Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To Make a Tamale

In mid December, Tia Cata had a big party to break in her new building / party room that had just finished with construction.  For this party, Ela was recruited to make 400 tamales, to feed the horde after the church service wound down.  This was a several day process to prepare, and I did my best to document each step.  I missed a good chunk of preparation of the recaldo (sauce) because the family dog bit me and I had to head to the doctor for an anti-rabies shot, but that's a story for another day.  

Anyway, here are the steps I was able to follow.  I apologize that I don't have the actual quantities available, but none of you need to make this in quantities of 400, I suppose.  Besides, I think it's mostly made to taste... a handful of this, a few pounds of that.... you get the idea.

For such quantities, a makeshift cook space was made.  Cement blocks raised the metal basins off the fire, and a fence of lamina  was set up to shelter the flames from wind.

As with most things, the process started with corn.  On Thursday it was set to nixtamal, or soak in limestone and water to soften the kernels enough to take them to the molina (grinder / mill).  

After cooking the corn it gets taken to the mill (the next day, Friday morning).  Here I get hazy, but I think they cook it again with water added, as well as some cooked rice (a relatively small portion of the total) to make it more smooth and white.    

Ela then strained the liquid to take out all the bits of grit from the corn kernels.

Lots of consome (bullion, I think... some kind of powdered broth), margarine, and salt were added in (with many a taste test to be sure the balance is just right).  

And it returned to the fire, for constant stirring.

We started to take turns as the masa thickened and made stirring more tiring.

Finally, it began to boil like the mud pits in Yellowstone.

When we could drop a glob into cold water and have it keep it's shape, we knew it was ready.
Here's the sauce.  I missed the making of this goodness, but Ela told me it's loads of tomatoes, some red bell peppers, two kinds of ground pepper, cinnamon, and a little chocolate.  They must have taken this to the mill too, because I don't want to think how many blenders full this would have been.  I think it was strained as well, because I didn't find any seeds.

Ela removed the chicken skin and chopped the meat into chunks, cutting right through the bone with a knife reinforced by a wooden bat to give a little extra force when needed.

And it landed in yet another big tub.

While Ela was on meat duty, she had a neighbor girl cut exactly 400 strips of bell pepper.  That was how we kept track of when we met our goal.

Meanwhile I counted out 865 raisins by hand, to find out how many we had, and thus how many could go in each tamal.  I know there was an easier way to do this... perhaps count 50, weight them, and then estimate from there.  Too bad.  This is how we do it here.

Sorry the picture's blurry, I must have been too cross eyed to notice.   
Some leaves were washed and cut small to be the inner leaf; perhaps a plate sized option to remove the tamal from the main wrapping?

The main leaves had also been washed and had their stems removed.
At last, all the ingredients prepared (Saturday, day three of the process at this point...), we started to assemble.  The chicken was in the sauce, the masa cooled and doled out onto the waiting leaves....

...the decorative pepper and raisins placed just so....

...wrapped, folded, and stowed into another basin.
They return to the fire, with naked corn cob (stripped of kernals) and water in the bottom to prevent scorching and plastic on top to retain steam.  Two hours to go.  

At last, the fruits of our labor made it to a plate.

I have to admit, the "decorations" didn't make it look all that lovely...

....but the taste was great!  The texture was unlike any I've tried before; I wouldn't have said it was corn if I hadn't already known.  And, while there are other styles of tamales here that don't get strained and keep that cornmeal texture, this is the fancy party way.  
And that, folks, is the three day ordeal to generate 400 tamales.  Like I said, 50 for Noche Buena?  No sweat.  ...But this isn't something I want to whip out on a weekly basis.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Feliz Navidad!

Christmas in Guatemala seems to emphasize the 24th over the 25th.  Actually, in my site we emphasized the time immediately before and after midnight between the 24th and 25th, leaving the rest of the holiday mainly quiet.

The 24th was a relaxed day at home.  I spent the morning as a busy elf secretly putting the finishing touches on some decorative garlands that I made for the extended host family.  I didn't have much money (or much of an idea what to spend it on), so I figured a little time and craftiness would go over just fine with the grandparents, aunts, and uncle.  

My gift garlands, hanging over my bed/workshop.  I told them the stars symbolized the star the Wise Men followed to Bethlehem, and that paper cranes are a symbol of peace (and my wishes for the New Year).  
In the afternoon we did a little decorating, such as placing the nacimiento (nativity scene) under the Christmas tree and spreading pine needles all over the front steps and patio (pine needles all over the ground is a must at any Guatemalan celebreation; birthday, wedding, graduation, you name it).  I helped Ela make 50 tamales, which was a breeze after the 400 from two weeks ago.  

Elkin (left) and Hendrick (right) posing around the tree and nativity scene.  Mary got broken right after lunch... Benancio came in and joked that, "Elkin ya tiene un pecado," (Elkin's got a sin already) because Mary was in three pieces.  We carefully balanced them together (no glue) and just tried not to touch the scene.  
As the evening wore on and the sun went down, the power went off.  The previously festive blaring and clashing music (both pop hits from the radio and whining tin sounding holiday tunes emanating from blinking Christmas lights) disappeared, and the town went quiet.  Ela started wrapping the kids presents by candle light out on the patio, while the kids watched and carried each gift off to set under the tree as she finished the wrapping.  Since they had been along on the shopping expedition, there was no need for secrecy.  I think they had already opened and started playing with more new toys than they ended up unwrapping later on... In the end the gifts from Tia Isabel and me were the only surprises.  

The power eventually came back on around 9:30 p.m., which was good because we were all getting drowsy by candlelight.  We had to make it to Midnight, that's when the celebration actually gets going!  To await the hour, we dug into the tamales (two kinds, yum!), hot chocolate, magdalena cake, and ponche (hot drink sort of like cider; they throw a mix of dried fruits that come pre- sugared and spiced with cinnimon into boiling water and voila!).  We also lit off a few small fireworks and sparklers to pass the time.  Well, Benancio and Hendrick lit them, lighting the fuse with the firework still in hand and throwing it to the ground at the last minute.  I stood safely to the side and enjoyed the show.

Ela's makeshift stove in the patio, heating ponche, tamales, and hot chocolate.  
At a few minutes before Midnight, the valley either could just not wait any longer, or had their clocks set just a bit faster than mine.  The entire valley (ringed by several aldeas and a pueblo) erupted.  I'm not sure I've ever experienced fireworks in quite that way -- one PCV friend texted me at midnight saying, "welcome to Apocolypo Christmas."  It was like all the fireworks a medium sized city in the U.S. lights off over the whole week of 4th of July packed into half an hour starting at midnight!  I took a video, and though my camera doesn't capture most of the visuals, just listen to the constant booms and pops and you'll get an idea of what I was experiencing.   

Toward the end you can hear Hendrick shouting, "Y ahora es tiempo de abrir regalos!" ("and now time to open presents!").  So, even though he knew exactly what he was getting, his enthusiasm for opening the presents seemed undiminished.  

Tio Oscar rolling out 25 meters of firecrackers.

One of the former volunteers in my site observed to the family (and they repeated to me): En Guatemala, no hay dinero para comer, pero si hay para quemar! (In Guatemala, there isn't money to eat, but there is money to burn!).  Once we had taken in as much explosions as we could handle (about half an hour later... the bursts showed no signs of stopping), we all trooped downstairs.  We all hugged and said Feliz Navidad,  opened presents, and had a second round of tamales.  I snuggled into bed around 1:30 a.m.  

My Chirstmas Corner of the room -- no tree, unfortunately.  
On Christmas day itself I had a Skype date with my family and participated in the round robin of opening presents, since my overly generous family had managed to send me plenty of packages (some of which are still on their way).  They munched on our traditional almond danish puff, I munched on more tamales.  The internet went out midway through, but it was enough to be able to kibitz with them some and share laughter.  I read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which I'd found at the Peace Corps Office, and streamed holiday music from NPR's website.  We got back in touch later in the day to finish catching up and to fill one another in on the presents opened after we lost the connection.  

All in all, I enjoyed Christmas in Guatemala!  It's easier to escape the commercialization of the holiday when your town is more or less outside of the formal economy.  It was strangely fairly secular here, which I wouldn't have expected.  I missed some of my own traditions, and certainly always love having a White Montana Christmas, but it was a blast to see the excitement of my Site family when the fireworks started, and I was reduced to giggling, hopping and pointing with glee.  I hope the holiday was joyful for all of you -- whether full of old traditions or the beginning of some new ones!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guatemalan Cuisine: Beans

The second most prevalent food in my diet here is beans.  They come in various forms and colors and make a good nutritional pairing with all the corn, as many vegetarians know.  In Sumpango we had almost exclusively black beans, but the beans went through a transformation over the course of each week, with a metamorphosis from enteros to colados or licuados and ending as volteados.  I enjoyed the progression, and found I liked each form more than the last, but was always perfectly happy to start the process over once more. 

Frijoles Enteros  are your basic whole black beans in their own sauce.  They’re made from the dry beans with water, garlic, and onion thrown together in an olla (pot) and set for a long slow cook over the wood-fired stove.  Some use a pressure cooker to speed things along.

Frijoles Colados or Licuados start with the Enteros but add in some more garlic and onion that have been sautéed in a pan.  Then everything is put into the licuador (blender) and out comes a smooth liquidy paste.  This can be spread on tostados or served in a bowl as is.  The ones pictured are less liquid than usual; I think this was the 2nd day of reheating them.

Volteados start as licuados and are cooked down in a pan over a burner for about 2 hours, becoming more dry and dense as it goes.  Once they dry out some the beans are flipped in the pan (volteado means overturned or tossed) and form a dense log.  In my view, Frijoles Volteados have the intense flavor and texture in the beans world that cheese logs have in the dairy world.
In my site we haven’t had any volteados, but the first two forms show up on the regular.  We also dip into a wider variety of beans, with red beans, white beans, fava beans and more making their rotation onto the plates.  One kind of bean (I don’t know what it was called, but it was large and green) left me uncomfortably gassy and bloated, but other than that I have no complaints on the abundance of beans.

Whereas corn is a character in every episode (or meal) of the Guatemalan cuisine drama, beans make an appearance just once or twice a day.  I would characterize them as the nosy neighbor or the quirky aunt in the storyline… they come in frequently and fill in the plot but don’t provide any shocking twists in the story (or surprises for the palate).  They are a reassuring repeat character that provides the foil for any guest stars that burst onto the scene.    

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Site Family

In many ways, my new living situation is quite the contrast to my last one.  In Sumpango I lived with single family in a walled compound.  Here, I am living with 10 people crossing three generations in one of four buildings facing the same patio (and one cottage off to the side where I will end up eventually).  We are surrounded by corn fields, but no fence. 

In the house where I live now there are five of us (two boys, their parents, and yours truly).  Hendrick is 7 and Elkin is 2½, both are extremely energetic and predisposed to love me based on their previous Volunteer experiences.  Ela (their mother and my counterpart) is in her early 30s and is always on the run.  She works afternoons during the school year as an administrative assistant of some kind and also volunteers her time to coordinate the women’s group that I’ve been assigned to work with.  Benancio (Ela’s husband) is taking classes in Xela at night working toward his law degree.   

In the house just uphill there are three: Fernando, a cousin to the kids in my house, and his parents Catarina and Oscar.  Oscar is here just two weekends out of the month since he works in the capital. 

The grandparents (Don Juan and Doña Ana) and Aunt Isabel (sister to Benancio) sleep in the house just downhill.  During the day Isabel is at work out of town, Ana is at the uphill house with Cata, and Juan is up at the cottage where he has an office. 

The fourth building sits empty, though it just finished construction.  The electrical system was completed during November, and last weekend we had a massive party (hundreds of invitees… 400 tamales) to break it in.  Expect a post on tamale making down the line.

I will actually live the bulk of my two years about 25 yards away in a cottage that was once where the grandparents lived (and where Juan has his office now).  I’ve been waiting on moving up there to put on a fresh coat of paint (done) and because I’m buying some household items (furniture, kitchen stuff) off another volunteer who wasn’t willing to sell until December.  I managed to get my hands on my furniture yesterday and will be sprucing the place up to move in fully very soon.  It’s essentially going to be a studio apartment for me, with one large room for my use and a latrine and pila outside. 

There are so many personalities I’m only beginning to get a handle on the dynamics, but I’ll surely treat you to some family member profiles as time wears on.  

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gettin’ My Clean On

When living in another country, simple daily activities have a way of morphing on a person.

My first host family (first three nights only, at PCHQ) had a shower, but no way of heating the water.  So, we took very brisk showers.  The kind where you steel yourself in advance, hold your breath, and jump under the water to wet yourself.  Quickly exit, scrub with all the necessary soaps, and jump back in to rinse as rapidly as possible.  I can tell you, this method doesn’t go through a whole lot of water. 

My Sumpango host family (all of training) had a calentador (heater) on their shower head, which is a device that heats the water as it exits the pipe and falls onto the showerer, by running an electrical current through the water just before dispensing it.  The temperature is essentially controlled by changing the water pressure; more water, cooler temperature, and vice versa.  So, this is a much more comfortable showering experience, but to get the desired temperature, I need to sacrifice a lot of water pressure.  Sometimes this means I get out and discover after my hair has dried that not all of the shampoo/conditioner made its way back out.

Those who don’t have showers in their home tend to use a bucket bath.  The process involves heating a bucket of water on the stove (usually wood fired, but sometimes gas), mixing with cooler water to taste, and splashing the water on oneself with a small bowl.  This is another method that makes it clear how little water we actually need to get clean.  Makes me cringe to think how long I took to shower back in my teenager years. 

Since I have landed in a pretty indigenous area, I have the luck to experience a variation on the bucket bath called the temascal.  This is a small hut used as a sauna.  Rather than huddling in a bathroom (or courtyard) somewhere, we crawl (yes, really crawl...clutching our towels around us...oh how I wish I had a bathrobe!) into the temascal where a fire was lit hours before.  Usually there is some sort of sweet smelling herb thrown in as well, and water thrown on the hot rocks for humidity.  Within the temascal we have a bucket of hot water, one of cold, and a smaller basin where each user mixes to taste.  I strategically place myself under the peak of the roof to be able to sit more or less upright and do my washing by candlelight or headlamp (it's always after dark by then).  

Me crouching in the doorway.  It's an awkward waddle in and out.  Elkin just likes mugging for the camera.  Most of the huts I see are made of adobe and ceramic tile roofs, but my family did theirs out of block and lamina.  

Some of the herbs just inside the door (the fire was freshly lit at this point).  The floor is concrete, but they set boards on the ground as well... maybe for drainage?

The bench, the hot bucket (near) and cold bucket (far) with the fire and hot stones between them.  The green bowl is what we use to toss water on ourselves.  

Some family members go in together, but I’m a solo bather.  I also am usually last in line so the room has cooled somewhat before I enter, because I’m not a huge sauna person and don’t like sweating as I leave the shower.  On the other hand, since we have no heating in the house and it gets into the 40s and 50s at night, it’s a nice way to heat my core every now and again.

Now, I get the temascal experience maybe once or twice a week, but I’m working in agriculture.  So for days I’m digging and planting, I have worked out a deal with our neighboring aunt to get access to her calentador shower next door so long as I pay the difference in the electricity bill.  The first time I stepped into the shower I was amused and exasperated to find the shower head exits the wall at nose height for me.  The combination of crouching awkwardly and pitiful water pressure has kept this from being a really popular option so far.  Maybe I’ll work out a way to do bucket baths at my little cottage in the future.  

This calentador has a tube hanging down with a little nozzle at the end.  I don't want to use it, but it thwaps me if I don't get it completely coiled and out of the way.  If I coil too tightly, it comes off the shower head altogether and goodbye water pressure.  I took this photograph standing normally... 
No shower curtain!  This leaves my change of clothing and towel somewhat damp after a shower... I could remedy this but I'm not sure I'll be using it enough for it to be worth it.  

Thursday, December 2, 2010


One of the more impressive stalks of corn I've come across; they are usually between 10-12 feet tall, but this one seems to be approaching 15' (I'm 5'8").  I have seen a few fields in marginal land that were only about 7-8 feet tall, but in general, I'm definitely in the land of the tall corn.  No wonder so many towns call themselves "[Name of Saint] Milpas Altas."
At the end of November and beginning of December, the corn is judged to be dry enough for harvest.  On a daily basis I see lines of men and boys on the paths heading out to the fields with costales (feedsacks) slung over their shoulder.  Earlier this week, I tagged along with the group heading to harvest my family’s land.  Usually this is a two day event for my family, as they have about 5 cuerdas* of land split across six locations, but this year we completed it in one day because the harvest was pretty poor, perhaps due to the extremely wet rainy season.

On the way out to the field, my host “dad” asked me where my tool was.  (Sidenote: he’s only 32, so feels more like a brother age-wise, but since the kids claim me as their sister, I’m not sure how to refer to him).  Well, in the first instance of Guatemalans being more prompt than I am, they had headed out without waiting on me, so I had rushed after them without getting the tool memo.  Luckily, a sympathetic guy in the group lent me his**, showed me a quick slit and slash motion once and I was off and running.  Well, fighting my way through the cornstalk jungle.

I think most of the group were just using a nail tied to some string (to loop around their wrist), but I had a lovely gem, carved out of some kind of bone.  I asked what kind of bone they use and the answer was “any kind, it doesn’t matter.”  This is a classic response in which I ask for specifics and they give me the general answer – for all that my Spanish gets me by, there’s still a language or cultural barrier there that leads to misunderstandings.

These three were around 10 years old, I think they were earning a little cash on their "summer break."
We all spread out choosing one line of corn, working from one end of the field to the other.  I quickly (although perhaps less efficiently than the others) picked up the rhythm of bending the stalks in half to bring the ears within reach, slit open the husk top, peel back the husks, and wrangle off the ear of corn.  Sometimes the corn was pearly and dry, sometimes the ear was half putrid and moldy.  We took it all (apparently the rotten stuff goes to animals). 

After clearing out one area we dumped our sacks and sorted the corn by quality, bagged it again, and took it to the terrace (roof) of the house to be laid out to finish drying in the sun, there sorted by color as well.  Then we moved on to the next area in a different part of town.  Since each generation inherits land from their parents, each successive generation has less land, divided into smaller pieces scattered further from one another.  It’s not so bad in my family; the grandfather was one of five children, there are three in the parents’ generation, and two children right now (no plans for additional).  Many other families have 6-10 children, so I can’t imagine how their land gets parsed out. 


*A cuerda is 25 x 25 varas, a vara is officially about 84 cm (but often measured by an arm length).  So, theoretically my family grows enough corn to eat each year and extra to sell on a little more than half an acre.  On the other hand, it felt like more land than that when I walked it, so I don't have huge confidence in those calculations.

**Was this just a kind gesture to the newbie?  Were there gender dynamics at play, either chivalry or sexism?  What about class issues; the white girl can't work with her hands?  Welcome to the brain of a PCV with a Liberal Arts background and not enough actual work to do just yet.  Over-analyze much?  Guilty as Charged.  Really though, I was thankful he offered it, but uncomfortable taking it since it means he did it bare handed, which gets pretty tiring.