Saturday, April 23, 2011

Crunchings and Munchings

Women in my town have a time-consuming trifecta of tasks that take up the bulk of their day: cooking, cleaning, and weaving. These are in addition to ongoing childcare, which is no small thing in any family, and is particularly impressive where families with upwards of 10 children are not uncommon.  In this post I'll tackle Cooking.  


One of the "estufas mejoradas" that many international aid organizations help to get into communities around Guatemala.
Since I've already spent some time on food in other posts, I won't delve into what the women in my town cook, but I thought I'd look a bit at how they cook it. First of all, the majority of cooking happens over wood fired stoves here in my site. My host family has a gas stove they use as well as fire, but most families have just a wood stove. 

In other areas of the country there are families cook over an open fire, which is terribly inefficient as far as wood usage goes, and leads to loads of respiratory illness in families, particularly in infants strapped to their mothers' backs while the daily cooking gets done. Most families in my town have an estufa mejorada (improved stove), which really increased the burning efficiency of the stove, and decreases the amount of smoke and pollution inside the house.  

Grilling outdoors, more for tradition than taste, in this case.  This was a soup for Day of the Dead and so even though it was in a pot and probably didn't absorb much flavor from the flame, it just couldn't be done indoors on a gas range.
Just like in the U.S., there are opinions over what method of cooking tastes best, and sometimes people choose to grill over an open fire anyway. Who doesn't want barbecue now and again? There are plenty of people who could cook on a gas stove and choose not to because they think it changes the flavor of what they're cooking.

This is one of the places that sells firewood in town... this pile gets brought in and then mostly decimated on a weekly basis. Notice the wheelbarrow in front of the stack... it might help give a sense of scale.  
Even with the estufas mejoradas in town, cooking meals over flames three times a day leads to using a lot of firewood.  Deforestation is definitely a problem.  When I went for a hike up the ridge with my host family a while back, it was clear that all the remaining trees had been limbed up far above the height of a Guatemalan.  Any lower branches had long since been cut off for firewood.  The majority of the firewood sold in my town doesn't come from anywhere nearby -- it's cut down up in Quiche, which is two departments away (like states in the US) and brought in.  There really aren't any native forests left to speak of where I am. There are some trees up on the ridge lines and clinging to the very steepest of hillsides where farming is impossible.

So, I'd say that cooking is time intensive for the women, health intensive for the families, and resource intensive for the land. Obviously there are downsides to cooking with natural gas or electricity as well, but it seems that the forests in Guatemala have not been managed with sustainability in mind. My knowledge of land use policies in Guatemala is very limited, so I'm speaking strictly from my own observations. However, it appears that what could be a renewable resource here is being used faster than it can be replenished.  


  1. You wrote about the workings of the stoves, but not much about the workings of the cooks. I recall from my days in Chile how hard it was to cook with any subtlety over wood. It's very difficult to regulate the heat! I remember preparing pancakes that were burned on one side and raw in the middle! I guess a souffle would be out of the question.

  2. Good point, Kathee. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the skills these women exhibit for managing heat over a fire. They time what they will cook when just so to make sure that the coals are the right level for tortilla making just before the meal is served so the tortillas come out fresh!

    On the other hand, a lot of the meals they cook are soaked in sauces of some kind, and all the meat and vegetables tend to come out well done indeed. Perhaps the cuisine has moved toward things that do just fine soaking in their own juices for a very long time.