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We’re talking to Cuba — but its cigars are still banned

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

So far, the United States has had only one round of official chats with Cuba, which means we’ve barely started talking about starting to talk about talking about things.

It’s a slow process involving many weighty topics, like human rights and where to find parts for a 1957 DeSoto.

But to answer the one question that’s most important when you live across a river from a country whose mom lets it have play dates with Cuba:

We are still close, but no cigars.

Yes, relations between our country and the Castro brothers’ little nation are defrosting after 50 years. One of our distinguished diplomats met with one of theirs late last month in Havana, and according to the seasoned foreign policy analysts at, the Boston Red Sox would like to play an exhibition game there this spring.

Cuban cigars, however, remain tabu, and the longest-tenured cigar seller in Windsor says things will probably get worse once they’re able to emigrate legally.

At Humidor One Tobacconist, serving your illicit cigar needs since 1995, proprietor Fawzi Fayoumi has hundreds of Cubans priced from $5 to $100.

“Is there a word in English ... more tobacc-y?” he asks. “It’s fuller. The tobacco is richer.”

And the penalty for bringing one across the border is richer yet.

“Those are some quite expensive cigars if you get caught,” says spokesman Ken Hammond of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Fines for failure to declare can go as high as $5,000, and not only does the border patrol take the cigars, it strip-searches your car.

Officially sanctioned visitors to Cuba can bring back $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol, which is nice, and it’s now easier get permission for a trip. But unsanctioned visitors can face a loss of passport and a five-figure penalty.

Puffing out smoke rings of gloom, Fayoumi notes that even if the U.S. and Cuba decide to clasp hands and sing campfire songs together, Cuba can’t possibly increase cigar production enough to service a new market of 330 million people.

“The U.S.,” he predicts, “will be flooded with fake Cubans,” and Hammond concurs: “More than likely, that would be the case.”

But Fayoumi will still have real ones, he promises, just a short drive or a long swim away.

Rolling along

Like cigars, real paczki are rolled.

Unreal ones are stamped from a sheet, and OK, they still taste pretty good. On this Paczki Day Eve, however, allow me to suggest a non-traditional place to find authentic paczki and a few authentic places to find non-traditional ones.

Hamtramck remains the Bethlehem of paczki. But at Sisters Cakery, on Warren Avenue west of Greenfield in Detroit, Susan Milosevich Radovanovic and her family still make them the old-fashioned way — flour, eggs, butter, pride.

Tell them I sent you. If you can tell them in Serbian, the language they all spoke back in Yugoslavia, you’ll probably get paczki and a hug.

Back in Hamtramck, at Small’s Bar on Conant Street, the annual Paczki Day debauchery begins at 10 a.m. with the specially made vodka-filled pastries known as Paczki Bombs.

The music starts at 4 p.m. with Eastside Elvis & The Motor City Mafia, and ends with an 8 p.m. set by the Polka Floyd Show. Be forewarned that the bands typically outlast the Bombs.

Finally, Peteet’s Famous Cheesecakes will now offer its semi-legendary cheesecake paczki on Tuesday at a second location — on Orchard Lake Road south of Maple in West Bloomfield, along with the original spot on Nine Mile west of Coolidge in Oak Park.

No, they’re not the paczki you grew up with. But “cheesecake” and “paczki” go together like “Cuban” and “cigar,” and realistically, which would you rather eat?