The Good Earth

“There came a day when summer was ended and the sky in the early morning was clear and cold and blue as sea water and a clean autumn wind blew hard over the land, and Wang Lung woke as from a sleep. He went to the door of his house and he looked over his field. And he saw that the waters had receded and the land lay shining under the dry cold wind and under the ardent sun.

“Then a voice cried out in him, a voice deeper than love cried out in him for his land. And he heard it above every other voice in his life and he tore off the long robe he wore and stripped off his velvet shoes and his white stockings and he rolled his trousers to his knees and he stood forth robust and eager and he shouted,

“‘Where is he hoe and where the plow? And where is the seed for the wheat planting? Come, Ching, my friend–come–call the men–I go out to the land!'”


I can’t believe I lived twenty-five years on this planet without reading this gorgeous (and heartbreaking) book. Pearl Buck’s prose reads like poetry, and the story of one humble Chinese farmer and his self-sacrificing wife is as compulsively readable as it is unforgettable. Like Cry, the Beloved Country and The Grapes of Wrath, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth is at once the saga of an individual family and an astute portrait of an entire people.

If you haven’t read it, be sure to put it on your summer reading list! And be sure to tell me your recommendations for mine.

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Natalia’s Bocaditos

Bocaditos translates to “little bites.” My friend Natalia makes this ridiculously easy fifteen-minute dish.

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Ingredients:

One small tomato
4 large lettuce leaves
Half of one large bell pepper
Half of one medium onion
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
Rice
2 lemon wedges or some lemon juice

Preparation:

Finely chop the tomato, lettuce leaves, pepper, and onion. (Oh man, the bell peppers in Argentina were so huge and juicy, and the produce was so fresh and cheap, sold in verdulerías every few blocks. Sigh.)

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Throw everything into a bowl and beat in three eggs.

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Stir in the salt and pepper.

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And the flour.

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The eggs and the juice from the tomatoes should mix with the flour to form a consistency like runny pancake batter.

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Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan on medium heat. (In Argentina, everything is fried in heavy quantities of vegetable oil. But I prefer olive oil, for obvious reasons.)

Once the oil is hot, drop in spoonfuls of the vegetable/batter mixture.

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Once they are golden brown underneath (after about 2-3 minutes), flip them with a spatula.

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Once the bocaditos are cooked on both sides, drain them on paper towels. Continue frying all the mixture, adding another tablespoon of oil when the oil in the pan runs out.

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Once cooked, serve the bocaditos over rice and squeeze a little lemon juice over them.

As we say in Argentina, ¡Buen provecho!

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And now a little of Natalia’s story.

I met Natalia on my very first night in Argentina. It was twilight, and she was sitting on the front porch of her house, which was perched on the very edge of respectability and safety; another kilometer down the road and it would have been part of the abajo, the part below.

(All dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods in Argentina are down in the river bottoms, and the houses flood every August and September in the springtime. Only the middle class and the wealthy can afford to live on higher ground. The casitas del gobierno, tiny cinderblock two-room houses issued by the government, are usually built right by the river, on the poorest cheapest land.)

But Natalia’s house was nice enough: it was painted pretty pale yellow, and inside it had a real tile floor, not just rough concrete like in the casitas. There was a spacious front room where Natalia ran a kiosco, a little store. The front door was always propped open to the women and children (and sometimes men) who stopped in to buy candy, cooking oil, diapers, maxi pads, and other sundry items that Natalia stocked. I was to learn that this was customary: the fourth or fifth family on any given street in Arentina operated a kiosco out of their front room. The hours of these little businesses were always irregular, but one thing was certain: all kioscos would be closed from about one o’clock to five o’clock, when the entire country shut down so that people could eat, nap, watch fútbol on TV, or whatever else they did during siesta.

The night that we met Natalia sitting on the porch in front of her kiosco, she told us through tears of her current situation. She had a ten-year-old son with a man named Marcelo. Marcelo didn’t value Natalia enough to marry her, and he could always be seen with other women. But even though he was toxic to her, Natalia had been seeing him off and on for the last ten years. The most recent drama was that she had let him back into her house for a few days, and now she was pregnant again with his child.

It seemed so obvious to me that Marcelo wasn’t worth his salt and Natalia didn’t need him, but over the next year and a half I was to learn that her situation was far too common. Too many Argentine women were, paradoxically, the strongest and weakest people I knew. Having babies in their teens, leaning on their own mothers for support, they were determined to “salir adelante,” to come out ahead and give a good life and a good education to their children. They worked tirelessly running kioscos, sewing soccer balls, baking and selling pizzas. With the money they earned, they kept their children fed and clothed and they built their own houses out of cinderblock and concrete, adding on rooms as they could afford them. They were superwomen.

But when it came to men, they were absolutely helpless. From the fathes of their babies, or from new lovers, they bore patiently laziness, drunkenness, battering, and infidelity. But these women would not leave their men; or if they did, it was only temporarily. They were strong and determined in taking care of their children, but in standing up for themselves they were powerless.

As we visited Natalia over the next month, she seemed stronger than the crying, confused woman I had met on the concrete steps that first night. She was full of hope for the new baby to be born. I was optimistic that this baby might be just what she needed to break free from the unhappy cycle she had been in for the last ten years.

After only five weeks in Córdoba, I was sent out to a little town in the country for about five months. When I moved back to my old neighborhood in Córdoba, I was determined to visit Natalia and make sure she was okay. But she wouldn’t open her door to us.

We did, however, run into Marcelo one day in downtown Córdoba. He was arm in arm with another woman, and he pretended not to see us.

From neighborhood gossip I learned that Natalia’s baby was to be born within just a few weeks. The ladies of our church congregation were busy arming a giant gift basket filled with diapers and baby clothes. They would deliver it to Natalia when the baby was born, along with a few freezer meals she could use as she needed them.

Finally the baby arrived. The church ladies couldn’t wait to present Natalia with the gift. But when they went to the yellow house, it was Marcelo who opened the door.

He had moved in a couple months before when he was needing a place to live, it turned out, and he was still living there when Natalia had her baby. In typical Marcelo fashion, he was none too friendly. But the women did manage to ask him how Natalia was doing, and what she had named her baby, before Marcelo shut the door in their faces.

I was anxiously awaiting news of Natalia. After their visit, the ladies of the congregation relayed to me the news that the baby was a boy. And Natalia had given her new son the name Marcelo, after his father.

 

It’s summertime bike-riding season again!

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…And I couldn’t be happier. Especially since Mark has a month-long medical school rotation in a hospital an hour and a half from our house, so we get to stay with my family for a month! Right at the mouth of the canyon, in the foothills of the mountains with the prettiest sunsets in the world.

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Be back soon…

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I’ve been cleaning out my study this weekend and currently it looks like this. If you turned me upside down and shook out the contents of my brain, you’d see a similar chaos. But I’ll be sorted out and back to posting soon!