While we’ve been camping for weeks, my aunts and uncles have been busy at our house, washing and drying the stocks that arrived weekly, packing them in clean sacks. Our final batch arrived on our worn horses, pulling the last cartload of earthy produce. I often sat atop the sacks, burrowed down against my mother’s lap as we jostled down the dirt roads and slopes on our way home.
We helped to unload the heavy sacks, rolling them off the cart and gently pushing them through the storeroom door. We unpacked our dirty clothes, soaking them so that the next day, laundry would be easier to handle. Our first real bath in familiar surroundings often took a good hour, as we brushed and scrubbed ourselves down, glad not to have to go back to the bush. Rubbing alcohol often got rubbed all over my skin, with my mother being careful to hit all the areas that ticks particularly enjoyed hiding in. Bed was a wonderful place, and usually, I was not woken up at the first ray of sunshine. We all would sleep until the morning birdsong was long over, even my father would still be snoring by the time Mother stirred and stoked the fire, putting the first of the weekly cooking items on: beans, corn for masa, and of course, sweet rainwater for our morning coffee.
Her sounds would wake me as she kneaded the flour for our fry jacks. Fry jacks were a favorite after our arrival home. While I brushed my teeth and splashed water on my face, I would wander under the avocado tree, looking for the ripe ones that had fallen down during the night. These avocados were buttery and rich, and went well with a few eggs and cheese. The chickens in their coop squawked that new fresh eggs awaited us, so I also let them out of their coop, picking up their offerings to add to our morning feast. I then joined her, helping by making the coffee with the hot water in a large mug, milky and sweet just as well loved it. I always saved a big mug of hot black coffee for Father, who preferred the bitter brew as is.
After eating our fill, we all knew we had a long day of work ahead.
Father checked the bags that had been stacked with clean fresh peanuts, feeling deep inside the bags, testing that they had been properly dried. One wet peanut could bring on mold for the entire sack, and ruin all that hard work. While he tested the product, Mother began her washing, tossing the dirty water our work clothes had soaked in, and pouring fresh buckets of water in her tubs, beginning the long process of scrubbing and rinsing.
I prepared tubs of water as well, ready to start the process of cleaning our final batch of peanuts with my father. He would bring one sack at a time, pouring its contents into the first water bath. I often began the washing process with great enthusiasm, plunging my hands all the way up to my forearms, swishing the peanuts around, pulling out my hands and grabbing fistfuls of the nuts, rubbing them to ensure the dirt fell off. The water soon turned black as the dirt washed off and landed at the bottom of the tub, but still the peanuts were swished around, the sound of them rubbing against each other taking on a soothing shake-shake rhythm. I can remember the smell of that wet dirt mixed with the peanuts’ shells, a strong scent that takes me back to the mountains and those hot days of hard work, interspersed with idyllic afternoons working with our hands.
While I scrubbed and washed, my father was laying out tarps out in the full sun, ready for us to lay out the newly clean peanuts to dry naturally. After the first wash, which was mostly dirt removal, the proper wash took place in the second tub of clean water. While Father poured a new batch of dirty peanuts in the first tub, I rinsed the first batch that I had transferred to the second tub. Using a big colander, I’d scoop out big bowlfuls of peanuts, draining them before spreading them out on the tarps to dry. Each sack went through the same process, and while we washed and rinsed, Mother was doing the same. By the time the final scoops of peanuts were being spread out to dry, she was carrying baskets of clean clothes to pin on the line. Above, the sun was shining on a cloudless sky, and it was only a matter of heat and wind that would take care of our efforts.
With a rake in hand, my father and I would man the peanuts, shooing the chickens away from the tasty nuggets, and raking them to get them all properly dried in the sunshine. Our ears were also tuned to the nearest mountain, where the slow rush-rush sound of incoming rain gave us a head start to pick in our laundry and produce. Very rarely did we have to rush and pick in the half-dry legumes and clothing, and soon, after a few days of sunning, the peanuts were ready to be packed.
My father often saved about two sacks to roast, and it was a great event with the family. My aunts and uncles would join us in the evening of the roasting, helping to build a great fire. We had a drum kitted out to fit over stakes while lying on its side, ready to spin and evenly roast the peanuts while the fire licked at the drum’s sides. My uncles brought some of their own peanuts, and my aunts joined my mother in the kitchen, preparing sugar and butter for some peanut candy. But my favorite was always my mother’s salted peanuts. She prepared a super salty water bath, and next to it was her trusty old tin pan.
After the first batch of peanuts had roasted, my father and uncles taking turns spinning the drum while enduring the fierce fire’s heat, a batch would be scooped out for my mother to immediately dunk into the salty water. It would sizzle, steam rising as the hot shells hit the cold salt bath. Quickly, Mother would plunge her hands in the now warm water, sloshing the peanuts around to coat them fully with the salted water, then pulling them out and dropping them into her old pan. With a few folded towels as pot holders, she would start re-roasting the peanuts over the fire, the heat drying the shells. After the water had evaporated, only the salt remained stuck hard on the shell, ready for popping into our mouths. After licking off all the salt, we would then crack the shells and pull out the peanuts to eat. YUM!
One of my uncles would cool his batch of peanuts, bagging them into 25c, 50c, and $1 bags to sell all the way in Belize City. His wife shelled a lot of peanuts too, taking off the red skin as best as possible then dropping them in the sticky caramel made from sugar and butter, then rolling them flat out into sheets to cut into small pieces for sale. I often sat with a handful of my mother’s salted peanuts, helping her to shell a fresh roasted batch, peeling off the red skins on each nut (easiest done by peeling off the shell, then plunging both hands into the bowl and rubbing together until the red skin flaked off).
With a hand cranked mill (often used to grind cooked corn into masa/dough), it was often up to me to grind the naked peanuts into a butter. It’s surprising how many peanuts go into making a small amount of butter, but it is oh-so-delicious! Not too smooth, and not chunky, the peanut butter had a bite to it. Mother would add a little bit of salt into the butter, then my favorite: honey! Mixed in with the small sprinkle of the salt, the honey brought out a delicious flavor to our very own homemade peanut butter, and for the days ahead, whenever I spread a dollop on a freshly baked hot flour tortilla, I would think of the night when the peanuts rolled around in their drum, roasting over a sweltering fire, my aunts and uncles all in our yard, each making their own peanut specialty. For that particular stretch of time, all was well with the world – there was no shouting, no tears, no pain, no anger. There was only our little family unit, joined by others in unity to share the bounty that we had worked so hard on.
So, yes, when my little adopted brother brought in a bag of the roasted peanuts as a present, I knew it went beyond just a present. Because so much goes into making each batch, every single bite is that much more delicious, knowing where it comes from.
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