The Associated Press December 18, 2006, 7:04PM EST
Ron Sparks went from state agriculture commissioner to cooking instructor during his latest multimillion-dollar trade mission to Cuba.
Sparks returned Sunday from a four-day trip to follow up on trade commitments made to Alabama companies during the Havana Trade Expo in November.
"Over the last several months, there have been many rumors as to the future of Cuba because of President Castro's health," Sparks said Monday. "We felt that it was important for us to make this trip because we want to ensure that no matter what happens with Cuba, that Alabama will be able to continue our trade relationship."
While in Cuba, Sparks and his staff used Alabama products to prepare a traditional Southern meal for Cuban officials. It included fried catfish from Southern Pride Catfish, cornbread, butter beans, green bean casserole, coleslaw, pecan pie with ice cream, and Red Diamond sweet tea.
During the lunch, Alimport Chairman Pedro Alvarez, who determines which products Cuba purchases from North American countries, received a cooking lesson from Sparks.
The agriculture commissioner said the November and December trips yielded more than $30 million in commitments for purchases from Alabama companies or from companies representing Alabama firms.
In 2005, Cuba purchased $140 million in products from Alabama, which represented nearly one-third of the island's entire purchases in the United States, Sparks said in a news release.
Products slated for sale from Alabama to Cuba include peanut butter, poultry, grains, utility poles, lumber and newsprint, Sparks said.