Life in our back field

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….

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18 thoughts on “Life in our back field

  1. Hi to you both..this a.m. In Portland, 21 and beautiful sun as we crunched around the “hood” still blanketed in snow! (When it finally departs later this week, floods are eminent).
    Our book club is reading “My Antonia” (Willa Cather)…and I suggested it, perhaps because it’s my perogative since I’m hosting this month, but more so because I have always loved her simple and rich writing style, rich with similes, where the reader can feel, taste and sense the surroundings. Your writing is as rich, as vivid; opening your world, as you see it, to us readers. What a gift! I asked the book club members to bring to our discussion a couple of sentences from the story that they fell in love with.
    From your current report, the way you tell us about the meals Michael prepares always has me looking thru my larder for ingredients to mimic his dishes…sadly, no nabo, no avas, but…purple tubers from our potato patch this year. Hmm…a bit of bacon, a bit of blue cheese…sounds perfect! Happy Sunday!

  2. Lovely to hear from you, Shoshana. My mother (from Nebraska) introduced me to My Antonio and I loved it, along with everything else that Willa Cather wrote. I was reading My Antonio to my mother in her last days, and whenever I paused too long when she appeared to fall asleep she would always say, “Go on.”
    Speaking of Michael’s kitchen, wait until I write next about my crackers and my granola- to be added to popcorn as my total repertoire.

  3. Now I have a long history with Nabo as you call it. It was introduced to Canada’s prairie as a vital war effort crop during WW2. The oil was highly prized for use in aircraft as it has a very high smoking point(anyone who cooks with Canola oil knows that) and the only reliable source was Poland which of course was under Nazi control. I vaguely remember that it was used in instruments to cool them.
    It was not used as a cooking oil until much later, after scientists had figured out how to get rid of the toxic elements in the oil.
    Our Family Farm was one of the early adopters of Nabo as a cash crop and grew hundreds of acres/hectares every year. Later we also grew mustard seed, mainly for the Asian oil market. At one time Saskatchewan produced something like 90% of the world’s mustard seed for use as a condiment.
    Our big joke growing up was that we would never use Grey Poupon since it probably was made using the dirty seeds from our neighbour’s field.
    Many Eastern European settlers on the prairies preferred to use hemp oil for cooking and salad dressing but the damn gubermint made that illegal, so rapeseed oil to the rescue!
    Now Michael I prefer beet leaves to Nabo for greens…but I think I just like the colour.

  4. There is a great passage in Mary Weismantel’s book Food, Gender and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes concerning the picking of Nabo leaves. She first recounts the scene of 2 neighbors meeting and the poorer one says that she has been picking nabo. The husband of the other woman says he likes nabo fried in oil with rice. This ends the conversation. The poor woman leaves and the man’s wife admonishes him. Weismantel then unpacks the interaction for us, explaining that rice and oil were commodities that had to be bought for cash, while nabo was free. She goes on to tell us other details about the different trajectories the two families have taken. It’s a great example of ethnographic writing.
    I’m a huge fan of John Berger too, who also is able to capture the essence of daily life through words and pictures—whether his subject is French peasants or immigrants. He will be sorely missed.

  5. As for your question about how long do you live on FB– there is a way you can ”will your account” so if you die, your loved ones can enter the account, add end of life messages for friends that you knew but your loved ones did not know about and then decide when the account will go off line.

  6. I think I have that book in Portland, but I would never have remembered that detail. Thank you! I should take another look, and bring it here next year.

  7. Thanks Suzanne – but if someone does not “will” the account, what happens? I look forward to seeing my mother make it to 100 years on FB.

  8. Hi Judy,
    As always, enjoy the beautiful things you share. Reminds me to savour – food and books and people. Glad to hear things are the same in Canar – abundance, complications, coziness, compadres. Give my best regards to Michael.
    I have just read Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. It is an amazing book – I think I would call it a book of poetry but it stretches my notion of that genre. It is brilliantly written, difficult to read, but her writing leaves you not just with grater intellectual understandings of racism, but feelings. Did I mention it is difficult to read? The illustrations that accompany the text are also thought provoking, emotion provoking? I have read some other good ones lately, but this one is overwhelmingly the one that had the biggest impact on me.
    Just back from Ontario in time for the Portland snow – more than Toronto has seen in a long time. Going to join my granddaughters for the Women’s March in DC next week. Then home before going back to TO to help with a new grandbaby. Good things. After a night helping out in an emergency shelter, Don and I are strongly reminded of how incredibly lucky we are – in all ways. I know that sounds cliched, but it really is pretty humbling to se so many who are dealing with mental and physical problems reduced to charity in this form. Going to get worse I fear before it gets better. Hence, the trip with granddaughters!!!

  9. Judy and Michael,
    This chapter was one of your best! We read and enjoy them all but this one particularly struck a chord. We enjoyed it all, but your thoughts about Adelene and Lynn were particularly poignant. Keep ’em coming!
    Ben and Carolyn

  10. Hola Judy. Two things come to mind as I just read your post. One is a book that perhaps you’ve already read called Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza which was influential in describing the abuses of the hacienda system.(Huasi=house,Pungu=Door in kichwa). The other book/article that Michael might enjoy, most especially in light of the ill fated attempt to bring stuff down from the northwest is: “Lost Crops of the Incas-Little known plants of the Andes with Promise of World Wide Cultivation”(pdf on line). We successfully grew in our Vashon Island garden, a tuber called Yacon (yacu=water in kichwa). It is very similar to jicama with a similar texture, sweeter and extremely cool in the mouth. Loaded with water it is especially good in salads. Tastes best after the first frost. Grows in multiple levels in the Andes as well as sea level here. I’d never heard of it but as they say…one never ceases to be amazed. Ed

  11. I have been reading the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I am looking for my 3rd book. They are best read in a series. I think they are well written and I do like mysteries. They are easy reading and that is just what I want.
    I love reading your blogs and I want some of that potato salad. As you know it has been very cold here. Not the same problem of driving like in Portland. Jon and I have spent most of the day doing a 1000 piece puzzle of Portland. It is only half done after a week of working on it.
    Now to put on my long underwear and walk the dog.
    Love, Irene

  12. Jude, as always just loved your chronicle. That is a great photo of Michael holding
    the red clippers and white bowl. Loved the story of the Hacienda being left to the
    Nuns. I’m rereading a novel which ties in, Mariette In Ecstasy by Ron Hanson, 1991.
    I can’t remember how it ends, so can’t really recommend it yet, but I love it for the
    daily routine of the nuns. The tag line is “Exquisite…a cliff-hanger of a story..the
    finale is a stunner.” I can’t imagine what’s going to happen but I’ll let you all know.
    I’m having a huge love affair with poetry! Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Bukowski,
    (who I’ve never read) and Leonard Cohen. It’s been years, maybe decades, since
    my last dive into poetry. So far Emily has first prize. Her 2000 poems stitched into
    little books. I would love her just for that, but she always says so much with so little.
    Love Char

  13. I didn’t care for An Unnecessary Woman either. I stopped reading it some pages in, and I don’t do that often.

    I haven’t finished it yet but I’m really enjoying Barkskins by Annie Proulx. A huge tome, 700+ pages. Hard to describe, but deals with the european attitude toward the natural world, focusing on the huge forests in the northern New World. A saga centering on two families that includes a contingent of native americans.

    Just finished The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya. It’s got that signature modern latin american technique of continuous first person narrative in an almost hallucinogenic pace. The protagonist is an exile in Mexico City considering returning to El Salvador. Might try reading it in spanish now that I got the story in mind. We’ll be discussing it in my real time book group in March.

  14. Those darn chickens! They are a ravenous crew. Good luck – a more menacing look (or broom) is clearly required.

  15. Thanks Susan. I have reason to put both those books at top of my list for 2017. While living in Costa Rica in 1990’s we knew several Salvadorean exiles in San José, one a well-known writer and the other Ana Margarita Gasteazoro, who the scholarship fund was named for. And now M. and I are thinking of making a trip to El Salvador this year. Annie Proulx was a Vermont neighbor and our lives briefly crossed paths in the 1960s. I’ve been her reader since.

  16. Dear Judy and Michael,

    So nice to see a photo of Adeline and read your sweet words. She is truly unforgettable. I think the last time I saw her was in Bali! I was there with my Mom and this was the only time the two of them ever met. What a small world!
    I am reading That Bright Land by Terry Roberts and quite enjoying it. . It was one of the books by Southern authors from The Bitter Southerner blog (that I sent you). It’s based on actual events – about a small North Carolina town post Civil War and a former Union soldier who is sent there to try to discover who is killing Union veterans.


  17. Hi Judy!

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post, and look forward to exploring your website more! I thought I’d quickly introduce myself, as a Global Citizen Year fellow living in Canar. I am in fact completing my apprenticeship at CENAGRAP, (which I’m told is right by your house), as well as living in the nearby community of San Rafael with Lucinda Duy and Jose Pichazaka (son of Nicolas Pichazaka). I keep hearing wonderful things about you and Michael and your involvement in the Canar community; I would love to meet you two sometime when you’re free!

    Best regards,

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