Yucatecan recipes are hardly what people think of when they think of Mexican food, but I had tasted such glorious meals in restaurants in Puerto Morelos and in Molly’s home that I couldn’t wait to try making a traditional local recipe for Luis Felipe and Molly.
I chose a recipe for pollo pibil from one of Molly’s cookbooks that looked festive and flavorful in the photograph. The dish was to be cooked in banana leaves, a substitute for cooking the meat in a pit, or pibil. That seemed exotic and appealing, and the recipe didn’t look hard. It said to line a heavy pot with banana leaves, arrange seasoned chicken on top of the leaves, add a sauce made from sour oranges and achiote paste, then tuck in more banana leaves over everything and bake it all slowly.
I knew from shopping with Molly where to find the stall in Puerto Morelos that sold beautiful fresh vegetables, and another that sold chicken. Once I got home I would soak all produce in a microdin solution for fifteen minutes to sanitze everything. I set off for Puerto Morelos in Molly’s old van she’d brought from the States when she first moved in with Luis Felipe years ago. It was 1995 and I was feeling like a friggin’ pioneer, but I ran into trouble as soon as I asked the man at the vegetable stall for banana leaves. He shook his head, no. Thinking I must not have pronounced the Spanish correctly, I showed him the shopping list where I had printed “johas de banana.” He shook his head again. Maybe he couldn’t read? I tried another stall, and then another, but got the same response. No banana leaves anywhere in the market.
“Cancun. Un nuevo supermercado, muy grande,” the fruit seller said, gesturing with his hands widely apart to show how big the store was. Cancun was more than 45 miles away, but o.k., if that’s where I needed to go to get banana leaves then I’d go there. I was determined to make that recipe.
“I’m looking for banana leaves. Can you please tell me where to find them?” I asked the man at the large grocery store in downtown Cancun where pop Mexican music blared through speakers as women with adorable dark-eyed children shopped.
He looked at me with the same blank expression as the vendors’ in Puerto Morelos. “No banana leaves here,” he said, apologetically. It seemed outgraeous that I couldn’t find banana leaves anywhere in the area. Defeated, I drove back to Molly’s to return her van and admit how unsuccessful my search had been for banana leaves.
“Banana leaves?” she asked, trying to suppress a smile. “Try looking out your front window. I think you’ll find all that you need.”
Two leafy green banana trees were growing right there in my yard opposite the bougainvillea tree and the jacarinda bush. There were no bananas, but plenty of wide flat leaves. I felt my face turn the color of ripe pomegranate. I’d been so busy shopping for furniture, buying cooking utensils, linens and hand-woven hammocks that I hadn’t even recognized what was right outside my window.
Learning to see and understand what I was seeing would be the greatest challenge to my year in the jungle. There was so much to learn, some of which would never become clear. It wasn’t just a matter of learning to name things. Unlike the banana leaves, some animals and people and stories intend to hide; their very existence depends on not being seen or observed too closely. And sometimes I simply didn’t want to comprehend what was happening and what it all might mean.