Sunday, August 8, 2010

It's the Sauce

Hello--Thanks for coming back.  
I know I said GlobeWatch would return in June, 
and apologize for being a little late.  
But the book is finished!  
Meanwhile, I'm thrilled to be back at the blog.
                                                                              ---Mary Jo

It’s the Sauce

            The great rainforest land once called Gran Peten has never been known as a gourmet’s paradise. Whatever might be plucked from trees, or shot with gun or bow, is what landed on plates from southern Mexico’s Chiapas state, across Guatemala’s northern Peten to Belize. Beans and rice might accompany deer, rodent or bird, but roughly the same kind of meals appeared on the menus of indigenous Maya, and after the sixteenth century, of Europeans who came to stay.  Things haven’t changed much.
            The first petenero food I tasted was tepesquintle, a 40-lb rat that roams the jungle at night.  It didn’t taste like chicken.  It wasn’t gamey or beefy.  It tasted like nothing I had experienced before, rich without being heavy, meaty but light.  I ate under the unblinking stares of various antlered heads, hanging on the walls of a traveler’s restaurant that also served armadillo.  The cook told me she used the same sauce for both dishes. When I asked for the recipe, she straightened her spotted apron, placed hands on hips and recited the ingredients.  Like the best international chefs, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say how much of each.
                               Tepesquintle Rodent Sauce

Thyme, laurel, cumin, black pepper, garlic, green (or red) pepper, tomato, onion, V-8 juice, white wine, cinnamon, honey, consommé, saborin (like Accent).  For armadillo sauce, replace the wine with vinegar.
A few days later, I attended a gathering of twenty-five peasant farmers attempting to discover if oil operations caused their allergies and stunted harvests. Metallic odors from a refinery wafted among the benches and blackboards of the open-air meeting place.  When the pleasing aroma of black beans and garlic became stronger than the smell of gas, we knew it was time for lunch.
            At an outside sink we washed our hands using a gourd to  pour water.  We grabbed plastic bowls.  In a cooking shed a woman and her young daughter scooped out poor but hearty fare from metal pots, putting all into the single bowls: rice, beans, and whole potatoes fried in batter, swimming in a soupy sauce of herbs, tomato and onion.  We grabbed hot tortillas, the only utensils.  Honestly, it tasted great.
            Breakfast was always bread and coffee, dinner always rice and beans. The midday meal, however, was a series of tours de force, including one I never thought I would eat: beans, rice, and spaghetti in a tomato sauce, fresh of course, thickened with flour, tarted up with half-inch slices of hot dogs.
            In San Cristobal, the small and elegant colonial capital of Chiapas, sauces graced small and elegant meals, sometimes enjoyed at sidewalk tables on a cobblestone promenade.  In fact, the meals were peasants’ food, glorified with sauce.
Like squash flowers on a bed of sharp cheese, drizzled, or puddled, with liquefied black corn fungus.

Or molletes, refried beans spread on bread cut in triangles, or on halves of a bolillo  (a kind of dinner roll) topped with melted cheese (manchego is good), and finely-chopped tomato, spooned on to taste.

For breakfast, there might be cactus leaves (nopales) drained of their sticky juice, boiled and scrambled with eggs, or covered with Oaxaca cheese and green chile sauce. 

Too tired at night to think about sauces, I would simply ask for that wonderful stand-by made of day-old tortillas torn and sautéd with onion, chopped tomato and consommé, and topped with sliced avocado.   The best of all fast food: sopa de tortilla.
And what about red meat?
On a Sunday morning I drove on a bumpy oil company road into a rainforest area which was turning into cattle grazing land.  Some of the land belonged to drug lords using “ranches” as a screen for airstrips.  Some was in use by landless campesinos trying to scratch out a living.
I went to Mass in a small church in a forest settlement where the congregation was celebrating its local patron saint.  Afterward, we all gathered at outdoor tables to feast upon beef from a cow killed the night before.  The smell of the grilling meat was heavenly, but pieces were tough to eat, especially without knife or fork.  Some of us picked off bits and put them on plates for the elderly with few teeth.  For my own portion, I tore at each hunk, masticating until my jaw hurt.
“They must have picked the oldest cow in the pasture,” said one campesino.
I recognized the problem immediately. No sauce.