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Cooking Lessons

Gales of laughter fill the warm Denver night as we Spanish-language-challenged Americanas try to converse with Ann María Piña, the small, sturdy woman teaching us to cook Yucatán style. Her daughter Mariana tells us, between giggles, that we have just asked how to wrestle the pig.

The two Mexican women are from Progresso, a small coastal town on the northwestern tip of the Yucatán peninsula. Mariana is here to study English; Ann María is watching over her, at nineteen the youngest of her ten children. My friend Robin is their host and our translator. She has known the Piña family for over 20 years from regular visits to their hometown. And the rest of us are here tonight to learn something new, sitting in Robin's kitchen, drinking cold glasses of Late Harvest Riesling, and fumbling our way through the art of wrapping bright red marinated chicken pieces in banana leaves.

Ann María has already shown us how to make her regional variation of guacamole. "Aguacate, lima, pimienta, cebolla, cilantro," she'd said, mashing the ingredients together with a wooden spoon.

"Avocado, lime, black pepper, onion, cilantro," Robin said, as we wrote fastidiously in our notebooks. We felt smug that we already knew the last ingredient.

"No garlic?" Sharon asked.

"Ajo?" Robin turned to Ann María.

"No. Aguacate, lima, pimienta, cebolla, cilantro," she said again, emphasizing each ingredient with a pat of her small, coffee-colored hand on the table.

We got it. After tasting it, we knew we'd never put ajo or anything else but those five simple ingredients into guacamole again.

We've also learned to make sopa de lima, a savory lime and chicken soup topped with corn tortillas, and two interesting main dishes from the Yucatán region: calabaza rellenos, hollowed-out zucchinis stuffed with ground turkey, rice, olives, and vegetables; and pollo en salsa verde, grilled chicken in a spicy tomatillo sauce. We've gotten pretty good at naming the ingredients in Spanish, because it seems Yucatán food recycles the same ones—tomato, green pepper, onion and cilantro—over and over, with surprisingly varied tastes.

Now, for the main event, we each sit with a twelve-inch-square banana leaf in front of us. Ann María eyes them suspiciously, walks around the table, turning over the ones that don't seem to be the right way up, though to us they look the same either way. She demonstrates, lifting a chicken thigh, well coated in recado rojo (also known as achiote—a mixture of annato seed, garlic, cumin, pepper, and vinegar) and placing it in the center of a leaf. Then she picks up a slice of tomato. "Tomate," we obediently recite and she nods, placing it on the chicken. Next, she lifts onion. "Cebolla," three out of four of us say. Pam, whom Ann María affectionately calls "Bom," chimes in with "sabarro," sending Mariana and Ann María into peals of laughter. None of us except Robin remembers that a green bell pepper is called chile dulce, sweet pepper. And we end with a resounding "Cilantro!" at the last ingredient.

Ann María's deft hands take two seconds to neatly bundle the chicken, which she places in the top of a steamer pot; baño de María she calls it. Bath of Mary, as in the Virgin. Now it's our turn to giggle. (Earlier, when she was chopping ingredients for the salsa verde, she held up a clove of garlic: "Un diente de ajo," she said. When Robin translated, a tooth of garlic, we laughed with delight. Ann María, enjoying the role of comedian, held up the entire head of garlic, smiling. "Cabeza de ajo." This time Robin laughed. "Si, Ann María. We call it a head of garlic, too.") Although we try to copy her moves in wrapping our chicken pieces, our finished packages are ripped, baggy. Ann María patiently fixes each one, puts them into Mary's bath, and carries the heavy pot to the stove inside.

She is tiny, under five feet tall, but strong. Thick in the middle but not fat. Muscular but slender arms and legs. Her shoulder-length black hair is streaked with silver and frames a well-lined, serene brown face. She wears a dark skirt and rubber thongs, and a floral blouse under her apron. "Buena camisa," I tell her, trying to remember my high school Spanish. She looks amused, and I realize I've told her she has a good shirt. "Muy bonita," I try again, and she nods. "Thank you," she says, looking as embarrassed to be trying English as I am to be attempting Spanish.

Near the end of the evening, we are eyeing the gorgeous dessert. "Flan," we all say knowingly as she lifts it, too, from a water bath and up-ends it onto a plate. "No flan," she says, shaking her head for emphasis. "Queso napolitano." She cuts small wedges, and as our teeth sink into the muy dulce treat, we agree: "No flan." It is denser, more like moist cake than custard. It is delicioso, we tell her, rolling our eyes and moaning at each bite. She seems pleased at our orgasmic enjoyment, and busies herself clearing dishes, rinsing pans, wiping counters until we beg her to sit and enjoy her café and queso.

Mariana turns up the small tape player on the table and Latin music fills the air. Robin moves her hips, then her arms catch the beat. She dances over to Mariana, who is smiling and dancing now, too. We all begin to move something, a hand, a foot, a head; the rhythm is infectious. Ann María smiles, sips her coffee. "Americanas locos," she's probably thinking, but she's one of us now, for this night anyway. It seems we speak the same language after all, the language of women who love to cook, love to eat, love to drink and dance and laugh together in good company.



The Recipes:

Guacamole

6 avocados
Juice from 1/2 lime
Black pepper to taste
1 small onion, minced
1 handful of cilantro, chopped

Peel avocados and remove pits. Combine all ingredients in a glass or ceramic bowl and mash with the back of a spoon, leaving avocado chunky. Return pits of avocados to guacamole to keep it from turning brown.



Sopa de Lima

5 chicken pieces
4 cups water
1/2 onion
4 garlic cloves
1 tomato
1/2 green pepper
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. oregano
Few sprigs of cilantro
Tortilla chips
1 lime

Boil chicken pieces until juices run clear. Remove and dice the meat, returning it to the broth. Grill whole pieces of onion and garlic until slightly blackened in a cast iron pan with no oil. Dice tomato, onion, garlic, and green pepper and sauté in oil, then stir into the chicken broth. Add pepper, chopped cilantro, and oregano and simmer. Before serving, turn heat to low. Slice lime and add 1/2 to broth, simmering for a few more minutes. Garnish with crumbled tortilla chips and fresh slices of lime.



Pollo Pibil (Chicken in Banana Leaves)

1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 package banana leaves (can be found in Asian markets)
1" ball achiote paste (can be found in Mexican markets)
1-2 limes, juiced
1 green pepper
1 tomato
1 onion
20 cilantro sprigs

Mix achiote paste with enough lime juice to coat chicken pieces thoroughly and marinate for 4-5 hours. Cut all vegetables into thin wedges. Tear banana leaves into 12 inch squares and wipe both sides clean. Place one piece of chicken in center of a leaf, add a couple of pieces of each vegetable and a couple sprigs of cilantro. Securely wrap each bundle and place in a steamer pot. Steam for 2 hours.



Queso Napolitano

10 eggs
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
4 tsp. vanilla
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vinegar

Blend first three ingredients in a food processor or blender. Brown the sugar in a skillet with vinegar. Pour sugar mixture into a medium glass or ceramic bowl, then cover with egg mixture. Set in a water bath, using a large pan and 6 cups of water. Cover both the bowl and the pan and cook on medium heat for one hour. Turn the bowl onto a serving plate.



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