Dear Friends: The field behind our house looks a mess, but really it is full of goodness: two kinds of potatoes, fava beans, and nabo, or field mustard (rapeseed). Michael the master forager doesn’t have to go far for our supper greens – just out the kitchen door and through the arch into the field that is planted twice a year by our compadres. Above he’s harvesting nabo leaves amongst the beautiful yellow blooms. An interesting fact: canola oil comes from the seeds of this plant, but I have an even better story from the oral histories I’ve been doing around the hacienda era. Lola Muñoz was an 11-year-old child in a remote part of the Hacienda Guantug, where her father was an overseer, when she saw several nuns arriving on horseback to spend a week with the family. They had come from Cuenca to oversee the semi-annual round-up and branding and counting of the cattle that belonged to the vast property they had inherited, making them the richest landowners in Southern Ecuador. When the previous owner of the hacienda, Florencia Astudillo, a pious spinster, died in 1952, she left her landholding of 30,000 hectares (115 square miles) to an order of poor nuns, Hermanas de los Ancianos Desamparadas, loosely translated as Sisters of the Uncared-for (or abandoned) Elders.
(Above: an area of the hacienda where Lola lived – you can understand why no roads existed until maybe 30 years ago). Lola, now in her seventies, recalled a time when Florencia Astudillo was still alive. The native peones were obliged to work for the production of the hacienda a certain number of days each week, and in return they were allowed a small piece of land for a house and animals and garden. When a worker died, his widow was permitted to stay on their plot as long as she did certain jobs. And a particular job of the widows, incredibly, was to harvest the seeds of the nabo to make birdseed for Florencia’s caged birds in her house in Cuenca. Lola remembered, “The widows spent days rubbing the dried pods to harvest the seeds and pack them in big sacks that were carried over the mountains on mules.” (A glance on Internet confirmed that an important source of birdseed still is nabo, or rapeseed.)
All right – back to today and our back field. When I pulled up one of the smaller potato plants in order to take this photo, it produced a surprising amount of tubers, which in turn inspired M. to make a dinner salad of potatoes and basil and bacon with onions. “And on the side we’ll have a little blue cheese and deviled eggs, maybe some chopped tomato.”
Lastly, mixed in with the nabo and potatoes and weeds are avas, or fava beans. These are a delicious part of our Cañar diet, usually simply boiled and eaten by hand with hot sauce, bits of fresh cheese or with boiled potatoes. Those in our field are not yet ready to harvest so I asked Michael to buy a package of shucked avas in the market. (That didn’t happen so I’ll add something else found in our back field – a beautiful passion flower vine.)
As for our kitchen garden, it is a true disaster. After Michael brought seeds from Portland, prepared the soil, planted peas, beans, arugula, and lettuce, and dutifully watered while we both chased out the neighbors’ scratching chickens, it appears that they – the chickens – have won. Not a single seed has appeared to sprout above ground.
Today (now yesterday) is the birthday of my beloved mother, Adelene, who died four years ago at age 93. Facebook reminded me of her 97th birthday, leading me to wonder – how long does one stay alive on Facebook after they’ve passed on? But I was happy to see her FB photo, taken, I believe, at her 90th birthday celebration in Santa Fe, where she was surrounded by her family and friends and looked beautiful and danced with her guests.
Unlike my father, who my sisters and I always say would be “mad as hell” to know he’d now be 104 years old, our mother would have been delighted to be alive in 2017. Her own mother, Zelda, lived to 100 and we had all hoped the same for Mom. But a mild heart condition became acute and she left us while still vividly engaged in life. Beloved by all her family and by everyone she knew, we will always miss her optimism and independence and generosity.
The Cañar Book Club
John Berger, one of my all-time heroes, died on January 2 at the age of 90, in France. Since then, with helpful links from a friend in Canada, I have been reading every obit, article, remembrance. Also, with help from another friend, we were able to see the film “Four Seasons in Quincy,” made in 2015 in the village where he lived. Storyteller, writer, artist, critic, Marxist, humanist, I probably discovered Berger with his book Pig Earth, first in a series Into Our Labours, based on stories of life in a peasant community in the French Alps. From that moment, I looked for everything he wrote, and upon hearing of his death I ordered one of his last books, Bento’s Sketchbook, that a friend will bring from Portland end of January. I also loved Berger because he loved and wrote about photographs, A Seventh Man was a collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr about migrant laborers in Europe. Berger joins my list of a never-to-be-forgotten presence in my life.
Finally, I am not happy to report that I did not enjoy An Unnecessary Woman, which I’d been looking forward to reading after I saw the author, Rabih Alameddine, at Wordstock this past year. There, in a conversation with an interlocutor, when asked how he saw himself at this stage of his life – Muslim, gay, American, Lebanese – he said, “Grumpy! I’ve become a grumpy old man.” So in reading his book, written in first person voice of a bitter older woman living alone in an apartment in Bierut, secretly translating books into Arabic, all I could imagine was the voice of a grumpy old man. Other than one scene of solidarity with other women in the apartment house, occasioned by a bathroom flood, I could not get his voice out of my head.
OK dear readers. Over and out. Tell me what you are reading, and like or don’t like. And next Cañar Book Club I’ll report on it all….