One amazing aspect of living in Chocó is witnessing the community and work ethic among the church ladies. The hermanas are organized, both within each church and regionally, and they frequently hold church events and head up projects for the community. Funding these events is more than a matter of simply adding “Women’s Ministry” as a church’s budget line item; it is a matter of working together and finding creative ways to gain resources. They make lunches to sell after church services, arriving in the church’s basement kitchen at dawn to chop enormous quantities of vegetables and hand squeeze gallons of orange juice. They sell mazamorra, a corn-based drink, in small plastic cups. They also make one of my favorite Chocoano foods: pasteles, which are kind of like tamales but with a rice base instead of corn.
Back in October – which shows how much I’ve procrastinated in terms of blog writing – I had the privilege of helping make pasteles for a fundraiser for some good cause, though I forget which. The process from beginning to end took about eight hours, and approximately seven women were involved at some point or another in the work.
First things first: meet Yineth (pronounced like “Jeannette”). She’s the woman on the right in the bright yellow dress. She is a powerhouse of a worker and the former president of the regional ladies’ ministry. Wherever and whenever there is an event, she is there before, during, and after – preparing and planning, encouraging, accomplishing amazing things like cooking for 300 people over a fire by the side of the river, and cleaning up afterwards. She is one of those people who spills over with positive energy and makes you feel lighter and better upon greeting. She also runs a bakery, which is where we made the pasteles.
Here are the steps for making pasteles, as extracted from my experience that day:
Step 1: Be ordered to go buy the ingredients. Protest because, well, you don’t know what the ingredients are, and secondly because you know you will buy, heaven forbid, the wrong brand of spice packet or something.
Step 2: Go around with the expert and buy the correct ingredients. Forever be recognized and treated better by various vendors for having been seen shopping with Yineth.
Step 3: Back at the bakery, prep and clean the veggies.
Step 4: Chop the veggies into tiny pieces. I’ve learned that there are specific ways that they must be chopped, and have had my chopped-up carrots or onions rejected and/or laughed at for being apparently ridiculously chopped over the past year here.
Step 8: Prepare the guavina (similar to banana) leaves by wiping each one with a damp cloth. Then tear each into two pieces, one larger than the other, by folding, twirling the stem several times, and pulling apart with oomph.
Step 9: It’s now time to assemble the pasteles. Place the larger part of the leaf on the bottom, the smaller part of the leaf on top of that, and layer with a scoop of the rice and veggie mixture, a piece of cooked chicken, and top with another scoop of rice mixture.
Accompanying the women of the church in their often labor-intensive efforts has been an education for me. Going down to the basement during a church service to help dice vegetables or make juice and talking with the women often ministers to my soul in a way that the sermon tends not to. The food is important, but so is the process: these are dishes meant to be created and eaten with love, time, laughter, and many hands.