That Old Black Magic

When I lived in Belize (okay, in 1963 it was British Honduras), the practice of obeah, or black magic, was considered a criminal offense.  A Creole man convicted of making obeah was sentenced to three years in prison shortly before we arrived.  While we lived among the Maya in Rio Blanco we  never saw any obeah rituals—if we did, we didn’t recognize them—but some people told us privately that they had seen them.  Obeah seldom came up in casual conversation, especially not when sac li gwink—Kekchi for “white people”—were present.

Men from near Santa Cruz clearing bush.  Many edible and medicinal plants grow in the rain forest.  But some can kill you.

Men from near Santa Cruz clearing bush. Many edible and medicinal plants grow in the rain forest. But some can kill you.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

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Can the Kekchi Cook without Chiles?

Of course they can.  Fried plantains (which all Belizeans pronounce PLAN-tins) are never cooked with chile.  The best I ever ate were in a Mexican restaurant near Pasadena, California.  The cook used butter, not lard or cooking oil, and before serving the plantains, he finished the dish with a splash of balsamic vinegar.  I had to restrain myself from licking my plate off.

Ripe (red) and unripe (green) bird peppers.  They’re tiny but hot—especially if you leave the seeds in.

Ripe (red) and unripe (green) bird peppers. They’re tiny but hot—especially if you leave the seeds in.

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Cutting Corn Ears

That was supposed to be a pun (“cutting corners”), but if you didn’t get it, don’t worry.  My husband doesn’t get most of my puns either.

The Maya only make one dish out of “green” corn, and they do cut the kernels off a freshly-picked ripe ear of corn with the dull side of a knife or machete (more people in Belize die from machete wounds than bullets) to make their green corn tamales.  None of their tamales contain cheese.  Because so many Maya villages, especially in Toledo District, lack dairy products—during dry season, there’s not enough pasture to support cattle—and electricity, Maya cooks don’t use cheese in their cooking at all.  No enchiladas, no burritos, nothing involving lettuce—the Maya don’t grow that, either—and no chiles rellenos.

Cutting Corn Ears

New in Rio Blanco since I lived there: clothesline, cats—much more efficient than a mousetrap—and flowers around the houses. One was surrounded by flame-red ginger flowers. The roots of some flowering gingers are edible—and an indispensable ingredient in curry.

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Cook Like a Kekchi Maya

You start with corn.  That goes without saying.  Every culture has its starch of choice—bread for the French, pasta for the Italians, dumplings for the Germans, rice for the Chinese, French fries for the gringos.   For the Maya (and other Mesoamerican people), it’s corn.

When I lived In Belize, the Kekchi and Mopan Maya saved seed corn from each year’s crop and used it to plant the next year’s crop.  Their staple food was masa, raw tortilla dough—dried corn soaked in slaked lime, and then finely ground, with enough water added to stick together.   If a man went hunting, for example—and usually, because the Maya fear the jungle (with good reason), he took at least one friend and one dog along—he carried with him a slab of masa and maybe a hard-cooked egg, all wrapped in a banana leaf.

As the Maya’s dependence on corn has waned—some women only cook flour tortillas now—they have turned to tubers like yams for the starch in their diet.  This chicken caldo, or soup, has more root vegetables in it than chicken.

As the Maya’s dependence on corn has waned—some women only cook flour tortillas now—they have turned to tubers like yams for the starch in their diet. This chicken caldo, or soup, has more root vegetables in it than chicken.

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The Maya and Their Houses

When I was a kid, we lived half a block away from the railroad tracks.  (Yeah, on the wrong side.)  A few years later, when I started high school, I used the tracks to come home, because the walk was a lot shorter than if I walked along the avenue, made a right-angle turn, and walked down our street.  Like every kid in the neighborhood I knew when the trains were coming, so I was safe on that score.  I never told my parents about my shortcut because I knew they’d disapprove.  They were worried about me, but it came out as disapproval, especially since they wouldn’t say, specifically, what they worried about.  But I figured it out for myself the day I decided to expand my horizons and take little side excursions away from the tracks.

Photo by Joan Fry

Photo by Joan Fry

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