Thursday, October 6, 2011

L'shana tova in the altiplano -- the first meal

So, we pick up the thread of the story with the preparations of food. In order to make the dinner I had wanted to share with my friends in Chinique, I had to be very strategic. I have a small refrigerator, but I also have commitments at the radio station. So I couldn't buy everything in advance and cook much in advance, and I also couldn't just take off the entire day on Wednesday. I did a major cleaning of my little fridge -- which meant retrieving and opening up all the little containers and larger containers and small bags that I had managed to squeeze in, trying to suss out what the contents were, and whether they were worth saving. You can imagine, I am sure, the internal dialogue of mini-relevations and questions along the lines of "Huh? Wonder what that used to be. Oh, I think I remember when I cooked THAT."  So, I got rid of several things and opened up space.  I had maneuver my schedule at the radio so that I would have time to shop and cook, so that meant doing some shopping on Tuesday afternoon and then leaving Wednesday a couple of hours early so I could cook -- and figuring out the order in which the dishes needed to be cooked. Everything had to revolve around the challah, since I had to go to someone else's house to cook it, and Leonardo had said that it would be best if I came around 6.  So I had to start the bread around 3:30 since it needs two risings, and I didn't want it to be ready too much before 6 -- although there is not generally much harm done if you let the dough rise more and then punch it down again.

Procuring yeast proved to be a little more complicated as I discovered that yeast is not generally available in stores. I tried my favorite all-purpose store in Antigua, La Bodegona, which carries a fair amount of specialty items like Celestial Seasonings tea and Chinese or Thai rice stick noodles and roasted macademia nuts. They didn't have any yeast. I asked Jeanet, my colleague at the radio station, where people in Quiché buy yeast, since everyone makes bread for Semana Santa (Holy Week).  She told me to go to a bakery. There are a lot of bakeries in Santa Cruz but stopping at one means finding a parking space. So on Monday evening I went to one of the bakeries in Chinique and asked if they sold yeast -- it's a bakery on the main street a couple of doors down from my landlord, Modesto's, store. The young woman said yes, they did, but they had none left. I asked if they would have some the next day and she said yes, but not until the afternoon, so I asked her to make sure she set some aside for me so that I wouldn't have the same experience, that it was all gone, and said I wouldn't be able to be there until about 7 p.m.

Purchasing wine also required advance planning as there are only a few places to buy wine in my part of El Quiché -- a store in Chiché that carries one not-very-stellar variety of Chilean wine, a few places in Santa Cruz and in Chichicastenango. The variety is better and so are the prices in Antigua, but I hardly go there anymore, so I had to think about this part of the festivity about a week and a half in advance.

And then there was the subject of plates and utensils, Most Guatemalan households have a lot more people than mine; many extended families live either in the same dwelling or separate structures on the property (as Doña Mati's family). Sometimes most of the extended family cooks and eats together. In any case, most Guatemalan households, at least the ones I have visited here in the altiplano, have a lot of plates and utensils.  I have gradually expanded my supply but since I only occasionally have people over and I am leaving in a few months I haven't wanted to accumulate THAT much in the way of household goods (I am already dreading the process of distributing all of this before I leave, but that' another story; I will start crying for sure if I start down that path now).
I tried to mentally count how many people were coming, and came up with about 15 (as it turns out, Jeanet and her family, 4 altogether, didn't come but I had to be prepared for 15). I had about 5 plates, 10 bowls of varying sizes, and an uncertain number of forks and spoons. I needed the two largest bowls for serving, and I figured I could get away with making sure that everyone had at least one utensil and one thing out of which to eat (i.e. either a fork or spoon but not necessarily both, either a reasonably sized bowl or plate but not necessarily both). Luckily the previous week there had been a sale on bright lime-green plastic plates (Q2 each) at Dispensa Familiar. And then when Kan and I went out on Wednesday to do some shopping, I bought 4 forks and 4 spoons.  So no one would have to each with his or her fingers unless by choice.

So I had pretty much everything I needed by the night before and started some of the preparations, but mostly they needed to be done the day of. And so I left early, got home and started on bread dough and the chicken and the vegetables salads. My friend Caterino had offered to have his wife Sandra come and help with preparations, but she didn't actually arrive until after 5. I had tried unsuccessfully to get the wood-burning stove going, thinking I'd cook the chicken on that. Sometimes I can get the stove going with no trouble, other times, nothing I seem to do works. Sandra had brought a spare pot (since I realized that I wouldn't be able to make enough rice in my rice cooker, and didn't have another pot that would be large enough, as my one good-sized pot was devoted to the chicken), some masa to make tortillas, and some lime to clean off the stove top (I discovered
she had left the lime a few days later when I noticed a plastic bag of some white powder on the floor of the kitchen and took a whiff... strong stuff).

Making the challah dough was not quite as straightforward as it usually is. We are at a much higher altitude here than in New York -- about 5000  feet above sea level. I've been making challah every since since 1974, my sophomore year in college, but mostly at or around sea level. Everything here is different, not just the altitude. The yeast is different; the flour is different (wheat grows differently depending upon the soil and climate, and has a different gluten content); the water is different; the air is different (there is natural yeast in the air as well as other microbes that affect locale- and environment-sensitive foods like bread, cheese, wine). Everything, really (maybe the eggs, oil, salt and honey have a more or less similar chemistry to those in the U.S.). So, I had bought two pounds of  flour, with an eye toward making challah and honey cake. I assumed, based on previous experience, that this quantity should be sufficient for both. Was I wrong. I used a little bit less water than I normally do, but as I kneaded I kept on adding flour but the dough never really got un-sticky and so I eventually left it.  No honey cake this time. There simply wasn't enough flour.

The challah dough rose slowly, but it seemed to be okay. Until I turned it out and tried to shape it into three long strips so that I could braid it as I usually do. Challah for the new year is usually made in a round shape (as opposed to the rest of the year: challah is traditionally prepared on the sabbath, but in a regular oblong loaf), to symbolize the continuum, the cyclical nature of life. Or at least that's how it has been explained to me. I usually make a braid and then shape the braid into a round, or if I am especially ambitious I make two braids, one larger and one smaller, and place the smaller braid on top of the larger one and make that into a round. But when I tried to cut the dough into strips it was too sticky to easily handle and so I gave up and just decided to make a round. Luckily I had purchased a round cake pan and so that helped keep the shape.
Dough done, I put the finishing touches on the salads (one of beets, one of carrots). Caterino arrived and helped set up tables and chairs. I have one nice table in the living room, and two not quite so handsome ones in the kitchen, so I took one of the kitchen tables so we would have enough room for everyone to sit together. I had purchased 4 plastic stools some time ago and figured the set of sofa and chairs would do for overflow.

Getting the bread baked involved coordinating with Leonardo and his wife Jacinta. I called Leonardo at around 5:30 and he told me to come over after 6. We negotiated once I convinced him the oven needed to heat up and then I could bake the bread. I decided to take Caterino's two kids, Veronica and Brandon, with me. Brandon has become quite attached to me; he cannot pronounce my name but calls me "Tita". He had just gotten his head shaved, and so I referred to him as a "pelón" (literally, "one who has been peeled" -- a common nickname for someone with very short hair or a shaved head). He has since adopted this as his name; later in the evening when Jenny and Kan asked him what his name was, he responded, "Pelón".

 He eagerly came outside and I managed to balance the bread in one hand and grasp his hand with the other. There is little traffic on weekday evenings, but the cars that do pass through tend to go pretty fast. We got to Leonardo's house and lit the oven and waited for it to warm.  Meanwhile I chatted with Leonardo's wife Jacinta, and discovered that she had no idea they were invited for dinner. All Leonardo had told her was that I was coming over to use the oven. "Nooooo! You are the guests," I told her. "Men!!!" We both laughed, and I did my best in a non-hysterical way to induce her to come, saying that I had cooked all the food and that one of Leonardo's former students was coming in part to see him. Leonardo was in the next room with a young man who turned out to be the music teacher at the local school of which Jacinta is the director. I said that of course he was welcome to come as well, and then we just waited for the bread to be done and cool enough to transport, and then I headed back with Caterino's kids, Leonardo and Jacinta having promised to come over in a few minutes.

I had decided to incorporate some Maya elements into my very pared-down Jewish traditions, so I had purchased candles in the four essential colors and planned to ask someone to arrange them correctly -- each color also corresponds to one of the four cardinal points. Leonardo is an aj q'ij (Maya priest) and I was sure he would know, but also possibly some of the others. It felt like the right thing to do, as my intention was to both show something of my culture but also make it a celebration for everyone.  So, we arranged everything that we needed -- bread, candles, honey, wine . Leonardo insisted that Jenny arrange the candles, but I do not remember offhand which color corresponds to which cardinal point. There are also different interpretations of what are the four essential colors, and it probably depends upon the circumstance and the ceremony. I chose red, black, white and yellow -- one explanation I had heard from an aj q'ij was that these represent the four colors of corn (and corn is a central element in the Maya world view or cosmovision; corn is the essential stuff of life and many Maya refer to themselves as "the children of corn"), and also four essential components of the human body. White represents the bones; blood is red; black represents hair and eyes; and yellow is the skin that covers us.

Then I gave a little explanation and then sang the blessings for the candles, and then did a quick translation into Spanish. I then asked the children to each light one candle. The youngest was asleep, the two next didn't want to, and so the two older children, Kan and Jenny did the honors.  Then the blessing for the bread, after which I cut the bread into pieces, spread a little honey on each and passed them around, explaining that honey is so we have a sweet year. Then the wine. I am not sure whether the bread comes before the wine or vice versa, but (a) no one else was going to know and (b) it doesn't really matter that much for me.  Then we sat down to eat and enjoy each other's company. Which was, in fact, the most important reason for doing this in the first place.

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