Monthly Archives: August 2010

Oven can be a verb

A few years ago an anthropologist friend remarked that in the Central American language he was studying, “housing” was a verb, never a noun, and houses always seemed to be growing and changing to fit the families that lived in them. Last week in Ccotatóclla I saw that ovens could also grow and change radically in the course of preparing a meal. I tend to think of ovens as static objects with occasional moving parts. I had never seen someone break a hole their oven to convert it into a stove, or mix cement right on the spot to seal openings in the oven.
It was my compadre Ignacio’s birthday and he wanted to make a chicken and potato roast for his extended family; some of his twelve siblings and their families might stop by for lunch. His mother came over to peel several large pots full of fresh and freeze dried potatoes with his wife and me.
I went outside to take a look at the wathiya, or earth and stone oven he was preparing. It was a long, hardened clay dome right next to the pig pen. He put some branches inside to start a fire, then began hacking at the top of the oven with a pick axe. I was sure he would destroy his oven, but he only cut a hole in the top and placed a large pot of potatoes on it to catch the escaping steam and smoke from the fire inside.
Meanwhile, the burning branches got hotter and turned to coals after about a half hour. I came back outside from peeling more potatoes and noticed that Ignacio had chopped up the ground immediately in front of the stove and was pouring water and mixing the dirt with a shovel to make a thick muddy cement.
When the potatoes were boiled and the branches turned to charcoal inside the oven, Ignacio removed the pot and placed a bunch of rocks over the hole in the top of the oven. He shoveled some mud onto the rocks to seal the hole.
Elena and I had cleaned the chicken and marinated it in a ready-made sauce that the chicken vendor had brought to the house with the meat. Ignacio had washed a piece of corrugated tin and bent it like a giant tray; now he poured cooking oil on it and we placed chicken and potatoes on the tin. He and Elena quickly shoved the tray inside the oven and sealed it with a large rock and more mud.
The earth-oven was sealed tight and we waited another half hour for the chicken and potatoes to roast.
I am not sure which was more wonderful: the aroma of the chicken when it came out of the oven, or the way in which the oven was broken apart, converted into a stove, re-sealed with mud and finally opened again so we could eat.
One of the children quickly wrapped some of the food to share with her uncle’s family next door. I was surprised that no one but Ignacio’s parents and immediate family came by for the feast. He didn’t seem too upset; he said maybe the others hadn’t been able to get up the road due to construction.
For the rest of the afternoon he asked me to shoot photos of himself and his family in traditional clothing, posing outside the house. He wanted some for his daughters to remember this time with, and also a whole series for a political campaign his is about to undertake. After that, he sat down by the fire to tell me stories in Quechua. Elena sat next to him, spinning lamb’s wool into yarn with a simple wooden spindle that looks like a disk with a stick at its center.
That evening several local community leaders stopped by to discuss strategies for their own political campaigns. The rest of the leftover chicken disappeared fast.