In the kitchen with Michael

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.)

mila in store

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.

the store + house

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.

Manuel in store(When I complemented Manuel on his sombrero, he said, “Next time, bring me a hat from the U.S.!)

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.

plate of bananas

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.

M. checks recipe

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…”

adding ingredients

By the second cake, he’s got Mila attention, and she’s working:

Doña Mila adds bananas

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.

OK, looks like at the first cake is about ready…checking doneness

Mila’s cake it out and ready to take home. I ask for one last photo of the two bakers:

finished cake

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).

Blend everything well. Add liquid to the flour mixture and stir just enough to make smooth. Fold in 1/3 cup chopped walnuts, and 1/3 cup raisins  chopped nuts + raisins

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.






Saints and Sinners

San Antonio fullFor my birthday a couple of months ago, Michael bought this beautiful wood and plaster statue of San Antonio. We’d been looking for just the right santo for the niche in our patio since we moved into the house in 2007. And it had to be a San Antonio because he is the patron saint of Canar. But the santos we casually found were either too big for the space, too expensive, too new, or we didn’t like the expression on San Antonio’s face. He’s a gentle Franciscan monk, always with a child in his arms. This one we came across in a junk/antique shop across from our architect’s office in Cuenca. And he seemed just right: not too new, not too old (meaning, not too expensive), and I loved the sweet expression on his face. Michael took measurements at the shop, and in the patio, and came home one day with my birthday present wrapped in newspaper. To secure the santo in the niche, he made a special shelf, and once installed in the patio, San Antonio looked right at home. Or almost. “The only thing missing is a Canari hat,” Michael said.

San Antonio in patio

How a 12thth century priest, who was born in Portugal and died in Padua, Italy in 1231, came to be the patron saint of Cañar is a mystery. No doubt the Spanish conquistadores brought him with them. And perhaps because he is a saint of American Indians, animals, barrenness, elderly people, fishermen, harvest, horses, oppressed people, poor people, pregnant women, seekers of lost articles, shipwrecks, starvation, swineherds, and travellers, they felt San Antonio would cover all possibilities in the hazardous New World.

When recent visitors from Colombia saw our santo in the patio, they told us that women having difficulty conceiving would turn their San Antonio upside down until once safely pregnant, turn him upright again for the duration of the pregnancy.

In any case, San Antonio is ubiquitous here in Canar, usually dressed to the nines with finely-made, sartorial contributions of local fans. Here is he In the market, holding a lily, hand-crocheted bag, and little horsehair whips:

market final

Always at the entrance to the church, where some days two San Antonios greet visitors to mass:

two antonios in church

…and on the streets, where a man collects contributions in the basket:

san antonio in the streets

Michael and I are often asked if we are Catholics. We usually answer something like: “No, but we are great respecters of religions.” Long pause. Next question: Then you are Protestants? “No, but we know many Protestants and respect them too.” Long pause. Oh, but then do you believe in God? “Well, we believe in goodness and kindness and humanness and Pachamama (Mother Nature).” Another long pause, and the conversation can go anywhere from there.

Back at home, Michael worried that our San Antonio was incomplete without his Canari sombrero. We had no idea where to go for a miniature hat until one day I happened by the store of a woman who makes Canari clothing, and saw in the window little dolls – weaving and spinning dolls, with tiny round white hats. Michael went up the next day and negotiated for a doll, came home and removed her stitched-on hat, (leaving her hair a real mess) and placed in on our San Antonio. Now all our santo needs is a poncho and scarf to protect him on cold days, but in the meantime he looks very content in our patio.

San Antonio patio