To get to the masa seller’s shack, I walked along a narrow path of hardened mud, about twelve inches wide, bordered by deep watery ditches and tall scratchy grasses on both sides. And women passed me, going the other way, back to their houses, large woven baskets balancing on their heads, the aroma of fresh masa seeping from the worn stained cloths used to wrap it.
But Elvira usually fetched the masa for me, because she knew exactly how much to buy for the day’s tortillas. She’d pat them out by hand, clap-clap, whereas I needed a tortilla press, the knack of patting the masa somewhat beyond my skill set
Before my arrival in La Lima, I’d never employed a servant before. Mike and I were so poor we could barely afford Comet cleanser to scour our one toilet. In fact, we were so poor when we left for Honduras from Laramie, Wyoming that we could afford only one air conditioner for the company house on stilts in La Lima. And that went in the bedroom, where the baby’s crib and a double bed filled the room like sardines tight in a can.
I don’t recall how Elvira came to be the first maid I ever hired, but she wasn’t the last. But, because she was the first, she stands out in my memory more than do the others.
To cook the tortillas, I bought a pounded metal comal almost the first day I arrived in La Lima, the research branch of United Brands, formerly the United Fruit Company, the name one of such ill repute that the board of directors changed it after all the backlash for supporting dictators throughout Central America. Colonialism is a bad word these days, and my eighteen months in that company town in La Lima, Honduras provided me with a whiff of a practice that’d been the norm ever since the Portuguese first set sail under the patronage of King Henry the Navigator.
Banana groves surrounded my house. I’d hear the crop-dusters spraying for yellow and black sigatoka every week, in the mornings, like clockwork.
One day, not long after I arrived in country, I bought a ripe pineapple at a market in San Pedro Sula. After a 20-minute drive to the market, in my unairconditioned blue pickup truck, windows open wide, all the hot sticky humid air caused me to sweat like a stevedore working the docks. By the time I pulled up to the market, my armpits, the front, and back of my robin’s-egg-blue t-shirt, and my face dripped with sweat. People stared at me, so I hurried along as fast as I could, ignoring the stares and smirks.
Back at my house – wooden, painted white, perched on stilts for better air flow and cooling, such as that ever was in the relentless torrid heat – I pulled up, desperate for a brief lunge into our air-conditioned bedroom. Rigoberto, our gardener and Elvira’s nephew, hurried to help me lug the straw bags filled with food up the stairs to the kitchen.
Elvira’s eyes sparkled as she examined the pineapple
“Está listo,” she remarked. “It’s ready.”
Since I did most of the cooking, I decided that rice, beans, some fried chicken, and tortillas would do for dinner that night, along with pineapple slices. About an hour later, after a quick lie-down, I walked into the kitchen. When Elvira saw me cutting up the pineapple, tossing the skin, core, and other scraps into the garbage, she went berserk.
“No, no, no! Por favor. Para una bebida de piña,” she told me, grabbing the pineapple pieces out of the garbage, and putting them in the sink to rinse off coffee grounds and other things. “For a pineapple drink.”
I handed her some aluminum foil, and she wrapped the pieces up like a mother swaddling her infant. Tucking the pineapple into her tote bag, she then proceeded to pat out tortillas, hands flashing, mouth smiling.
I gave the pineapple no more thought.
A few days later, Elvira needed a ride home, so I offered to take her. I never knew how old she was, but her oldest granddaughter had celebrated her eighth birthday a month before. So I guessed Elvira to be around fifty. But now I suspect she was younger. She lived in company housing with her daughter and four grandchildren, because her daughter worked as a packer in the banana company’s processing plant.
I parked my truck in the dusty open area in front of the seemingly endless number of ramshackle apartment-like buildings. There, on one of the small cement stoops that served as porches for the dilapidated row houses with corrugated iron roofs, I saw the remains of my pineapple, floating like a specimen in a large glass jar in a medical research lab.
Elvira smiled, pointing.
“Chicha de piña.”
That made sense to me. Something to drink with a bit of a kick to it, to take the edge off the days.
“Pero ya no está listo,” Elvira told me.
I turned back to my truck. That was OK.
More for her. And that’s where all pineapple peelings went until I left La Lima.
For more about bananas and the industry they drove, see Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, by Dan Koeppel (2007).
Pineapple Chicha (Chicha de Piña)
Peel and core of 1 ripe pineapple, organic if possible, washed
3 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste
2 – 3 quarts cold water
Combine all ingredients in a large glass container. Place the container in the sun. Let it rest – covered with a thin cloth – for two or three days or until it begins to ferment, then strain and refrigerate.