The Language of the Kitchen

I know I’ve been writing a lot on Guatemala as of late. But, hey, there’s been a lot to write about. Like, for instance, the fact that I recently got into the kitchen to cook side by side with Ana Maria Chali Calan this week.

kitchen-language-postMany of you know that Christopher and I support Ana Maria’s daughter Mayra in her university studies, and I’ve written about what that means to me. But when we first became connected with the Calan family, I never imagined that Ana Maria and I would be teaching a class together here in Healdsburg.

A couple of months ago, although it seems like days, a few of us had a little planning session in my garden about how to bring Ana Maria back to the states. Slow Food Sonoma County had brought Ana Maria here in November 2008, as the leader of the indigenous women’s association AMIDI, to exchange ideas about farming and foodways in Guatemala and America.

One concern that Ana Maria voiced in 2008 was the proliferation of poorly ventilated stoves, which are both a safety and health hazard. As a result of Ana Maria’s diplomacy here, our organization was able to raise enough money to donate 41 fuel-efficient stoves shortly after her return, one to each member of AMIDI. But it didn’t stop there. Guatemalan officials heard about the stoves and went to the village to see them in action. They were so impressed that they decided to install over 6,000 of them throughout highland villages, improving—and likely even saving—numerous lives.

Fast forward—and I mean fast forward (the generous Bowmans sprung for Ana Maria’s ticket and Marilee mobilized everything expertly)—to Thursday, the day after Ana Maria arrived here in the U.S. I’m standing side by side with Ana Maria, I in my chef’s jacket and she in her huipil, and we’re preparing to teach a class together on using stone tools.

She teaches how to grind corn on a metate and hand-pat tortillas. I talked about making salsas and sauces in molcajetes (you all know I’m smitten for mortars and pestles) and then put everyone to work making their own. I even made Sandra’s Pollo en Jocon and got a thumbs up from Ana Maria herself.

This year, Ana Maria’s village faces even graver issues: the village was hit heavily by mudslides after a recent tropical storm. The water system was destroyed, houses were heavily damaged, and crops and fields and livestock were washed away. But she, they, will persevere. And we will be there to support them (if you’d like to help, click here on the donation page we’ve set up).

The language of the kitchen is universal (of course, it helps to have Marilee there translating). It never ceases to amaze me, whether in Mexico, France, Guatemala, Greece or right here at home, how strong and natural the bonds become when people are elbow to elbow washing leaves or shredding chicken or pounding herbs. Bodies relax. Divides disappear. Conversation flows freely … even when spoken in a foreign tongue.

Ode to Mortars and Pestles

By Lia Huber

I have a thing for mortars and pestles. Part of my fascination, I think, comes from the fact that they’re so utterly primitive. They don’t have a plug. They don’t make motorized noise. They don’t even have a sharp edge. Even the name—mortar and pestle—is simple when traced back to its Latin source: “mortarium” means receptacle for pounding and “pestillum” means pounder.

mortar-pestle-postBut don’t let the simplistic nature fool you into thinking they’re not useful tools. I use mine far more often than my food processor. With just a few whacks and a pinch of salt, garlic and herbs are rendered into a pungent paste; spices are crushed to fragrant bits; simple vegetables are transformed into a surprisingly full-flavored sauce. And you get to let off steam while taking in a little aromatherapy.

Part of what makes mortars and pestles so effective is that pounding ruptures the cells in food, as opposed to slicing or processing which semi-cauterizes them. That’s why one clove of pounded garlic can taste and smell so much more powerful than three cloves of minced.

No wonder nearly every culture has created its own version over the millennia. Each is made of materials abundant in a particular region and fashioned for the culinary needs of a particular cuisine. In France, they tend to be deep bowls made of marble. In Southeast Asia, they’re conical and often made of clay with a wooden mortar. In Latin America, you’ll find giant stone receptacles called molcajetes with a nubbin of a pestle called a tejolete.

It was a quest for the perfect molcajete, in fact, that cemented my infatuation with the tool. My husband and I were on an extended road trip from San Francisco to Costa Rica and had just spent a week in Cuernavaca, Mexico, taking a cooking class. Many modern sauces are now made in blenders, but the dishes that stole the show for me were the ones we pounded in the behemoth basalt molcajetes. The following week, when we paused in Oaxaca for a couple of weeks, I was determined to find the perfect version amidst the city’s sprawling market.

We searched for hours and hours and had almost given up when we turned the corner and spotted it—wide and irregular and pitted and rough. A tiny woman rose to her feet in front of the stall. Her face crinkled into a smile and as we looked each other in the eyes I could see a joy that matched my own. It felt, somehow, like we’d been seeking one another. We made the exchange and shared a hug, and Christopher and I packed up the molcajete for the remainder of the drive. Later, when we pulled the bowl out in our Costa Rica kitchen, I noticed that the bowl had writing around the edge—Recuerdo de Oaxaca, memories of Oaxaca.

I hope that woman knows how rich they are.