white vinegar, break open the egg and cook for exactly 2 minutes and 34 seconds.”) with a little Israeli salad and some multigrain bread on the side. For the most part, he says, these days, he’s following a “Mediterranean diet” of primarily fresh fruits, vegetables and fish.
Today, Gross is enjoying the freedom most of us take for granted. Whether smoking a cigar on his porch, singing to his granddaughter or even just walking through his DC neighborhood, he will be the first to tell you that freedom is bliss.
But when you ask him what freedom tastes like, he’ll just smile his bright new smile and sheepishly say with a twinkle in his eye, “It tastes like a single malt.”
You can “hear” it on his lips.
Top photo: Alan Gross (center) with his wife, Judy, upon his release after five years in prison in Cuba. All photos courtesy of Alan Gross.