Looking back on the most recent holidays,and ahead to St. Patrick’s Day, Passover and Easter soon to come, I realize just how important traditional foods are to all our celebrations.
Living in the tropics for almost twelve years was exciting, colorful and adventuresome until our favorite holidays rolled around. Those were the times when we wanted to recapture the atmosphere, the traditions, and most of all, the foods that we associated with each holiday.
Raising three school-age children while away from home, families and old friends was cause for a lot of nostalgia. We were living in what was formerly known as the Panama Canal Zone, which at that time was still all-American. Our many new friends soon became our families, but our holidays were never quite the same.
The Canal Zone maintained a small fleet of passenger-freighters that regularly traveled between Colon, on the Atlantic side, and New York, then later to New Orleans, keeping our commissaries supplied with frozen, canned, and dried food, also clothing, household needs and all basics. With an average population of around 50,000 people in the Zone, including the military bases, there were a lot of people to provision. The military had their own commissaries, of course, and also used ours.
We had access to fresh garden produce from several small plots of land managed by Chinese families, each with a roadside stand. The Zone maintained a dairy farm and there were bakeries in the clubhouses in the larger towns.
The public markets in each of the towns in Panama were full of everything from homemade leather sandals with old tire tread for soles, to live turtles. Their fresh seafood was always available and always the best. We made a trip into Panama at least once a week to shop, usually oftener.
There was never a shortage of foodstuffs. We might have to do a bit of running around to track it all down, not like a one stop supermarket, but no big problem. When our small ships came into port with something like a load of frozen turkeys, or better still, green Christmas trees, word traveled fast and everyone made a beeline for the nearest commissary.
Local foods made great substitutes for old favorites. Sliced green plantain chips were deep fried for snacks, yucca and taro provided plenty of starch, chayotes tasted like summer squash. Yams, corn and avocados (known locally as alligator pears) were all native to the Caribbean and South America. Guava jelly was great on hot biscuits or the local michas, as French rolls were called. Mangoes were wonderful in pies.
Most of us kept a stalk of bananas hanging under our quarters. There’s no comparison with a banana that was picked green weeks before. Fresh pineapples were turned upside down and left outside to ripen fully. My favorite red papayas and limes were always available in the Panamanian markets, And we never knew what might turn up in our commissaries. Our children recall pickled crab-apples on our holiday tables.
Our biggest complaint was the cold storage eggs. No egg was ever cracked directly into a batter or a heated pan. They always needed the sniff and eyeball test. However, fresh eggs were available in the local markets across the border.
As for special local dishes, one of the biggest favorites throughout the Caribbean was “Arroz Con Pollo,” or rice with chicken. This amazed me because one of the basic ingredients was green peas. Now, where did they ever get green peas back in the day and how did the recipe originate? Paella, originally Spanish, was another popular, tasty dish in the better restaurants.
Panama itself didn’t have a really local cuisine. Sancocho, a chicken stew, is the only truly Panamanian dish that comes to mind. Sancocho is made with chicken parts simmered down with chunks of corn on the cob, any of several root vegetables such as yucca, yam, taro, or name, chayote which is a local version of summer squash, onions and cilantro. It was never highly seasoned; the Panamanians preferred their foods to be bland.
Two dishes that all Zonians remember fondly are first, the local empanadas, pastry turnovers filled with meat, potatoes and savories, similar to Cornish pasties. Balboa clubhouse empanadas were the best ever.
Then there was the dish that built the Canal, every digger’s favorite, Johnny Marzetti. “Diggers” were the much respected laborers, most of them from the West Indies, who actually worked on the construction of the Canal. They were honored in later years with well deserved medals and awards.
Johnny Marzetti was basically the typical American mixture of ground beef, onions, garlic, tomatoes and pasta, often including green olives. Every cook had his or her own version.
All these dishes were good, but hardly holiday fare as we knew it.
Our holiday meals somehow managed to retain a festive, satisfying spirit even though some of the foods were unusual and unexpected. A table full of close friends and happy children can make a success of anything.