Friday, December 18, 2020

La Canasta Basica

About ten years ago, I read an NY Times article about MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) from around the world and how each country's essentials differed so greatly across cultures. That there are culinary differences is certainly no surprise, but I found it fascinating nonetheless that the Brits chose lamb curry, the Germans liverwurst, the Canadians a Swiss steak in Spanish sauce (?) and somehow the U.S. Army figured out how to reduce to powder and then reconstitute the pork rib. I imagined a lot of research went into the selections: the meal had to be nutritious and a dish so commonly favored in said country that it would be appreciated and eagerly consumed in a warzone. It also got me thinking of what food would I take into battle, what would be my go-to basic ration?  Or, forget the war, what is simply my desert island box of food that says HOME to me? A collection of must-haves to keep me healthily and happily fed.  Hmmm...

Last night we received the Salvadoran version from our neighbors.  

It was past 9:00 pm and I was padding off to brush my teeth before bed when the doorbell rang.  It was our 70-something year old neighbors at the front door, smiling through the intercom camera and holding a huge clear plastic tub with a big blue bow on it.  My husband welcomed them in and they proudly presented us with the Christmas Canasta Basica: a tub of nearly 24 pounds of staples and Salvadoran must-haves to see us through the holidays.  

They're a raucous couple, despite (or perhaps because of?) their age and instantly filled our front hallway with simultaneous, full-voiced chatter about the contents of the tub, including pointing out how we could make our own pupusas and tortillas with the pound of corn masa.  They apologized for popping in so late, but they'd been out into the countryside delivering these tubs of necessities to communities in need. But their late night energy really wasn't a surprise as we'd been hearing them gathering with family (or just their loud TV) over our shared courtyard wall for the past few days since they'd returned to their second home from San Francisco after a long pandemic-induced absence.  Although we barely know them, we've now seen their generosity over two holiday seasons, as last year they surprised us with two bottles of wine. Last night, scrambling to reciprocate, my husband produced a bottle of his homemade Kahlua from the kitchen to send them home with. 

This time of year, the grocery stores capitalize on the spirit of the season (the giving spirit and the buying spirit) by pre-packaging tubs of various sizes with assortments of staples so that those that can buy them for those that can't.  Folks pull up to the front of the grocery store so clerks can shuttle dozens of plastic-wrapped baskets and tubs into the backs of SUVs, to be delivered to guards, housekeepers, teachers, gardeners and, apparently, random American neighbors. Just yesterday I saw some day laborers leaving a job site on my street, each with a tub of goodies and big smiles.  The working man's Harry and David gift basket - what a capital idea!

So let's take a peek inside and see what El Salvador considers culinary necessities and holiday treats, shall we?
  • 1 can of sardines
  • 2 liter bottle of Pepsi
  • Large package of chocolate and vanilla sandwich cookies
  • 1 bottle of chile sauce
  • 1 bottle of Salsa Inglesa (like Worcestershire)
  • 1 bottle of cooking oil
  • 1 small bag of corn flakes cereal
  • 2 packages of spaghetti
  • 1 large foil container of frijoles volteados (refried red beans)
  • 1 bag of huge colored marshmallows
  • 1 pound bag of corn masa (flour)
  • 1 small can of sliced jalapenos
  • 1 instant cup of noodles type soup
  • 1 bottle of ketchup
  • 1 large foil container of mayonnaise
  • 1 small can of corn
  • 2 bags of rice
  • 1 bottle of instant coffee
  • 1 bag of Lays potato chips
  • 1 bag of instant oatmeal
  • 1 box of margarine sticks

Ruminating on this tradition, I'm torn between deciding if this speaks well of the communal generosity of Salvadoran people, or is it a sad reflection of a country where so many hard-working people still struggle to keep the larder basically stocked? I'm sure this dichotomy exists in just about any community around the world, so perhaps this will be the tradition I take away from our time here. I'll just have to learn to adapt it to what the Azeri neighbors want, or the Botswanans, or the Ukrainians...

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