Category Archives: Guatemalan

apolitical and relatively non-violent thoughts on coffee (or, How I Spent My Christmas Break That One Year)

In Guatemala – I’m not even kidding – people grow coffee in their backyards. I’m sure not all people do this, but I haven’t crept into too many Guatemalan backyards in my lifetime, so I can’t be definitive about it. The point is that if you live in Guatemala, you may have the potential to grow coffee in your backyard should you want to pursue it as an option. 

Coffee.  Yet another topic that has filled books and books.  In fact, I’m presently skimming along the chapter on coffee in just such a book.  This is a disturbingly heavy tome called A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat that you could use to kill a tarantula if this was the type of spider you typically found lurking around the bathtub at your place.  (Please note that I don’t actually condone killing any spiders, most especially tarantulas.  Trapping in Tupperware and releasing into the wild, yes.  Killing, no.)  It’s also apparently a 24-year-old classic that I only just discovered this past weekend while hanging around at an archaeology conference where, frankly, the bigger the book, the cooler you are.  Or something similar. 

The words sticking to my brain during the course of all this non-committal skimming so far include “violence”, “dangerous poison”, and “mud which is good for nothing but the very dregs of people”.  So we’ll certainly be revisiting the topic of coffee in future posts as it clearly has the potential to be a frightening and politically challenging subject. Today, however, I’ll try to be brief; tomorrow I’ll start reading and looking up the big words.

Back in January, we cracked the subject open with a thing about Cuban coffee.  Not long after discovering Cafe Cubano, I read Maggie’s description of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in her travel blog GirlVentures.  And not too long after that, I remembered that I’d personally witnessed coffee berries growing in Raphael’s aunt’s yard in lovely Antigua, Guatemala, and taken a walk through a shady finca – or coffee plantation – not far from her house.  And finally, all this thinking and reading and remembering led me to the realization that we in fact have a jar of raw coffee beans in our kitchen cabinet given to us by one of Raphael’s brothers who recently bought a small finca in Guatemala.  Because you can do that in Guatemala.  Buy a finca.  Just like that.

We’ve Had This Jar for some time now.  Possibly for as long as a year.  Probably.  I don’t know how long raw coffee beans retain their integrity.  Do they lose their oils after a year?  I haven’t yet looked this up on Wikipedia and furthermore decided a couple of weeks ago that it didn’t matter.  Regardless of the viability of our coffee beans, I would attempt to roast them in the spirit of adventure and see where it took me.   Raphael’s brother had shown him how to roast coffee beans in the oven, but I didn’t go that route.  Having just read Maggie’s account of her experience, I decided to go the Ethiopian coffee ceremony route.  This method includes a metal plate, aromatic grasses, and some coals, as well as, I’m sure, other things such as, for example, not a charcoal grill purchased for  $7.00 from a thrift store back in 2001.  I, however, went with the charcoal grill which was readily available and skipped the grass, as grass is generally not as available in my desert backyard. 

Suffice to say, my first three attempts produced a metal griddle full of blackened and cracked coffee beans.  And I haven’t yet made the fourth attempt which will involve either cooler coals or a stove and I’m not sure which yet, but you will, of course, be involved.

In the meantime, let’s return to the part where we talk about how coffee grows in Raphael’s aunt’s backyard.  I’m not entirely sure why I’m so enamored of this idea that a person could grow coffee in their backyard in places other than Tucson.  After all, coffee plants have pretty red berries and glossy leaves, and it’s not uncommon to find them used as an ornamental shrubs in Central America. But I have an idea that it’s because I’m relatively easily stirred (emotionally speaking – no creamer jokes, please) by things I find unfamiliar, unexpected, and beautiful.

Antigua, Guatemala. Aurora’s house is not shown in this picture, but it’s not too far from here.

Plot Be Damned, here’s my story on the subject:  Raphael’s Tia Aurora – his aunt – lives in the Spanish Colonial city of Antigua, in a beautiful old house with a front façade of crumpled and age-darkened gold paint.  Her gold house is one bright block in a long row of connected rainbow-colored houses whose front doors all open right onto the cobblestone street. 

The last time we visited, it was Christmastime, and so a blue enamel bucket of tamales wrapped neatly in glossy, dark green packets of banana leaves sat on the kitchen floor and more cooked in a big black, leaf-lined pot in the yard over a pile of ashy coals.  Aurora is known for her tamales; Raphael’s mother makes special trips to her sister’s house from Guatemala City to pick up tamales for the holiday meals her family shares in those dark first hours of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 

While Raphael and his aunt sat at the dining room table – in a three-walled dining room open on the fourth side to the elements – I wandered around the walled-in yard that stretches away from the house and overflowed at that time, even in the dry season, with verdant growth.  I examined the tamale-cooking system and passed through the long, narrow yard along a shadowed dirt path littered with pale dropped petals.  Sun-dappled ferns and tough fringed leaves as long as my legs, browned and fraying at the tips, extended from a tangle of growth into the space carved through the vegetation by the path. 

That yard burst with ruffled, exotic-looking plants, and I touched and smelled and photographed it all – the illuminated complexity of pink and coral roses tucked into bushes taller than me; slender-petaled orange bird-of-paradise flowers with spiky purple hearts nearly translucent in the light.  There were rubbery, yellow-tipped combs of brilliant red heliconia; thin, papery fuchsia bougainvillea; long scarlet clusters of wild poinsettias with imperfectly spaced, fluttering, knife-like petals.  When I returned to the porch, Raphael and his aunt told me the names of the things I didn’t recognize. 

At the back of the yard, Aurora had put in plants with clusters of firm, dusky red and green berries clinging to willowy branches.   Once I found out what they were – coffee plants, of course – it struck me like a quick, quiet little miracle how fortunate I was to be in place where color hangs off the trees all year long; where poinsettias – those holiday things that come packaged in foil-wrapped pots in the stores – grow wild and lanky; where houses are lavender and teal and orange and rose and old; where the dining room is open to the luxurious, drenching rain when it comes; and where someone can plant coffee trees in the yard just because they’re beautiful.

How to keep your own pot of coffee...plant.


bake the bread, fly the kites, pickle the salad

In Guatemala, the dead apparently prefer a nice pickled salad.

The other day, I posted a thing where I listed a number of food items that people in Mexico prepare for their dead on Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead. Here’s a compelling excerpt:

…people leave favorite foods on altars or at the graves of their ancestors that include nuts and fruits, chocolate and tequila, moles and tamales, atole (a sweet, thick corn drink), sugar skulls decorated with jewel-colored icing, and pan de muerto – a sweet, egg-based bread that can be flavored with anise seed, cinnamon, and orange…

My boyfriend, Raphael, grew up in the largest city in Guatemala and therefore can’t speak for how people celebrate in the more rural areas (with the notable exception of how in one particular town, they fly kites “as big as our house” on the Day of the Dead), but his family brought none of the above-listed items to their family tomb on Dia de los Muertos and in fact rarely visited the tomb on that particular day at all.
For the most part, his family shared food and prayer at home rather than at the cemetery. Raphael’s Aunt Aurora, however, who lives in Antigua, went to a big Mass on Day of the Dead and then to the cemetery bearing wreaths and carnations she purchased at the market and armfuls of flowers from her backyard – bird of paradise, brilliant red heliconia, orange roses – and on occasion, her nieces and nephews went with her. Raphael remembers the cemetery at those times being so crowded with people picnicking at their family tombs, paying their respects to the dead, offering prayers, and decorating the graves that you had to be watchful for those who would steal flowers and food from your family’s tomb.

According to Raphael’s experience, in Guatemala two dishes in particular are prepared especially for Dia de Los Muertos. Cabacera, or chilacayote, is pumpkin cooked with cinnamon and clove and a dark brick of molasses until a syrup forms, and fiambre is a uniquely Guatemalan dish that is essentially a pickled salad made over the course of two to five days. Fiambre combines vegetables and all kinds of sausages and salted meats with capers and olives and cheese – queso duro, a crumbly white cheese, or queso kraft (which is exactly what you suspect it is), arranged atop the salad in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. At the cemetery, plates of fiambre and chilacayote are placed on the tomb while everyone picnics nearby.

When I asked Raphael about making fiambre, I was assured that this is simply not within the realm of possibility. Fiambre takes years to perfect. Currently, Raphael has one sister (out of five) who makes fiambre. And it took this sister decades to work it out. And I don’t have a Guatemalan mamacita to teach me all the ins and outs. And you can’t make it if it’s not Dia de Los Muertos, which it just practically never is.

Despite the seeming direness of the fiambre situation, we actually have a recipe for fiambre at home. I will include the recipe below with the caveats that I have not yet actually used it to achieve fiambre and that, if Raphael is to be believed, you apparently attempt fiambre at your own risk.

I’ve copied the recipe exactly as written. I particularly like the section on “Decoration” which I think you should try reading as a Beat poem.

Fiambre(From Kitchen Fiesta, 1981 Revised Edition, published by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Union Church, Guatemala, C.A.)

Note: this dish must be started a day in advance

luncheon tongue (plain or corned) – cut in squares.
Chicken boiled with necessary seasoning – deboned and separated in small pieces
Pork loin – cooked and cut in small pieces
Beef (corned or plain) – cooked and cut in small pieces
Ham – cut in small pieces
Sardines or mackeral (whichever preferred)
Sausages – highly flavored Italian Type – two or three different kinds as particularly preferred
frankfurters may be included, cut in slices

These vegetables (below) cut in small pieces, should be cooked the previous day in salt water, covered with sauce (after cooked) and allowed to marinate. (See below for sauce.) Keep in refrigerator to be thouroughly chilled. Retain to one side some of the vegetables (before marinating) for decoration.
string beans

This is made by grinding on a grinding stone (which is an intrinsic part of all Guatemalan Kitchens); could probably be done in electric blender.
Parsley (2-3 little bunches)
Green onions (2-3 little bunches)
1/4 cup mustard seed
3 chiles morrones (slightly piquant)
2 oz. capers
1 tsp. ginger powder (or if available 2 pieces ginger root, fresh) Mustard (English powdered) or French

After grinding above to a paste, add vinegar and oil to make salad sauce. Salt to taste.

Following day, meat and vegetables which have been well chilled are mixed together and additional oil or vinegar added as desired. Also add to this mixture 2 oz. capers.

Put aside a few of the sardines.

Keep certain pieces of chicken, sausage, tongue, ham. Pickles, capers, olives, radishes. Pieces of fresh cheese. Can of chili pimento. Vegetables – carrots and beets (cut in decorative figures). Small pieces of cauliflower. Cocktail onions (may also be placed in salad). Slices of hardboiled eggs, parsley and anchovy.

After salad mixture has been placed on a platter over lettuce leaves, all of the above mixture of decorations is arranged decoratively over the platter. Sprinkle with powdered cheese.”