From Jute Harvests to Mall Food Courts: Fostering Discourse through Food Spaces

Sarah Fouts
American Studies, UMBC

Blog editors’ note: This is the spring edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other countries in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact Sarah Fouts.

An inevitable part of all field research is cooking and eating. Food activities—in both the raw and cooked stages—help ease potentially awkward encounters through interaction and conversation. Gathering ingredients to make the dish, asking about a dish, listening to the stories that emerge while cooking can be as illuminating as a semi-structured interview. It provides a space that is inductive, informal, and allows for intimate exchanges. For me, rich discussions with Honduran women deeply affected by the diaspora emerged while we work together on food.

My research on Central American food vendors in post-Katrina New Orleans led me to Honduras for two summers. In 2013, I made my first visit to the department of Santa Bárbara to visit my friend and his family. A year prior, my friend had returned to his hometown, a small coffee-growing community of just under 1,500 people. He used earnings from work in construction and community organizing in New Orleans to buy land for coffee production and to build a large home for his family.

One afternoon, I was invited to tag along on a jute harvest with women of the household—my friend’s wife, his sister, their mother, a young cousin, and an eight-year old neighbor. Pachychilus, or jute snails, are freshwater gastropod mollusks, with a shiny, black-coned shell—and an overlooked yet integral protein source. The act of gathering jute links today’s peoples to centuries of Maya practice. Archaeological digs in middens and sixteenth century Spanish historical accounts show how the ubiquitous jute provided vital nutrients and barter power in the Maya lowland subsistence economy.[1]

We headed down the dirt road with our plastic bags.  The road became a path. We ducked under barbed wire, then picked up a trail along a quebrado (gully). As we walked, we told stories (I mostly listened), joked (I usually willingly bore the brunt of them), and learned about local flora from my friend’s mother. One of the women commented that she had never ventured beyond the soccer field at the base of the mountain. The journey was special. And rare.

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We climbed a small mountain towards the headwaters. Stagnant basins where kids swam quickly became fast-flowing streams and then, terraced waterfalls feeding pools. These pools were our destination:Fouts2

We descended upon the pools peeling the jutes from the submerged rock surfaces. We filled bags with jutes ranging from ½ inch to two inches in size, along with the occasional small crab, which were more annoyance than treasure. It wasn’t until the end that I realized that cosechando jutes was a competition. I had lost by a landslide.

We descended the small mountain with our bounty, and my friend’s mother collected large leaves from plants growing along the gully. The plant, juniapa, also known as hoja santa and scientifically named Piper Auritum, was the seasoning for our dinner—sopa de jutes.[2] With a flavor that blends sassafras, tarragon, anise, and black pepper, and a potency used medicinally to cure colds, juniapa added depth to the chicken broth base which also featured chunks of guineo verde. Jutes were added last, cooked briefly.

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To eat the jute, we removed the iridescent, plastic-like membrane cap of the snail, then sucked the meat from the shell. Jute shells piled next to our plates and formed contemporary middens. As we enjoyed the fruits of our venture, the women teased me for losing the harvest competition to an eight-year-old.

In 2015, I visited my friend’s family again, but I first met his sister in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second largest city. She had moved to join her two older sisters who worked in the food industry—the oldest sister owns a fried chicken restaurant, Riko Pollos y Licuados, located in a mall food court while the other sister is a server in a popular restaurant. We went directly to Riko Pollos y Licuados and caught up over a meal of pollo con tajadas (fried chicken on a bed of fried plantains with shredded cabbage drizzled by Russian dressing). She left their small village,after the murder of her child’s father made her feel that she no longer belonged there. She was also bored and there were no jobs for her. In the city she takes classes, does odd jobs, and cares for her son and a nephew. She even contemplated briefly a trek to the United States, following her brother. She decided against it.

The next morning we took an early bus for the four hour schlep to their village in Santa Bárbara. Once there, we caught up, played with new babies, and: set the date to go jute harvesting. A chance to vindicate myself and my defeat two years earlier!

Again, we headed out the dirt road and past the soccer field. Children splashed in the basin as we climbed the small mountain. My main rival—now ten years old—talked about school and nail polish. We arrived at the terraced waterfalls and began the hunt. I filled my bag quickly as the rest of the gatherers joked and splashed each other. I kept my eyes on the prize.

And after a couple of hours, when we compared our bounties, my bag over-filled with jutes clearly outdid everyone. I reveled as we hiked back, the banter drowning out my friends’ mother’s explanations of various medicinal plants as she collected juniapa leaves.

Later, as we ate, my fellow diners set aside some snails, uneaten, separate from the mound of empty jute shells. I didn’t pay much attention and like a “good guest,” I emptied my bowl, talking, reminiscing and joking along with everyone else. We finished our meals, cleaned up, and I packed my bags for the early bus ride to my next destination. The jute expedition was my despedida (farewell party).

In the wee hours of the night, my stomach began to gurgle. I brushed it off as travel belly. A few hours later, on the bus, my stomach (I’ll spare the details) made clear why the family had set aside uneaten jutes—these were bad. In my quest for victory I had unknowingly picked dead jutes. And then ate them.

While my second jute harvest illustrated my overly competitive spirit (and its consequences), it also shed light on the importance of these spaces for these women. The jute journey provided a playground for competitive banter and even bawdy humor. It was an escape from the routine and, for some, a venture into the unknown. For the mother, as the elder, it served as an opportunity to pass down her knowledge, teaching recipes and the properties of plants, lessons she had likely learned from similar trips with her elders. The second trek served as a homecoming for one sister, estranged from the community, and, for me, a familiar activity through which to reconnect.

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In the city, Riko Pollos y Licuados demonstrated the oldest sister’s mobility from campo to urban entrepreneurship, transferring skills bestowed by her elders. Riko Pollos y Licuados and plates of fried chicken anchored a space to catch up on tough issues such as violence in their community and questions of belonging. Observing, listening, participating, receiving in these processes—the not-so-subtle jabs, the laughter, learning, play, savoring, respecting tears of sadness—brought me into the family’s intimacy. And these women, so central to food production, elevated their voices and expertise, no longer relegated to the background.

[1] Healy, Paul F., Kitty Emery, and Lori E. Wright. “Ancient and Modern Maya Exploitation of the Jute Snail (Pachychilus).” Latin American Antiquity 1, no. 02 (1990), p. 175.

[2] Not to be confused with the traditional Honduran dish, sopa de caracol, which is conch soup and flavored with coconut milk.

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Filed under anthropology, Latinx foodways

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