Our friend Doña Mila, who runs a store up on the Paseo de los Cañaris with her husband Manuel, is one of the sweetest women we know. We’ve been customers for years – mostly buying bananas, mineral water and beer – though they sell everything from shampoo to candy to stale bread to fresh chickens, which she chops up on a counter in the back. The store is deep and dark, and they never seem to turn on lights during the day, to save money, I suppose. Doña Mila (“me-la”) always gives us a hug when we come to Cañar in January, and when we leave in July. If it’s a holiday she often gives us warm tamales or, during Holy Week, a pot of fanesca, the elaborate, rich soup made of twelve ingredients (representing the 12 apostles, some say) made of grains, legumes, cereals, and dried salted fish called bacalao. (That’s Doña Mila on the right.)
There is a bench in the front of the store, where it opens onto the street, just behind the ice cream cooler, where passersby can take a seat, buy a shot of Zhumir or soft drink, and shoot the breeze with Manuel. The couple live in the rooms above the store.
On 9/11, we were living a block away, on the Paseo de los Cañaris. Early that day, when Michael went to buy something, Manuel motioned for him to come into the back of their store, behind the counter and into a back room. A television with CNN en Español was broadcasting the twin towers in flames. Michael came home to tell me what he had seen, and in the course of the day he or I made trip after trip down the block to their store to stare at the same images on the screen. That was the day we became friends.
Mila and Manuel are mestizos, from the town center but originally poor, which makes them more like the country people, or the campesinos who make up the bulk of their customers, along with the indigenous folks who pass by on the way in and out of town. The distinction is important. Doña Mila told me that as a young married couple they rented a small store on the Paseo near the Pan American. Then a compadre offered to sell them land further along the Paseo to have their own place. As they prospered, they built the store and house and bought three hectarias (about seven acres) of land nearby to grow crops: potatoes, corn, peas, and a garden for the family.
For a long time Michael has wanted to do something to return their kindness, and the opportunity arose when Mila asked him to teach her how to make a torta de guineo, or banana cake. She offered to bring the ingredients, but wanted to have the baking session it at our house because, she said, we have the right type of cake pan. (I also suspect she wanted to see our kitchen.) Mila brought a bag of bananas to add to our own. This pile costs about 50 cents in the Sunday market.
Michael checks his recipe, covered with oil and flour and stains and creases, from many years of banana cakes; they figured heavily in my first book when M. made a pastel de guineo for any occasion.
Michael and Mila are making two cakes today – one for her to take home and one for us and our weekend guests. At first all Mila wants to do is look around the kitchen and out the windows at the view, our back land, our garden and comment on everything. I hadn’t realized this is her first time in the kitchen. But Michael is intent on moving things along…and I hear him saying, a little urgently, “now you put three eggs in the blender…”
By the second cake, he’s got Mila attention, and she’s working:
Then it’s into the oven and wait an hour. Michael shows Mila how to check the temperature by sticking his hand in the oven. I make tea and ask Mila about her family:
They have three children. Their son, Fernando, an early migrant to the U.S., has been in el norte for twenty-five years. In that time he has returned to Cañar only three times. Doña Mila said he is married to an americana, has a American daughter, and is a US citizen. They’ve never met their granddaughter because her mother is afraid to let her come visit. Mila and Manuel’s two married daughters live nearby, both proprietors of small shops selling school supplies and sundries.
Mila’s cake it out and ready to take home. I ask for one last photo of the two bakers:
And for those of you who would like to try this at home:
Mike’s Famous Banana Cake
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a rectangular or springform loaf pan.
In a large bowl, mix well 1 ½ cups white flour and 1 heaping T of baking power.
In a blender: Lightly blend three whole eggs; Add 4 medium-sized bananas, broken up. Blend. Add 1/4 cup milk and ½ cup sugar. Blend. Add ½ t. ground nutmeg, ½ t. ground cinnamon, ½ t. salt and ½ cup good vegetable oil (preferably sunflower).
Pour mixture into baking pan and bake for about 1 hour, checking with toothpick or straw. When it comes out clean, cake is ready. Keeps fresh for about one week.