Chapter 1: Chicharones

November 29, 2010

Last week I watched a volcano erupt from my hammock chair on a terrace in Antigua, Guatemala.  Who says “bano compartido” has to be low-class?  Thanksgiving week was a perfect time to visit Guatemala, no tourists, beautiful weather, and bananas and coconuts are always in season.

What we didn’t know was that Thanksgiving week is also the short harvest season of the disappearing “maize negro” or black corn.  Though we were only in town for a wedding, I slipped into a small, slow-food adventure with chicharonero and his Quachiquel bride in their milpa (small corn field) in Chimaltenango, just outside of Antigua.  But first, we had to have chicharon.

When our friend insisted we stop for chicharones (fried pork fat) on our way to his house at the beach (for breakfast), I looked at my husband and cringed.  When I promised my Dr. I wouldn’t eat street food on this trip, this is exactly what I promised not to do.   We knew we had a long standing invitation with Senior Chicharon, who years ago invited us to stop by his “kitchen” on the side of the coastal highway, but we really thought we would easily dodge that bullet.  Wrong.

We were immediately served plates of hot fried pork fat and fried bits of meat along with a salad of cucumber, onion and radish and a stack of hot corn tortillas and a bowl of sliced lime.  Dona Chicharona ladled hot instant coffee from a pot over an open flame into small styrofoam cups.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the chicharones were excellent.  Cooked in an enormous kettle full of generations of bubbling pork fat, the crispy pieces of fat were tender and just salty enough.  The chef joined us at the table and told us how bus loads of tourists (from El Salvador, not the states) also stop and buy huge quantities of chicharon to take home.  He patted his fat cheeks and said, “today, we make mejia!” Darn, we just missed being treated to pork cheeks and fried ears.  Maybe next time!

Turns out this road side chef has a passion for good food and the preservation of national culture.  He told of how he collects “corte” or traditional dress from different Mayan tribes, he tries to remember all the Quachiquel his wife teaches him, and he tries to buy produce and meats from local producers. He lamented it was getting harder and harder to find black corn for black tortillas, that the cultivation was being lost among the upcoming generation.  “I tried to plant some myself, but it’s all coming up yellow and white.  I’m a business man, not a farmer, but you should come to my house and we’ll grill fresh corn from the milpa by my house!”  Boiling pigs fat I could pass on, but fresh grilled corn, count me in! We set a date for Monday afternoon.

"Don Chicharon" shows off the pig's face he will fry today.

His son stirs a boiling batch of menudo with a wooden paddle.