In the rare instances when news from Ecuador trickles into the American media, it usually involves strife: another democratically-elected president outsted, indigenous protesters railing against oil companies, etc.
So you can imagine my surprise when my grandmother* recently handed me this week’s New Yorker magazine and said “hey, there’s an article about Ecuador in here.” What’s more, if you have even limited experience with Ecuadorian cuisine, you’ll understand the improbability of this particular article appearing in their annual food issue. And, in one last counter-intutitive twist, the piece actually speaks favorably about the vittles at latitude zero.
The article’s by Calvin Trillin and it’s called “Speaking of Soup.” It’s funny and poignant: Trillin traveled to Cuenca, Ecuador (the city in which I lived for a year) to brush up on his Spanish and undertake a quest to consume numerous bowls of the traditional Ecuadorian soup called fanesca (a dish which, it pains me to say, I’m sure I’ve eaten but simply cannot remember).
Again, the article’s great, but here’re some passages that rang hollow for me:
…All the vegetables and spices required—corn, for instance, and fava beans and a couple of kinds of squash—grow in the area, and some of them apparently don’t make it as far as Guayaquil, which is only thirty minutes away by air. That may be because the distribution system seems to consist largely of indigenous women who come to the market from the countryside, many of them in the bright-colored flared skirts and high-crowned panama hats that can make even a small woman of some years look rather, well, zippy.
(Emphasis mine.) I have to take issue with this last sentence. I’m afraid what we’re seeing from Trillin is a bit of travel writing romanticization. Indigenous women in Ecuador are largely destitute and over-worked and often in ill-health. I have never seen an older indigenous woman look anything close to “zippy,” no matter how colorful her dress.
Also, there’s this:
…We also had long conversations about humitas, which have some resemblance to tamales. Instead of being dough around some central element like pork or chicken, though, humitas are the same all the way through—an astonishingly light concoction of fresh young corn that is ground and mixed with eggs and cheese and butter and anise and a bit of sugar.
Trillin must have tasted humitas that were an order of magnitude better than any of the sort that I ever ingested.
I have particularly vivid memories of a student of mine who once made me a bundle of humitas; she gave them to me after class and I ate them before getting on a five-hour bus ride. They did not settle well. I cut my journey short, checked into a hotel in Loja, and was subsequently wracked by vomiting and diarrhea for twelve long hours.
I ran out of water to drink and, bleary-eyed and weak-legged, made my way out into the street the next morning to find some refreshments. Not half a block from the hotel, a young girl on a fire escape above me dumped a bucket of water on my head. (Ecuadorians douse each other with water in the weeks preceeding carnaval.)
Long story short, when I think of humitas, the words “an astonishingly light concoction of fresh young corn that is ground and mixed with eggs and cheese and butter and anise and a bit of sugar” do not exactly come to mind.
[*My eighty-five-year-old grandmother, Rosina, lives here in the DC area; I often go see her and we have lunch together. She gives me her old Econmist and New Yorker issues which, because she’s a news junkie and has a lot of time on her hands, she usually devours the same day they arrive in the mail. Not only is she more well-versed in current events than anyone I know, but she also pays her bills online is an avid emailer. In short, she kicks ass.]