Chakoh squatted beside the meager fire and laid a package on the dirt floor.
“Ay, yi! Food!” But Esteban’s expectant grin faded as Chakoh unwrapped the dirty matting. “Fish bones.”
“Hush!” Chakoh glanced fearfully at the hut door. “We’re lucky to have them. I buried them long ago to keep them from being stolen.”
“To be sure. We’ve already found it safer to eat meat raw. Try to cook it and someone steals it from the spit before your nose has filed with the smell.”
Meat…Chakoh sighed at the thought of that rare food. Of any food. Half of his fish bones he’d given to his parents. It was all any of them would have that day. Perhaps for many days.
Esteban lifted one of the three fish skeletons gingerly between his huge fingers.
“And how do we eat this magnificent banquet?”
“We grind them between stones and lick the dust from our hands. It isn’t much but it may keep us from starving.”
“To be sure.” Esteban sighed heavily.
We recently read Walk the World’s Rim by Betty Baker. It is the story of a friendship between a 14-year-old Native American boy, Chakoh, and Esteban, a slave traveling with a small group of Spanish explorers. Chakoh leaves his homeland among the Gulf Coast Avavare people to join what remains of Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition through the Southwest and Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca’s life was crazy. Read a little about it here.
The Spaniards and Esteban are cautiously accepted by the native peoples because they assume the roles of medicine men. Chakoh’s contact with outsiders whets his appetite to learn about the Spanish god and try to save his people from the Spirit-of-Misfortune (basically, starvation). As he journeys, he gains perspectives from other native peoples and the Spaniards.
Chakoh is lured into complacency in Mexico. He is well fed for the first time in his life; he becomes distracted from his purpose. Esteban—sold into slavery as a boy to save his family—understands the value of freedom and autonomy. He points out Chakoh’s increasing dependency upon the Spaniards. There are worse things than hunger, Esteban urges. His strength and integrity challenges Chakoh’s simplistic notions about slaves. Ultimately, Chakoh honors Esteban’s life by returning to his people, armed with new skills that help his people to better nourish themselves.
The book explores complicated concepts: the clash of cultures, faith, culture, freedom, integrity, slavery and purpose. Like travel, sharing stories with my girls leads us to complicated and interesting ideas, and gives us enjoyable ways to talk about them. (Well, that’s how I see it, anyway.)
Per my custom, I pick a baking project inspired by stories we read. I picked corn tortillas for this one. They represent Mexico, the seat of Spanish power at the time, the place that lures Chakoh away from his people. (If you’ve ever eaten a not-from-a-store, freshly made homemade corn tortilla, then you understand just how compelling they can be.)
I’ve made flour tortillas before, but this was my first attempt at corn. It was easier than I thought. I used the tortilla press I’ve owned four whole years but hadn’t taken out of the box. I could use that gadget more. Not just for tortillas. A cool new cookbook I have suggests tortilla presses can also be used for some crackers, flatbreads, pasta, pizza dough, dumpling wrappers, and tartlets. It takes me awhile to get around to these projects, but when I do, I enjoy them.
I’m signing off now, because it’s time for breakfast, and my leftover corn tortillas should make tastier-than-average huevos rancheros.
Happy Holidays, friends! I hope you are slowing down, resting, enjoying time with your loved ones, and that 2017 is full of blessings and new adventures.