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A Maya Birthday Party

Have you ever been to a Maya birthday party? One of the things I love most about living on the Yucatan Peninsula and spending time with the local people here is being invited to participate in life, traditional life, the experiences of daily living. It is so enriching to be able to share a meal in a Maya home, to help in the kitchen, to learn new recipes from local Maya women, to visit with the chickens and say hello to the pigs, and to be invited to share in family events. (NOTE: You will not find any pictures of people from the party here, only of the food. Sometimes it just does not feel appropriate to take photos of people and this was one of those days.)

A few days ago, Max and I were invited to a Maya birthday party! How fun! The birthday girl was turning seven and was celebrating without the help of her two front teeth. What a cutie. She is the niece of my good friend and shaman, Francisco, the daughter of one of his 8 siblings. Francisco’s siblings and their families all still live in close proximity in the small pueblo where they were born. The cousins play together, and aunts and uncles visit on a regular basis. At the party, everyone was gathered together (at least 20 people) in the traditional kitchen of the birthday girl’s family. Her grandmother was in charge of the food and a HUGE pot of relleno negro one sat on the open fire while the younger women worked together patting out tortillas and cooking them on a flat pan over the fire.

The sharing of a meal is the most important part and the central theme to any birthday in this village. If the family has no money for gifts or cake, they will sacrifice one of the chickens and make into a meal to be shared. I have been in a home where one chicken fed about 15 people!

On this happy occasion, fatty shreds of pork flavored the black, corn based relleno negro. It’s a bit pudding-like, made principally from corn starch with chilies, though not too spicy. I must admit, it is a bit of an acquired taste as the consistency of the hot dish is a bit odd, but the spice and the savory pork flavor came through to save the day.

Three tables were set up in the long, stick-hut kitchen. It was dark inside with a bit of diffused sunlight sneaking through the spaces in the tree branches that make up the walls. Chairs ranged from plastic, some plied on top of each other because they were broken and it took two chairs to make strong enough seating for one person, to small wooden stools and even simple cut logs. Francisco (our host) and his sister made sure everyone had seating and was safe from ending up in the dirt! There is such a feeling of goodwill and happiness and such a desire to share.

When everyone was seated bowls of the warm black pork-infused pudding appeared in front of each person and big bottles of coke-a-cola took center stage on each table. Piles of piping-hot tortillas were serves on small plastic plates wrapped in cloth to keep them warm and the younger women continued patting out and grilling more tortillas as the party ensued, making sure there was a steady stream of the rustic staple to ensure that no one would go hungry.

While most everyone used their tortillas as eating utensils, Max and I were graciously given spoons as the party hostess understood that we might not be used to eating with tortillas. (Of course we would have done just fine, but it was a kind gesture!) We ate until we were satisfied, but I have learned something very important about eating in the home of a Maya family. If you finish your food, more magically appears in front of you! And so, I was careful to allow some relleno negro to remain in the bottom of my bowl.