The Odyssey
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Latin America Abeja Dispatch

Men of Maize
Men and Women
of Maize

Men of Maize grow
on their mothers' backs
wrapped in colorful cloth
drinking the milk
made from the maize.
Tortillas, atolés,
tamales, chuchitas,
flavored with meat and
chili and beans.
The sacred Maize
soaked in sacred lye
in sacred water
and rinsed again.
Ground by hand
or by machine
carried on the heads
of the women of Maize
to the comales over the fires.
Maize made into food
made into men and women
grown by the hearth of the
home of the community.

Women of Maize grow
on their mothers' backs
wrapped in colorful cloth
woven by hand
by the women of Maize.
Woven with tradition.
Woven with stories.
Sitting, talking, weaving,
the women of Maize
weave history
into their cloth.
Hopes and dreams,
sorrows and terrors,
worn as cortes,
carrying the babies,
never to be forgotten.

Abeja

In the Mayan religion, human beings are referred to as, "Men of maize". After eating with traditional Maya, it is obvious why. Maize, a type of starchy corn, is eaten in countless ways. Beans, meat, chili, vegetables, sugar, and salt are all consumed, but mostly as ways to flavor the sacred maize!

The daily pot of maize being rinsed
Caption

All over Guatemala, corn is grown, even on slopes so steep I wonder if they use ropes to get them! The maize is dried and stored, either on the cob or off. When they are ready to eat it, the kernels are soaked in water mixed with a bit of lye, a highly caustic white powder that is sacred to the Maya. It seems a little scary to be mixing lye--which we use as drain cleaner in the U.S.--with something you plan to eat, doesn't it? However, unlike the corn I'm used to, maize has a tough outer coating which protects the inner kernal. The lye eats away the coating, leaving only the yummy part! Sometimes the maize is soaked three or four times until the coating is completely dissolved and rinsed away with the lye water.

Traditionally, corn is ground on a rock with another rock as a mortar and pestle. Although some women still do this difficult and time consuming work, many now have hand grinders or take it to the molino (mill). Even a town as small as Chitatul has a motor operated molino. The women carry the carefully rinsed maize in plastic tubs down to the mill along a bumpy dirt road. The tubs are balanced on their heads, resting only on rolled clothes. For two and a half Quetzals, the man at the mill grinds three large tubs of maize, saving so much time compared to grinding it by hand. The ground maize, now called masa (corn dough), is again put into plastic tubs and carried back up the hill on the women's heads. I'm glad they didn't ask me to try that!

In the middle of making tamales!
Caption

The main food made from masa is, you guessed it--the tortilla! Standing around the fire with a group of women, I am learning the art of making tortillas. For them it is effortless! As they chat, they scoop up perfect amounts of masa, roll them into balls, pat them several times between their hands, twirl them once through their fingers, and slap them onto the comal--a round piece of flat metal seasoned with lye and set over a fire. One woman checks the progress of the tortillas and flips them with a quick flick so as not to burn her fingers.

Of course, this is all much harder than it looks. I scoop out the masa, roll it into a ball, and begin patting it between my hands. Perhaps these big white hands just aren't suited to make tortillas! What emerges is a crumbly, uneven, odd shaped mess o'masa. I try again. And again, and again. Magdelena and the other women give me some hints and encourage me. Eventually, my first tortilla finds its way onto the comal. It sticks out like a tall white woman among Maya - it is fat, uneven, and not at all round. My teachers are proud and say that it resembles children's tortillas when they first learn this skill.

I keep practicing, all my attention on the task at hand--which is fine since I don't speak Quiché, anyway. By the end of the night, the tortillas I make look decent but still stand out. And I haven't learned how to make all the other masa-based foods, yet! This may take a while.

Making tortillas in a traditional Quiche kitchen
Making tortillas in a traditional Quiche kitchen

Tamales are lumps of masa wrapped in corn husks or other large leaves and steamed. Chuchas are like tamales, except that inside is a small bit of meat in a tasty tomato sauce. Atolé is a hot liquid made from the masa, which is drunk with meals, often sweetened, or served as a soup with hot sauce and maybe some cheese. And Elotés are corn on the cob (or in a cup), unground, often served with mayonaise, ketchup, salt, lime, and cheese.

Some meals have several different forms of exactly the same food...Corn! This is partly the result of tradition, but it is also due to the fact that corn is abundant and cheap enough for the poor, rural, indigenous population here. The Mayans often asked me, concerned, "In America, do you eat tortillas?" They seem relieved when I respond, "Yes", but look worried when I add that tortillas are not made in tortillerias, but rather by machine, and are eaten days later. Now that I've had fresh tortillas I will never again be able to eat the ones wrapped in plastic off of a store shelf!

Abeja

 
 

Kavitha - Healing with Dreams and Herbs
Jamila - Rainforest Treasures
Abeja - A Day in Quiché
Abeja - Making History
Kavitha - Do You Know Where Your Broccoli Comes From?
Abeja - Guatemala: Never Again
 
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