Tamales and Friendship: Food as a Gift

Written by Kelly Wilson //

Splat. Thump, thump, thump… Splat. Thump, thump, thump. Today is Saturday, and these are the sounds of tamal assembly. Doña Estela fills the leaves with atole and recado, then plops a pork chunk and red pepper sliver on top, wraps them securely, and hands them to me to tie. And again the next Saturday, this time we cook inside the sewing room because it is too cold in the galera. We fill, wrap, and tie our tamales. Every Saturday the pile of tamales grows higher, about 50 to 60 each time to sell to Doña Estela’s clients. Week after week, my hands learn the rhythm of the knots and my heart ties itself closer to hers, poco a poco.

In his book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Norman Wirzba states, “Food is a gift of love” (11). And indeed it is. A gift from God to creation, a gift born from the care of soil and sustained by sunlight. Food is a gift crafted from years of tradition and innovation and miraculously shared together, nourishing bodies and souls. Doña Estela, my host mom in Tecpán, Guatemala, has given me this gift through the cooking and eating of food.

I came to Guatemala six months ago to work as an agricultural consultant with the non-profit organization, Wuqu’ Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance (MHA), supporting the planning and design of a pilot homegardens program and research study. Guatemala has a rich food culture, rooted in diverse microclimates and a living history of indigenous Mayan peoples. However, the country is characterized by high rates of chronic malnutrition, with a 46.5% prevalence of stunting in children under five nationally that reaches as high as 70% to 90% in rural, indigenous municipalities (World Food Programme). In response, MHA has spent over a decade developing and conducting a home based, Mayan language nutrition intervention to reduce both acute and chronic malnutrition in children under the age of two. To continue improving their program, MHA has decided to investigate the impact of adding a pilot home gardens component to their direct nutrition care, which we hope will increase access to fruits and vegetables for household consumption. With the nutrition-home gardens team, I have spent the past several months conducting a community appraisal and defining the home gardens program design. We certainly hope that these gardens and the interactions we have with mothers and children would be one small step on the road to abundance in situations wherein it is not uncommon to eat a meal consisting of only tortillas with salt.

While tackling questions of the most culturally appropriate, low-input ways to grow food in the altiplano at work, I have been most intimately involved with food and its life-giving power at home with Doña Estela. Her relationship with food and identity as a cook is perhaps best encapsulated in her question, “¿Y no hay día de cocineras?” or “Is there a ‘Cook’s Day?’” in response to a family conversation about how there is a day for everything. Younger women relied on her expertise when she directed the efforts to cook a funeral meal for upwards of 300 people. The food she offers on market days sells out every time. And of course there is the weekly tamal operation, which confirms to the family and all her clients that it really is Saturday once again.

Justice, as I understand it, both enacts and reflects right relationships with God and all members of creation. I have found that through food, through this gift of love, trust and friendship was born between Doña Estela and I. In accepting her first invitation to tie tamales, a relationship of presence began. Soon I was helping chop vegetables for the rice on Sundays, trying and failing to form tortillas, and flipping plátanos maduros in hot oil. After meals, we stayed at the table to talk longer about life’s joys and hardships. She shared about her Catholic faith, her family struggles, hopes she had for her children, and her participation in the church. It is through small moments like these that I witness the first fruits of Psalm 85:

Love and faithfulness meet together;
    justice and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
    and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
   and our land will yield its harvest.

My hope and prayer as I leave Guatemala is that the Lord would keep giving what is good to Doña Estela and those she feeds, and that the land would yield its harvest in the future home gardens of the altiplano, giving the gift of food to those who cultivate them.

Wirzba, Norman. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
World Food Programme. “WFP Guatemala Country Brief.” 2018. PDF file. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000071953/download/?_ga=2.97239967.1845870512.1532123987-126195776.1532123987.


Kelly Wilson graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in Environmental Science and a certificate in Human Needs and Global Resources in 2016. She spent the following year as an agricultural intern at ECHO in Fort Myers, Florida. During her six months in Guatemala, she managed to achieve making a pixtoncito, a smaller, thicker version of a tortilla that women apparently used to send with their husbands to the fields.

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