Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Pibe Makers

When I arrived at Doña Juanita Nah's, the pibe makers were working outside:
Group A -- two elderly women stirring a hot, bubbling cauldron like a pair of Shakespearean crones. Except they were chatting amiably, not making dire prophesies.
Group B -- seven women cleaning banana leaves and removing the central vein.
Group C -- two men tending a firepit. It was as big as a queen-size bed and filled with firewood and hefty chunks of limestone. Limestone, limestone, limestone -- in the Yucatan it seems like the world is made of the stuff.
Group D -- eight rowdy children chasing two yelping puppies and one giggling baby. Okay, Group D members did not qualify as pibe makers but rather as future pibe eaters.

PHASE 1: Making the Pibes
I joined the banana leaf group. "The men brought these leaves from our parcela this morning," Doña Juanita said. I earned praise for holding the leaf steady with one hand while extracting the vein decisively with the other. They were being nice: my leaves kept tearing, theirs didn't. One elderly woman in a hand-embroidered hipil (long white dress with decorated collar /hem: see previous entries) deftly shredded the veins into strands.

Doña Juanita called out to one of the younger girls. "Bring out the masa!" To my surprise, the masa had little green and black beans mixed in.

"What are those?" I asked.

"Espelón," she said.

I made a pun: "Oh, it doesn't have any hair?" (Es pelón in Spanish means 'he's bald'.) (Before arriving that morning, I'd decided to make an effort to be entertaining rather than just sitting there with my mouth open, hypnotized. You know, like that Finnish exchange student back in high school who everyone thought was going to be cool. Somehow he turned out to be pitifully culture-shocked and, ultimately, boring.) Everyone laughed graciously.

We dug out grapefruit-sized chunks of masa and formed them into spheres. We worked them on a banana leaf square, sticking our thumbs into the middle to make pinch pots. Doña Juanita's came out perfect, with the walls angled in like the cone of a volcano. The ones made by the two adolescent girls and me were imperfect. They required intervention from more experienced hands.
"Where did you get the masa?" I asked Doña Juanita.

"We took the corn to the molino (mill) this morning."

Meanwhile, a few members of the banana-leaf team broke off into a focus group. They pulled chicken off two big carcasses, tomato-red from achiote. Into our pinch pots went the chicken along with a generous ladle of soupy stuff from the cauldron. "That's k'ol," Juanita told me.

"Mmm, k'ol!" said one of the younger girls. She left off playing tease-the puppy to breathe it in.

Doña Juanita asked if I wanted to try it. She told me K'ol (say the 'k' like you have a frog in your throat) is just masa boiled up in hot water with achiote added for color. Okay, so why is it so delicious? They served me up a bowl with a few pieces of chicken thrown in. Yum.

Meanwhile, the teenage girls started forming masa into flat disks. They called this torteando. A pinch here and there -- they did it skillfully with hands well-trained from years of tortilla-making. These disks went on top of each pibe.

Figured it out yet? Pibes are Mayan chicken pot pies.

After the pibes were prepped, a woman wrapped them in banana leaves. Crossing four strands of banana leaf vein at the midpoint, she placed the neatly packaged pibes in the center. Then she knotted the strands on top. Talk about your bundle of joy!

PHASE 2: Baking the Pibes
In the pit the wood burned down to glowing embers. Waves of heat swirled up from the rocks. The men bickered a little about whether they should wait for the rocks to cool off a little. A man came out of a choza to consult: his face was shiny and there were little bits of leaf stuck to it. I tried not to stare.

"My uncle fell off his bike yesterday," a girl told me. "Those leaves will take care of the wounds."
The men decided to go ahead with the baking. First they laid a board on the rocks, placing the pibes carefully on top. Then they balanced a wooden pole across the pit. They covered this with layers of macheted palm fronds they harvested on the spot.

"They take about an hour to cook," Doña Juanita told me. "Why don't you rest in the meantime?"

I went into the main choza with some of the children. We stretched out in the hammocks and one child (oh shattered illusions of rusticity!) turned on the television. That's right: no indoor bathroom, no stove, but there was enough electric current in the choza to power a color TV. As I dozed fitfully I was dimly aware of the children running in and out. Romping in the other hammock with the puppies and the baby, they paid very little attention to whatever schlocky cartoon was on.

"Están listos," someone called. The pibes were ready!

Right off the fire, no oven mitts required, the adults peeled the crisp banana leaves off the sizzling pibes. A few were charred but the one they handed me was golden crunchy on the bottom like a good pizza, savory-soupy inside. It had the clean, sweet taste of newly ground fresh corn. This taste is, to me, the essence of good Mexican cuisine.
That pibe was one huge mother of a meat pie but I ate it all out of politeness and culinary greed. The kids brought Cokes from the tiendita down the road. We took our time eating, the men hacking off the burnt bits with their machetes and trying to remember which ones they'd added the chile habanero to at the last instant.

When we finished eating I explored a little. Doña Juanita showed me the new choza the men are building. It's going to be the kitchen. Then she dressed me up and took pictures: yet another photo session of Miss Judy in an hipil. Meanwhile, I noticed the kids had started up a game of toro. One boy of maybe eight years old got a rope and fashioned it into a lariat. The other children ran. He chased after, throwing the rope and catching them over and over again. I was amazed: have you ever tried to lasso someone? It ain't easy, folks!

It was time to go. I had to catch a colectivo back to Oxkutzcab, so Manuel and his young mother Diana walked with me down to the main road. As we walked she pointed out all the fruit trees: banana, guanábana, saramullo, guayo, papaya, sapote, chico sapote, mamey and mango. We stopped at her sister's house (just how many Couoh, Nah and Góngora residences are there in Akil?) and she gave me a pitahaya (my second dragon fruit this week). "We grow all the fruit we need," Diana said. "Besides these, on the parcela we grow sweet orange, sour orange and limes. We buy vegetables sometimes, but not fruit. "

This made me think about Doña Juanita. Before I left, she thanked me for visiting. "Not many people in México take an interest in the way we live here," she said. "We're really poor."

"At the same time you really have a lot," I said. I thanked her for an unforgetable experience.

Just think: if you were a Yucatecan Mayan, you or someone in your family would know how to make a hammock, embroider an hipil, raise farm animals, rope a cow, make tortillas, cook over an open fire and plant and harvest the crops you need to survive. You could identify the wild plants in your environment and you'd know their medicinal uses. You could even build your own house.

Makes you feel kind of inadequate, doesn't it?