The ability to feed oneself, to be able to “live off the land” is a wonderful thing. I found that out in the hard summer of 1985 when I was living on my houseboat on Bayou Beinvenue outside of New Orleans. I’d been laid off from my job and only eligible for $55 a week in unemployment benefits supplemented by $85 a month in food stamps. I probably should have left the area then, but I didn’t even have enough money to buy gas to get me anywhere that would have been better. The thing that kept me going was the ability to feed myself well from the environment.
Surrounded by water as I was I did a lot of fishing. Once a month I’d buy a pound of heads-on, unsorted (various sized) shrimp for $5. Out of that pound there’d be enough large shrimp to get one good meal. The rest I used as bait, and since I didn’t have a job, and at the time there weren’t any jobs to be had, I spent many an afternoon fishing off my boat’s “back porch.”
I’d catch speckled sea trout, red fish and croakers. I’d fillet them up and freeze them. I also had five commercial crab traps and I’d bait them with the heads and remains of the filleted fish and string them out along the dock. The next day they’d be filled with dozens of delicious blue crabs and I’d spend the day boiling them up and picking out the meat. Though I was broke most of the time (dockage consumed two weekly unemployment benefits) I ate like a king.
When I pass through big cities where people live crammed cheek to jowl like sardines in a can the thought often occurs to me, “what will all these people do if things suddenly turn to crap? How will they ever feed themselves?” There are tons of dystopian novels, like Stephen King’s “The Stand,” where city dwellers flood out of the urban areas in search of food and shelter.
Here in Panama things are a bit different except for the half of the Republic’s citizens who live in Panama City. They’re in the same tough spot and it was brought out last year when the Ngöble Indians blocked the Interamerican Highway cutting the food supply from the country’s bread basket of Chiriquí province to the capital. No fresh vegetables. No milk. But in reverse, no gasoline and diesel fuel got through here, either.
But the people in the provinces are able to feed themselves from what’s around them. First of all, the whole country is filled with free-range chickens. Nearly every family has a flock, so there’s meat and eggs. And as I sit on my front porch here in Boquerón I see mango trees, avocado trees, grapefruit, plantains, yucca, papaya, ñame.
Ñame, which translates from Spanish as “yam” though it isn’t like the yams we know in the States, is, like yucca, is a root vegetable and is highly prized here in Panama. The plant is fast growing and huge
but isn’t harvested until late in the fall after the plant appears to have died. The edible part looks like this…
There was a bumper crop of mangos this year as well as tons of avocados. My neighbors kept bringing me more of them than I could eat. It was sort of like zucchini in the States. People plant a few seeds and then get so much that they can’t eat it themselves and give them away to everyone they know.
The most recent offerings I’ve been getting lately is a small, golf ball-sized thing called, pibá here in Panama.
It’s known by a host of other names as well. In English it’s the peach-palm.
In Trinadad and Tobago it’s called a pewa, peyibay(e), and pejivalle in Spain. and pejibaye in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Columbia and Ecuador it’s known as chontaduro or chantaduro, pijuayo in Peru, pijiguao in Venezuela, tembé to Bolivians, and in Portugal it’s pupunheira, while in Brazil it’s pupunha. The scientific Latin name is Bactris gasipaes.
It is commonly boiled; in fact, it is customary to boil the fruits for 3 hours in salted water, sometimes with fat pork added, before marketing. Boiling causes the flesh to separate easily from the seed and usually the skin as well, though in some varieties the skin adheres to the flesh even after cooking. It is only necessary to remove the skin from the cooked flesh which can then be eaten out-of-hand. The pre-boiled fruit is sometimes deep-fried or roasted and served as a snack garnished with mayonnaise or a cheese-dip. It is also mixed with cornmeal, eggs and milk and fried, and is often employed as stuffing for roasted fowl. Occasionally it is made into jam. Oven dried fruits have been kept for 6 months and then boiled for half an hour which causes them to regain their characteristic texture and flavor. Peeled, seeded, halved fruits, canned in brine, have been exported to the United States. Dried fruits can be ground into flour for use in various dishes. A strong alcoholic drink is made by allowing the raw, sugared flesh to stand for a few days until it ferments.
Since it needs to be boiled for so long it’s not something I want to do very often, burning off that much gas, but practically every household around here has an outdoors shelter where my neighbors cook over a wood fire.
It has a wonderful nut-like flavor that I couldn’t quite put my finger on the first time I ate one but I’ve finally settled on it being a bit like an artichoke heart. They’re yummy.