The Pleasures of Plants and Food

Sometimes, life brings amazing gifts, and sometimes from the most unexpected places. The house just down the road from us, where Johnny and June Cash lived, had new owners after the Cashes left. Imagine, if you will, a peninsula, almost ship-like, floating on the waters of the Lake. Imagine a 7 acre forest of oaks and ancient Ashe junipers, growing atop a high bluff of the peninsula, with a newly built house set on the highest spot, looking quite out of place in its newness.

I had wanted to landscape that spot for years. I spent 20 years working as a landscape architect, most of that time on large estate work. When the new neighbors asked to see some of my work from years ago, I took them to another substantial house site, also atop a cliff, overlooking the lake. To avoid prolonging the story, I will just say that nearly 3 months of work, a lot of heavy equipment and a a few hundred rocks, some the size of Volkswagons, and I created a landscape that made the house appear as if it had naturally grown up out of the clifftop and settled there.

When I began the work, I had requested local Hispanic workers, rather than hiring trained nursery laborers. Why? Nursery people have their own ways of landscaping, I know, I've trained a good many over the years. But for this job, I wanted laborers who had no preconceived notions, no set rules and who wouldn't argue with my design. This was to be a highly naturalistic landscape, no cute bushes in rows, no city landscape here.

My crew consisted of 2 Mexican guys and an older fellow from Guatemala. The Guatemalan, Guillermo, was in the Ozarks visiting his son and family, a few miles away, and he mostly wanted something to do with his time during his 3 months' stay. Every morning Guillermo's son would drop him off at the job site and every evening I'd take him back home. It wasn't far, only 6 miles, and I was grateful for the work.

Guillermo and I developed a friendship very quickly. I speak no Spanish, and he spoke no English at all, but I enjoyed his company. Possibly it was because we were near the same age, but even without language, we laughed as we worked. He was especially animated when we built the herb garden, at left. And since the other 2 guys were originally from Mexico, and younger, they kept mostly to themselves. Except at lunch time, we all ate together, including the backhoe and bulldozer operators, all of us on the big deck overlooking the lake.

Every day when I took Guillermo home, his 3 young grandsons would run out to the truck to greet him. And when they did, he and I had conversations we'd saved up all day, with their interpreting for us. The boys were quick and smart and it was obvious how proud he was of them. And every day, one of the grandsons would say, "Mr Jim, Grandpa would like to pay you for bringing him home, please." And every day I'd say no, it was no trouble, he didn't owe me anything. He always thanked me, but then the next day, one of the boys would ask again, "Mr. Jim, Grandpa would like to pay you."

It occurred to me that this wasn't about money, the question kept coming up because of self respect. Guillermo needed to give me something in return for the favors I was giving him. When I finally understood what was behine the daily question, I gave it some thought and the next day when the grandson asked, I had an answer.

"Yes," I said. "Tell your Grandpa there is something I would very much like if he wants to pay me. Tell him that if his wife was willing, I would very much like to learn to cook a dish that was typical of a Guatemalan food. Guillermo looked very serious and sent one of the littlest boys inside, and within seconds, Guillermo's wife, Judith, appeared. She was wiping her hands on her apron when he explained what I'd just asked for. She immediately brightened and said she would be pleased to show me how to cook something.

I'd planned to have the cooking demonstration in our house, but the owners of the new house on the cliff overheard what we were planning and asked to host the cooking demonstration. They wanted to learn a new dish, too!

Judith did the shopping and as the cooking project progressed, there would be 12 people in all, including Guillermo and Judith's family. The location was the fabulous new kitchen with every imaginable gadget and convenience and Judith went right to work as if she had been cooking there for years. She started 2 pots cooking, one with chicken and a second with pork. She put in onions and various seasonings in each and while those simmered, she did something that caused me to secretly wonder whether she knew what she was doing.

Judith put a cast iron griddle on a burner and turned on the heat. She placed 2 halves of a very large onion on the hot griddle, without any oil. Next to that, she laid 2 fresh, whole tomatoes and 2 garlic cloves. While she worked on other dishes, she occasionally turned the vegetables on the griddle, but not until they were totally charred. I watched as everything on the griddle burned, the smoke going up the stove's vent. Then she laid 2 pieces of plain, white bread on the griddle, and they, too, burned to a blackness I would have thrown out.

Part way through our cooking lesson, I began to be nervous. What I'd asked Guillermo for, was a cooking lesson for myself and I had never dreamed this would turn out to be a 5 course dinner for 12 people. My fear was that with all of us standing around and watching, Judith might feel a little like a servant, and I certainly did not want that. So I asked, and it was translated, "Does it make you nervous to have all of us watch you while you cook?"

The interpreter returned Judith's words, with a wave of her hand in the air, "No, it doesn't bother me a bit. I have my own cooking show on television back home in Guatemala. I'm used to being in front of an audience."

With a big smile, she took the totally charred vegetables from the griddle and placed them into a blender. She ladled some of the broth from the pork and chicken dishes as they cooked, into the blender, as well. Judith added a small handful of fresh cilantro and whirred it all up together in the blender. That was the sauce, which she poured over the cooked chicken pieces on a platter. She dished up the remaining dishes and we all sat down. Guillermo said grace and we all began to eat. There was total silence, one of those amazing meals where the flavors and tastes are so far beyond expectation, you don't even want to waste time with words.

The seemingly burnt vegetables added an incredible smoky flavor to the sauce, the charred bread, thickened it, and the handful of fresh cilantro gave it a sparkle I could not have expected.

I had thought I was asking for a simple cooking demonstration from the wife of a new friend. What I found instead, was an elegant meal, prepared in style, by a professional television chef from another country. What a culinary surprise and one that taught me to not make assumptions about people. As Julia would have said, had she been fortunate enough to experience that meal, bon appetite!


Kim said...

This story brought tears to my eyes, Jim! We can be so quick to make assumptions about immigrants and their families; many of them are not what we expect. Thanks for the reminder to keep our minds open.

(And I would have LOVED to be in on that demonstration-- and that meal!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fennugreek seed source. After some searching yesterday I also found a potential source for the green shiso leaf at Kitazawa Seed Co in Oakland California. Your Guatemalan meal was a real treasure. Thanks for showing us a picture of the cook and her husband in a gorgeous kitchen. That was sure a beautiful property to landscape!