Dear Friends: Going back a few weeks in time, and to a previous chronicle theme of rarely being invited to family events, I was absurdly pleased during the Carnaval procession to run into Mama Mariana Chuma, with her contingent from San Rafael, when she casually invited Michael and me to her house the next day (her granddaughter Naomi on right).“At 2:00, not 12:00?” I shouted over the cacophony of drums and flutes. I often don’t hear numbers correctly and doce for 12:00 and dos for 2:00 sound a lot alike. DOS she yelled. OK. Two o’clock on Carnaval Tuesday, we were invited to a traditional family gathering, which would most likely last all day into the evening with lots of sitting around, too much to eat and too much to drink. “We are going,” I informed Michael, and he readily agreed. We’ve known Mama Mariana and her family since her son’s baptism, in 1992, which, in fact, was the very first family event we were invited to in our early years here. Juan Carlos, then six years old, is now a professional musician with a master’s degree, married to one of our scholarship graduates, Pacha, a dentist. Shortly after Juan Carlos’s baptism, while we were on a visit to the U.S., his father Juanito died in a soccer accident. Mama Mariana raised her three children alone – now all university graduates – while working as a nurse in community clinics until her retirement a few years ago. I’ve always loved her.
Knowing that 2:00 was really just a starting point, we struck out walking from our house around then, intending to slowly cover the several kilometers to San Rafael so as not to be the first to arrive. Our plan was foiled when Segundo, Mama Mariana’s son-in-law, drove by and picked us up. We were the first to arrive.
Segundo, acting as host, led us to behind the house where we saw what looked like a newly dug grave, a few flowers stuck in at random. As Michael and I stood staring down, Segundo said, “It’s a pachamanka. It will be ready at 4:00.” This, we knew, meant our dinner was cooking somewhere under the tierra. In Kichwa, pacha means “earth” and manka “pot,” and this is apparently an old Cañari/Inca custom being resurrected of cooking a meal underground with hot rocks. (MIchael chirps in: a mixture of a Hawaiian luau and New England clam bake).
We sat on a bench against the house, gazing at the countryside and the still smoking fire where the rocks had been heated. As the only guests, protocol dictates that we never be left alone, so Segundo sat with us while we had a few shots of Zhumir (sugarcane firewater) that Michael had brought, and then beer. Segundo is a good friend so we enjoyed talking of U.S. politics, and of the recent Ecuadorian popular referendum, where, it turned out after Segundo explained, Michael and I had voted SI for something we should have voted NO.
Soon, others arrived and our party livened up. Someone brought out a table to set in front of us, and Mama Mariana appeared with a pitcher of chicha, corn beer. I wondered where everyone else was, and when a helper passed by with a load of wood on her back, I realized cooking must be going on in the indoor kitchen too.
First the choclos, or corn on the cob, protected by layers of husks.
Then fava beans in the pod and chorizo sausages (disappeared too quickly to photograph, eaten in bites by all of us standing around). Then, last, a huge calabaza (squash) that would be our dessert. By now it had started to rain, and within minutes the whole shebang was whisked inside – table, chairs, chicha, food, kids, adults. And, as I had suspected, there was a lot of action going on in the two indoor kitchens. Over an open fire on the floor, cuyes (guinea pigs) were cooking on long wooden skewers, boys at either end turning the poles.
…and in the other kitchen a huge wood fire with steaming pot of potatoes. We were about eight adult folks, seated around a large table, while Mariana, her two daughters and others were tending pots and pans around us on the large wood-fire in one corner, and a gas-cylinder cooker in another. Michael and an old friend, Santiago (Tayta Shanto), Mariana’s brother, grabbed places together against the wall, watching it all between shots of Zhumir and toasts.
But now I put away my camera. It was time to be a guest and not a photographer. Slowly, the first course of chicken soup arrived (always my favorite part, after so many hours of waiting), then seriously laden plates, with a cuy on top of huge slabs of roasted turkey, surrounded by potatoes, corn, beans and salad. More toasts. Then, after we could not eat another bite – the special dessert of cooked squash with milk, sugar and cinnamon. It was delicious!
Now about 8:00, Michael and I were tired, but we knew we couldn’t leave. In fact, no one around the table moved, recounting family stories and jokes and laughing while the women at the table held sleeping children, and the cooks sat behind us on low stools and chairs, chatting and snacking in their own circle, Two little boys no more than two or three sat in on corner, quietly playing on a shared cell phone. The older kids were outside, playing around the revived hot-rocks fire. More rounds of Zhumir and then another sweet liquor that appeared out of nowhere. By now I would delicately pat my mid-section and say “no mas, gracias,” but Michael couldn’t get escape so easily.
Incredibly, around 9:00 more family arrived – Mama Michi and her daughters, in great spirits. They’d had another invitation in another village. A second table and chairs were set up in the first kitchen. The cooks stirred, charged up the fire and cooker and began another round of serving each person – first chicken soup, then full plates.
It seemed a good moment to make our excuses. Juan Carlos offered to take us home in his car, and we gratefully accepted. The next day, satisfied that we had been included in a real family event, with people we’ve known so long and loved, we didn’t even mind the headaches with hangovers. Well worth it!
Perhaps it’s something about the bad weather and books, but our faithful members from London to New York to Portland have been gathering and discussing and sending suggestions. Several readers have mentioned how much they loved A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. (“Warm, entertaining, lovely story.”) This member also wrote that her favorite books of the last year were The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.
Two Portland members recommend Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, “an epic saga of a Korean family and National Book Award Finalist.” (Her previous novel with the intriguing title of Free Food for Millionaires was one of the “Top 10 Novels of 2007).
Another Portland member wrote about her recent discovery of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, and I see he has a bunch of other books with great titles, such as This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. I’ve put him on my Cañar list for 2019.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid seems to be on everyone’s list – certainly mine -and he’s coming to PDX Arts and Lectures in April.
A writer friend says she’s gone back to read some books she’d missed over the years: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (“thoroughly enjoyable”), and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, (“sturdily good”). A new “difficult” author is Mattías Enard, she writes. “A Frenchman of vast erudition, who wrote Compass, a rumination on the otherness of the East to the West and vice versa, told in the thoughts of a dying Viennese musicologist.” Sound intriguing. She’s also read Claudia Rankine’s “devastating Citizen” and books by Shirley Hazzard, such as The Great Fire (“just wish she’d written more”).
Another member wrote how much he’s enjoying books by Ali Smith, a perennial Booker finalist whom I also love: Autumn, Winter and How to be Both. Ha.
Meanwhile, I want to end with a book that’s generating a lot of excitement in many translations, brought to my attention by our London correspondent: Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Read all about it here.
Have I missed any members’ recommendations? If so, please remind me, and send new ideas for our April Book Club, when I’ll confess to some trashy reading on my part.
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