Food for Family – Part II

    There was a bustle of activity going on in Eloisa’s yard. Sounds of children shrieking and shouting, loud male laughter carrying in the air, and the chatter of women meant that a small party was underway in the oldest couple’s home. The sun had risen only a few hours ago over the valley, and a cool breeze kept the leaves rustling overhead. Two long tables had been set up under the massive avocado trees, and standing around one of them were Eloisa, her baby sister Luisa, Elena, Anastasia, Juliana and Carla. Their sisters-in-law Judith and Paula joined them at the table, preparing what seemed like a mountain of onions.

    Luisa’s face was shiny with tears as the onions stung at her mercilessly. Eloisa laughed at her tears, and teased her of being jealous – the common myth of tears when peeling onions. They all laughed as they were together for a wonderful day of feasting and laughter. Two sisters peeled onions, while another washed and trimmed oregano leaves, then took over masa duty. As Luisa’s husband Elias brought over some sour oranges he’d picked from the tree, another sister took charge of slicing them and another juiced it. Judith, heavily pregnant with her first child, was relegated to making juice for drinking. Oranges were halved and squeezed under her strong fingers, and sweet juice dripped into the waiting pitchers.

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    Paula had corralled the younger children, keeping them under her watchful care, while she kept the chatter going with her large bevy of sisters. In her hands were tender ears of corn that required shucking. She peeled, her mouth moving much faster than her hands, but regaling everyone with her outrageous stories and jokes.

    Eloisa stopped guiding her sisters and moved towards the chicken coop. In there, some chickens rustled uneasily. They had a sense of foreboding, knowing that for a few of them, the morning’s sunrise had been their last. Julio and Antonio, her two sons, joined her at the door of the coop. They knew their job, and their other cousins watched breathlessly as they waited for the show to begin. The men had prepared a large fire in Eloisa’s kitchen, and water boiled away in two giant pots. There was also water in two smaller cauldrons. Eloisa’s husband Noel waited with a sharpened machete, at the tree stump that was stained burgundy with a macabre history.

    Julio reached in and grabbed two chickens immediately. Antonio, a year younger than him, had to chase around the other two as the squawking and flapping of wings of the first ones alerted the remaining fowls. The smaller cousins all giggled and clapped with glee, rushing to the area of excitement, watching as poor Antonio ran around chasing after the two chickens he was meant to catch for his mama. Feathers flew, and the noise was deafening as all the other chickens ran around avoiding his roving hands. Finally, he was able to grab one, and as he held her down in one arm, the other flew by him and he lucked out and grabbed her. His cousins yelled and clapped as he came out of the coop with two struggling hens. His mother smiled and ruffled his hair, and then, on a whim, she headed in the coop herself, grabbing another two chickens – there were a lot of mouths to feed, and four chickens would not be enough.

    All three trooped to the tree stump, where Noel waited with his machete. The shiny sharpened edge glinted in the sunshine, and the six poor hens awaited their fate. The machete swung in the air, making a swooshing sound and then a crack as the blade landed so fast and hard it embedded into the stump. The children ran away from the area as blood spurted everywhere, and the first chicken started jumping around, dancing the dance of death. Again and again, Noel’s machete swung in the air, until all six chickens lay in a pool of their blood, and no more life remained. From there, the other men worked quickly, having poured the boiling water into three buckets. Two chickens got dipped into each bucket, and the boiling water set to work, softening their skins and loosening the feathers for easy plucking.

    The men stationed themselves at the second table, joining their wives and sisters, helping to make the meal for their large and very hungry family. Feathers easily came off under their strong hands, and soon the chickens were bald and plucked. Even the thick yellow skin on the chicken’s feet easily rolled off like socks. Having already finished the other preparations, the ladies then took over the chickens. In swift movements, Luisa sliced open the cavity, sticking in her hands and feeling the warm contents of the chicken. Deftly, she reached as far in, and with one swift tug, she pulled out all its entrails. Some of the curious children watched in morbid fascination as one by one, sets of entrails landed in a large bowl. Anastasia’s six-year-old daughter Elisa bravely poked at one the sets of guts, and to her surprise, saw some yellow globules. As her mother placed the last bit of guts in the bowl, they all saw the fully formed egg. They poked at the contents of the bowl, and picked out all the sacks of eggs, not wanting to waste what was a truly delicious and rich protein.

    Again, the men took over, as they started roasting the chickens on the flames of the fire hearth. Flames sizzled and a delicious smell of roasting flesh filled the air. The kids were coaxed into washing down the table where the chickens were washed, and as they splashed and giggled, their mothers and aunts took the onions, oregano, sour orange juice and tortilla masa over to where the fire roared. Three chickens were placed in each of the cauldrons, infusing the water with their smoky flavor, softening and cooking, mingling with some of the fresh oregano leaves, making a delicious broth that would eventually get flavored with sour orange juice and black peppercorns.

    A lot of corn tortillas had to be prepared, so three of the husbands brought over the fresh-washed table where a few of the women could pat out several tortillas at a time, and time would not be wasted. Thankfully, Eloisa had a large fire hearth, her kitchen being the largest of the sisters’. There was enough space to keep two cauldrons bubbling away, breaking down the chicken slightly, and with her large comal, plus the three others that the other sisters had brought over, lunch would be ready in no time.

    The children played games of catch, and soon the fathers and uncles had been roped into chasing around with them. The women smiled happily as they chattered, four of them rolling out flat disks of corn dough, and two more tending to them as they were placed on the comal, cooking through to deliciously puffed perfection. Stacks of tortillas grew high, and the smells from the kitchen made stomachs growl. Judith ambled to where her sisters were, wishing they would let her join in. She knew they were being nice to her, and didn’t grudge her not working as hard. There was no harder worker than Judith, and when it came to cooking, her meals were just as delicious as the best of them, Eloisa. Today though, she longed to help, for this meal was her favorite: Escabeche. With its pungent broth of smoky chicken and tart soup, along with that sweetness of the onions, there was no meal quite like it for her. She had been craving this meal, and to enjoy it with the rest of the family like this made her smile. Her smile turned into a quick grimace as she felt a growing pain in the small of her back. She rubbed the area, hoping it would hold off for a while yet.

    Eloisa watched her sister-in-law, keeping a close eye on her for the day. She left the other three sisters to finish the mountain of tortillas for the meal, and she headed to tend the chickens. They had softened enough, and after removing them from the cauldrons, used a large fork and knife to cut them into manageable pieces. She smiled at Judith, and let her add the onions to the cauldrons. Instantly, a cloud of pungent onion steam perfumed the air. Luisa’s eyes watered again, making the other women laugh at her. She loved the meal they were making, but the onions got to her every time. Eloisa had finished cutting the chicken, and she also added them to the cauldrons. Between her and Judith, they added sour orange juice and salt to the pots, tasting and adjusting until it was the perfect balance of tart. Slightly cracked black peppercorns were added for some spice, and then the covers went on so the chickens could continue to absorb all the medley of flavors.

    Noel came over to sniff the air, and Eloisa had him get the children to help bring out bowls from inside their house. The other husbands brought out chairs, and even some tree trunks for the children to sit around and eat. Elias sat his son Angel down on one of the trunks to wait for his meal. The tortillas were finished, the ladies rinsed their hands, and quickly bowls were filled with steaming escabeche. Children sat down, some in the grass while they used their makeshift chairs as a platform to hold their hot soup. Each wife filled their husbands’ bowls with lots of good meat and onions. A large stack of tortillas was placed before them under the avocado tree, and they devoured their meal happily. Before the women could begin eating, they helped Paula put one of the large pots filled with salted water on the fire. With all of them working together, the heap of freshly shucked corn went in, to cook as everyone ate lunch. After they ate, there would be fresh boiled corn to savor with lime and salt, or plain and sweet.

    For several moments, there was only silence as everyone enjoyed their hard-earned lunch. The leaves rustled overhead as a cooling breeze blew over everyone. Angel, having filled his little belly with warm soup, felt his eyelids grow heavy. His big cousin Antonio watched him slowly slip into sleep, and he got up to take him off the trunk and lay him down in the cool grass. The men spoke amongst themselves, laughing and looking over at their wives. The women wondered idly what they spoke of; making jokes of what they imagined was being said. Overall, there was an air of contentment as everyone ate to their fill. Anastasia’s rather rotund husband Mauro got up to refill his bowl, and she smiled that he was pleased with his food.

    Judith felt the pain in her back again, and she knew her time had come. Her baby was ready to join the Tzib clan, and she couldn’t have chosen a better day than today to have her baby. She was in good hands.

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