The Healthy Living Initiative (HLI) implemented several projects this summer in Ecuador, one of which was the Bellamaria Community Center (BCC) Ownership and Appropriation project. As part of activities planned towards facilitating this process, the BCC team scheduled a cooking/cultural exchange day with members of the Bellamaria community. The team arrived in Bellamaria around nine o’clock in the morning bearing bags of rice, plantains, cooking oil, and assorted vegetables. Following a warm greeting, the team watched as one of the men who joined for the event, and a local baker stoked a smoldering fire in a scorched outdoor oven.
The team placed their ingredients in the kitchen that was being used for the day’s event. Soon afterwards, they began chopping onions into transparent slivers and cutting bright yellow plantains (platanos maduros) for frying. The five women who joined for the event also members of the Los Ceibos artisan group accommodated the team, handing them kitchen equipment and making room for them in the kitchen.
The local baker began stirring levadura (yeast), sugar, and warm water in a ceramic bowl. It foamed up quickly and filled the small room with a yeasty, earthy smell. He mixed in flour, vanilla, egg yolks, and butter and stirred the golden mixture with his hands while the team looked on eagerly. To the team’s surprise they observed the women staring at the process as well. The baker explained the process to everybody in Spanish and the women look at him and his skill with admiration. He began to knead the mixture, then roll it into perfectly symmetrical balls which were then placed on a blackened sheet covered in vegetable shortening. The baker patiently allowed all present to give a shot at rolling the balls. One of the members of the BBC team made a lumpy, misshapen ball of dough. When she said in Spanish that her bread will be ugly, everyone good-naturedly laughed at her. The baker smiled shyly and corrected her dough once she walked away. He allowed the balls of dough time to rise, then began placing them in the outdoor oven once they had reached the proper temperature.
Afterwards, the women said they needed corn for their humitas, one of the cultural dishes they were preparing for the day. Once the team learned that the corn must be picked fresh from the plants, they offered to help which they enjoyed doing. The women tolerantly explained to the BBC team how to tell a ripe ear of corn from an unripened one. Armed with well-worn denim sacks, they traipse into the corn field behind the community center and begin picking ears of corn. The women expertly selected corn, twisting and snapping the sun-ripened grain. The team was much slower. The team picked and picked, filling two large bags and a box, and together carried their bounty back to the kitchen.
Once they returned, they were shown how to remove the husks from the corn at an outside table. The husks were not thrown away but kept in a big bowl as they were going to be used as wrappers for the humitas, a dish very similar to tamales. The husks and the fine yellow corn silk were removed. One of the women proudly stated that they used no chemicals on their corn. While the green husks were being placed in a large bowl, the silk was put aside to be later fed to the goats. Chickens and piglets, seeing kernels of corn and larvae fall to the ground, rushed over, jostling under everybody’s feet to claim them.
Two members of the team who has been busy in the kitchen preparing “red-red” and “jollof rice”, two popular Ghanaian dishes announced that the team’s contribution to the exchange was done and ready to be served. One of the women, very vibrant and dynamic, rushed into the room and returns with plates, utensils and a bottle of Fanta soda for everybody.
Everybody sat at table to eat as the Ecuadorian sun beams down on us and dogs and piglets run about their feet while a member of the BCC team began serving everyone. It was a nolstagic moment of a family cookout. And as everybody dined on Ghanaian cuisine accompanied by Ecuadorian fire-baked bread, it was evident that human beings were not really so different on a fundamental level. Socioeconomic status, geography, and language may separate people, but there would always be instances where people would be able to share a bond and a sense of community. Both the team and the community members mutually offered ample thanks for the good food and hospitality.
After the hefty and delicious lunch, the local baker began making a light, fluffy cake, similar to an angel food cake with coconut flavoring. He used old, tarnished sardine tins lined with parchment paper as cake pans and placed them directly on coals. The BCC team also headed inside to make the humitas by filling in a grinder. They then stuff and rolled the humitas mixture. The women made enough humitas to feed a huge group, and there were probably only fifteen people present. This was a true testament to their extreme generosity. They set the humitas in a pot and left them to boil with water for approximately an hour.
All too soon time with the Bellamaria community members was coming to an end after seven hours of cooking/cultural exchange. The women brought out mugs of hot black coffee and the cooked humitas. The team sat to have the evening snacks together with the community members as the sun lowered in the sky. The team parted ways with the community members and left Bellamaria with bags ballooning with humitas, empanadas, cake and bread.
Joan Nkansaa Nkansah
(The BCC Team, HLI)