How good is Cuenca’s Easter soup? Good enough to rate a New Yorker cover story in 2005
Editor’s note: For generations, Cuenca has claimed that it has the best fanesca, or Easter soup, in Latin America. The boast gained international credibility in 2005 when the New Yorker magazine ran a cover about it by editor, food writer and poet Calvin Trillin. Fanesca is served during Holy Week at many locations in Cuenca. For more about fanesca, click here.
By Calvin Trillin
I try not to let a decade pass without renewing my assault on Spanish, which I keep hearing described as an easy language to learn. In the nineties, in preparation for a trip to northern Spain, I bought myself a videotape Spanish course in the form of a sixteen-episode soap opera—what Latin Americans call a telenovela—about a young lawyer who finds love while investigating what happened to her client’s first wife. I got so that I could understand the actors fairly well, but when I arrived in Santiago de Compostela I was less successful at understanding people who did not keep repeating, slowly and very clearly, sentences like “Rosario did not die in the war; she escaped that tragedy, thank God.”
When I decided last winter to regroup my forces, it occurred to me that Ecuador might be a good place to study Spanish this go-around. I had in mind Cuenca, around Holy Week. From what I’d gathered during a previous trip to Ecuador, Holy Week is the only time of year you can get fanesca—an exceedingly thick and hearty soup, heavy on the beans. I adore fanesca, and, given my record in trying to solve the mysteries of a foreign tongue, I figured that having a particularly appealing fallback made a lot of sense.
Cuenca is a graceful colonial city in the part of the Andes that Ecuadorans call the Southern Highlands. Although it’s Ecuador’s third-largest city, it wasn’t connected by paved road to the rest of the country until the sixties. Among Ecuador’s urban-dwellers, Cuencans are thought of as the most traditionalist in matters of religion and culture. I’m a traditionalist myself, at least when it comes to the food associated with various holidays. When Hanukkah arrives, I expect potato latkes. I favor candy corn on Halloween. I am perfectly willing to forgo Christmas fruitcake, but that is about the extent of my flexibility. (The campaign I carried on some years ago to change the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti carbonara was a matter not of straying from a holiday tradition but of attempting to build a stronger holiday tradition around a more historically appropriate and, if I may say so, considerably tastier dish.) For years, I went to Brooklyn every New Year’s Day to join some friends from North Carolina in eating Hoppin’ John, the dish that many Southerners serve for good luck every January 1st. Eventually, my North Carolina friends moved away, and I haven’t felt entirely comfortable with a fresh January since. I knew there was every reason to believe that during Holy Week I could have expected to find fanesca not just in Cuenca but also in Quito, or even in comparatively secular and cosmopolitan Guayaquil, the port city that serves as the commercial center of Ecuador. Still, it never hurts to be certain.
If I’d had any doubts about my choice of cities, they were erased as soon as I arrived, ten days or so before Easter. Right down the street from my hotel, I found a language school that offered one-on-one instruction, and I took a written placement test on the spot—a test I thought I’d managed pretty well until I got to a final section on the subjunctive. (I’ve spent some time since then contemplating the possibility that I might be too old for the subjunctive.) Both of my teachers turned out to be natives of the city who were as knowledgeable about local customs as they were about Spanish grammar. Also, they spoke Spanish as clearly as the lawyer in my telenovela.
They both assured me that the custom of families eating fanesca on Good Friday remained strong in Cuenca, and that many restaurants would be serving it during the entire week before that. My first trip to one of Cuenca’s markets made it obvious that I was about as close to the source of fanesca’s ingredients as I could get without living in the middle of a bean patch. All the vegetables and spices required—corn, for instance, and fava beans and a couple of kinds of squash—grow in the area, and some of them apparently don’t make it as far as Guayaquil, which is only thirty minutes away by air. That may be because the distribution system seems to consist largely of indigenous women who come to the market from the countryside, many of them in the bright-colored flared skirts and high-crowned panama hats that can make even a small woman of some years look rather, well, zippy. In the markets, they sit behind gunnysacks of what their families have grown—ten or twelve kinds of potatoes, or outsized corn kernels of various ages, or a selection of beans so large and potatoes so small that even one of those compulsive veggie connoisseurs who frequent markets like Union Square, in Manhattan, or the Ferry Building, in San Francisco, would have to do some close inspection to make certain that she wasn’t on the path to making her signature bean salad out of spuds by mistake.
Cuencans may not be as strict about some Easter customs as they once were—partly, it’s thought, because so many of them have in recent years spent time working in somewhat looser societies, like the United States. But many families, I was told by my teachers, still observe the custom of visiting seven churches on the evening before Good Friday, a task that requires devotion but not much walking in the churchy center of the city. Both of my teachers said that as children they were not permitted on Good Friday to wear bright clothes or to play a musical instrument or to listen to music other than sacred music. They were also not permitted to bathe, since an old belief in the area holds that anyone who bathes on Good Friday might be transformed into a fish. I noticed that “Vive Cuenca,” a bilingual booklet of local events that is published each month, finished up its description of this belief by saying, “Take care! Would not be you the first to be converted in one small fish, for not putting care to this myth”—a small witticism that served to give me some idea of how my Spanish must have sounded to my instructors all these years.
Exactly a week before Good Friday, I scored my first fanesca, right on schedule, at a small but pleasant restaurant in downtown Cuenca called Ceres. The fanesca did not disappoint; it matched the memory I’d preserved of the fanesca I had come across half a dozen years before, in the course of a ceviche ramble that, purely by luck, happened to overlap with Holy Week. Fanesca has a base of salt cod cooked in milk and thickened with pumpkin seeds. Traditionally, it contains twelve different beans or grains—one for each of the twelve apostles, some people say. Floating on top—or, more likely, lying on top, since this is a marginally liquid bowl of soup—you normally find part of a hard-boiled egg and a miniature empanada or two and often some plantain. My teachers told me that as Good Friday approaches the children of the family often act as assistant peelers and soakers and washers and choppers. Still, when you gaze into a bowl of fanesca it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the mother or grandmother in charge of the kitchen serves it only once a year because once a year is often enough for her to spend all that time preparing a dozen vegetables—just as Jewish mothers of traditional habits may think that once a year is often enough to risk losing bits of knuckle to that potato shredder in the process of making the Hanukkah latkes the old-fashioned way.
When my teachers heard during afternoon classes that after having a fanesca for my midday meal I intended to have another one for dinner that evening—at El Maíz, a restaurant that describes its food as Cuencan rather than Ecuadoran—they looked at me the way an American might look at someone who had just announced that he intended to have two Thanksgiving dinners. In a Cuencan home on Good Friday, they explained, a bowl of fanesca is a meal in itself, except for something like fruit for dessert, and supper that evening tends to be light. It’s true that when I was about halfway through the fanesca at Ceres—I’d calculated that I could finish the bowl if I paused for a moment to get my second wind—it occurred to me that this couldn’t have been what my mother had in mind when she told me to finish my vegetables. On the other hand, my window of opportunity was not wide. I thought about saying to my teachers, “So many fanescas, so little time,” but by the time I had constructed that in Spanish the moment had passed.
Being able to say anything I wanted to in Spanish before the moment had passed was what I’d been daydreaming about. I was thinking of the day when my response to a particularly good fanesca (the only kind of fanesca I’ve ever experienced) would no longer be limited to “delicious” or “very tasty, thank you.” I could envision myself pushing back from the table and making a statement to the waiter that was as complex as the dish itself—something like “I can’t take leave of this glorious establishment without saying, in utmost sincerity, that the fanesca I’ve just had the honor of consuming made my heart soar, or at least go pitter-patter, and I want to emphasize that each and every bean had a valiant role to play in what was, when all is said and done, a perfectly blended and modulated work of art.” In that daydream, the waiter is so impressed by my eloquence that he offers me seconds. I decline, with a short speech that reminds him of something he once read in a story by Jorge Luis Borges.
My teachers didn’t seem to find it odd that most of my questions in the first couple of days of classes were about restaurants and local delicacies. In fact, they appeared to be relieved. One of the difficulties of taking one-on-one conversational Spanish lessons, I remembered from earlier attempts, is that either the teacher or the student has to come up with something for the conversation to be about. Right from the start, in that awkward period when both teacher and student might be wondering where this conversation could possibly go after they got through the question of where the student was from and what the weather was like there, we could discuss fanesca. We could also discuss maíz tostados, which are fried kernels of Andean corn. If you’re in luck—which you usually are if you buy your maíz tostados from one of the women sitting behind a gunnysack in the market—they are kernels of Andean corn that have been prepared in the same pan as fritada, a local specialty that could be summarized as pork that has been fried just short of forever. Maíz tostados are the best thing I’ve ever come across to nibble on with drinks—so good, in fact, that you don’t really need the drinks. We also had long conversations about humitas, which have some resemblance to tamales. Instead of being dough around some central element like pork or chicken, though, humitas are the same all the way through—an astonishingly light concoction of fresh young corn that is ground and mixed with eggs and cheese and butter and anise and a bit of sugar. If tamales tasted more like soufflés, they’d taste like humitas. In Cuenca, walking through the market or even down a street, one passes humita venders all the time—or maybe I should say one comes to humita venders all the time, since I never actually succeeded in passing one without stopping.
And my questions in Spanish about fanesca did not stop with requests for restaurant tips. One day, I posed the same hypothetical question to both of my teachers: Let’s say that an Ecuadoran soldier has fought valiantly for his country in a war—assume, for instance, that Ecuador invaded France, looking for weapons of mass destruction—and has been gravely wounded. He’s sent home, but it is clear that he has only a few weeks to live. His mother asks what she can do for him, and he says that all he wants before he dies is a bowl of her fanesca. But it’s August. The mother is an observant woman, someone who wears black on Good Friday and visits seven churches the evening before and has never even thought about making fanesca any time except during Holy Week. Does she make an exception for her dying son? One of my teachers said definitely yes. The other one reminded me that some of the ingredients in fanesca wouldn’t be available in August, except perhaps in dried form. If the mother attempted to grant the brave soldier’s wish, he might end up with the sort of fanesca people eat in Guayaquil.
When we ran out of food talk, I made do for a while by discussing differences in idioms—a subject that has been a staple of my Spanish instruction over the decades. I always get caught up in the fact that, for example, the Spanish equivalent of “You’re pulling my leg” is “You’re taking my hair”—one of my teachers told me of some demonstrators who, as a symbol of not wanting to be lied to by the government anymore, appeared in front of a government building with shaved heads—or that Ecuadorans who want to leave well enough alone say that they don’t want to look for the fifth paw of the cat. I find it fascinating that a carefully raised woman in Ecuador who stubs her toe or gets a paper cut says “Miercoles!” (“Wednesday”) to avoid saying “mierda,” in the same way a similarly raised American in the same situation would say “Sugar!” Yes, I know that I would be much better off studying verb forms instead of collecting idioms, but I can’t help it. I use the idioms, even without having mastered the verb forms. On a previous trip to Ecuador, for instance, I’d learned the word aniñados, which literally means “childish ones” but in Ecuador refers to spoiled rich people. I now find it hard to believe that I got by in Manhattan for years without having that word in my vocabulary.
As the days went on, either my Spanish improved or I got more desperate for subjects to talk about, because I found myself enlightening my teachers on such American topics as the political impact of soccer moms and the metaphorical use of “white bread,” as in “He comes from a very white-bread family.” I was concerned that the teachers might use any sustained lull as an excuse to launch an exploration of the subjunctive. Desperation is probably inadequate as an explanation of how one day I came to be telling one of my teachers the plot of “High Noon.” Looking back on this incident, I can say that it followed logically from a discussion of comparative court systems that included the word for “jury,” which in Spanish is jurado. That led, not unexpectedly, to my mentioning the noted Mexican actress Katy Jurado, who, of course, appeared in “High Noon,” playing the role of what I think could be fairly described as “la puta con un corazón de oro.” That led to telling the plot of “High Noon.” Did I do the theme music? You can’t tell the plot of “High Noon” without doing the theme music.
On the Monday afternoon before Easter, I found myself with something to make conversation about. “I have to say that the Holy Week traditions of Cuenca are disappearing,” I told one of my teachers, disapprovingly, in careful Spanish. The specific tradition I had in mind was serving fanesca in restaurants for the week before Good Friday. I had assumed that I might have myself a four-fanesca weekend, but the only new fanesca outlet I’d found was at the unlikely venue of Trattoria Novecento, an Italian restaurant whose menu items ran toward mozzarella in carrozza and chicken Milanese. I’d half expected the waiter to come around and adorn my soup with grated Parmesan and extra-virgin olive oil, but the fanesca I got was palpably authentic—proof, I surmised, that the Trattoria Novecento, like so many New York restaurants of whatever ethnicity, had at least one Ecuadoran in the kitchen.
My failure to find more restaurants that were serving fanesca didn’t mean that I’d gone hungry. For a couple of meals, my alternative turned out to be at one of the market food stands that specialize in roast pig—displayed whole, with his detached head turned back at an impossible angle, as if he’d been lying on his stomach to take the sun and had looked around suddenly to see who was sneaking up behind him. The booths all serve hornado, pork pulled off the pig and a couple of crisp pieces of golden-brown skin, accompanied by mote (boiled kernels of corn, sometimes compared to hominy) and llapingachos, which anybody who was raised in the Midwest is tempted to call potato puffs. Hornado—or even a sándwich de pernil, which is the same meat, except on a bun—could make some people forget about fanesca, but I had kept my focus. I’d counted on getting fanesca for Monday lunch at Villa Rosa, widely considered the best restaurant in Cuenca, I told my teacher, but the waiter informed me that they wouldn’t be serving it until Wednesday. My account continued with what I’d said to the waiter upon learning how long I’d have to wait for my Villa Rosa fanesca: “Miercoles!” My teacher burst out laughing. I’d seen it coming—a play on words in Spanish. I would rather have had the fanesca, but a play on words in Spanish was definitely progress.
By the following Thursday, I found it hard to believe that I’d ever lamented the absence of fanesca in the restaurants of Cuenca. For a couple of days, I’d been having two fanescas a day—all delicious, and all heavy enough to make me wonder whether or not I was going to be able to come out of my corner for the next round. I told one of my teachers that I wanted to apologize to the citizens of Cuenca for implying that they were backsliders. O.K., I didn’t know how to say “backsliders,” but there were words to that effect. That evening, rather than seek out a new fanesca purveyor to try, I joined the throngs making the traditional visit to seven churches. The streets of Cuenca were jammed, and food venders were taking advantage of the foot traffic by setting up stands in front of the various churches, selling humitas and cotton candy and a sort of shish kebab that Cuencans like and popcorn and homemade chips of potatoes or plantains. Although I started out the evening thinking I might still be full from lunch, I visited at least seven churches, worried that I might otherwise miss the best humita-maker. We all have our own way of observing traditions.
I was to spend Good Friday itself in Guayaquil, before flying back to New York, so I phoned Humberto Mata, an American-educated Guayaquileño with whom I’d once consumed a certain amount of ceviche, to see if he could have lunch. Aware of my mission, he said he would endeavor to find another example of fanesca—even after I’d felt obliged to tell him that Cuencans had some unkind things to say about the coastal version. I thanked him, and then I said, in English, a sentence I thought I’d never utter: “Humberto, I think I’m all fanescad out.” That was then. There’s nothing I would like now more than a bowl of fanesca. By Holy Week, I expect to be desperate.
Credit: The New Yorker, September 5, 2005