Eating in Macondo: From the Banana Tree to Chicken-Head Soup
For Roland Barthes (1915–1980), “food is described as a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior.” In other words, ingredients transmit information and bear meaning.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the sphere of the table and what is eaten on it reinforces the author’s intent to tell us, through symbols, the history of the Colombian Caribbean in the midst of violence.
Throughout the novel, it is Úrsula Buendía who determines what gets eaten, and how food is to be presented and served. The progress and deterioration of the town are intimately linked to Úrsula’s own evolution and progressive decline. At first, she cultivates a vegetable garden and raises animals, which ensures the family’s sustenance. Later, she turns her kitchen into a business for making milk-candy animals, which allows the family to invest in the continuing improvement of their living conditions. The kitchen and its table open them up to possibilities that come from outside. The prosperity of their house is, at the same time, the prosperity of Macondo.
To the extent that circumstances cause Úrsula to lose power, this manifests as some of the first symptoms of the resounding fall that awaits the town. Together with references to the Buendías’ good cooking are references to simple or even crude dishes, which are prepared in the houses of those facing poverty, and whose situations become even more dire as they face the ravages of war.
In the present text, we take a tour through the many possibilities found on the tables of Macondo, from the level of the specific ingredients and dishes that appear in the changing world of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Before the Ice
José Arcadio Buendía leaves Riohacha with his wife, fleeing the ghost that torments him. For twenty-six months they travel through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in search of somewhere to begin a new life in the company of other families bitten by the spirit of adventure. Like the Spanish conquistadors before them, they sustained themselves on marmosets and snakes during their journey.
Macaws also satisfied their hunger during the latter part of expedition, which brought them to a Spanish galleon half-buried in the woods, twelve kilometers from the sea. When chance brought them face to face with a deer, they killed it, cooked it, and salted half to save for later. This technique of conserving fish and meat was used for centuries throughout the world, and lasted up until ice made its way into the kitchen, which, according to José Arcadio Buendía, is “the great invention of our time.”
In 1869, the French naturalist Charles Saffray noted the procedure for salting meat and fish, and published his findings in his book Voyage à la Nouvelle Granade:
Culinary preparation is most primitive: salted meat is ground between two stones until it is reduced to a thick dust, which they then fry into an indelicate feast, often with an excessively strong smell, but which fulfills the two necessary conditions in this country, which are low cost and quick preparation.
Even after ice, this preservation technique continued to be used in areas where animal husbandry was common, which is why it remained in practice in Colombia until the first two decades of the twentieth century. These days, it endures in carne oreada, a dish from Colombia’s Santander Department.
And There They Founded the Village
Úrsula puts an end to the adventure begun in Colombia’s La Guajira when she decides that they should stay in the place where her son, José Arcadio, was born. After that, the matriarchy becomes the driving force behind his story, and that of the town they have just established: Macondo. In the private sphere, it is a powerful woman who takes charge of the administration of the home and the education of the children. Her creativity and her capacity for organization are admirable. She sets to growing plátanos, malangas, yucca, yams, squash, and eggplant, and raising pigs and chickens together in the same pen. Thanks to her hard work, the house’s patio is the source of the family’s sustenance in those first years. Food becomes less about subsistence and more about a cuisine of stability.
Macondo is still a small village when José Arcadio Buendía becomes obsessed with the search for the philosopher’s stone. In his rudimentary laboratory, he tries to transform various base metals into gold, but he fails in his attempts.
Alchemists like Artephius in the second century and the Count of Saint Germain in the seventeenth attested that they had discovered the mixture that would extend life by hundreds of years, thanks to aurum potabile, or drinkable gold. This concoction of wine and red powder from the stone of the sages was considered a universal panacea and an elixir of life. Was not this substance the secret to Melquíades’s mysterious longevity?
The quest for a purifying essence was undertaken as well in the kitchens of the grand European courts. The chefs of the day were given to the task of extracting and concentrating the odor and taste of foods, creating a technique that, “in a certain way, they perfected, purified, and spiritualized.” The Swiss chef Joséph Favre (1849–1903) reveals the secret: “a sauce in perfect reduction, made of a rational combination, with the purity and finesse of irreproachable flavor, is liquid gold.”
José Arcadio never takes the curiosity of his research into the kitchen, but Úrsula does, finding the wisdom that allows her to achieve her own personal development, the well-being of her family, and the progress of Macondo through the cooking of food.
The change in their home’s economy due to the establishment of the candy-animal business forms one part of the transformation of the town from an agrarian community to a commercial one. With the arrival of the immigrants who follow Úrsula from the other side of the swamp comes the appearance of stores and artisan workshops. This also leads to the establishment of a commercial route that brings the first Arabs, loaded down with cinnamon, cardamom, paprika, peppers, and other spices. Finally, the dream of José Arcadio Buendía is realized; they stop living like donkeys and yield to the coming of modernity.
The Cuisine of Wellbeing
Taking advantage of her experience managing the family economy, the maintenance of the house, and the feeding of the children, Úrsula decides to imitate Macondo’s new businesspeople by starting her own business to manufacture sugar roosters and fish. At the same time her husband, José Arcadio, runs the town and Aureliano, the second-oldest son, becomes a silversmith. As opposed to them, Úrsula is rational, conservative, and frugal. This allows her to ensure her family’s survival, even in less favorable times. Her candy animals are so popular that they cause a village-wide plague of insomnia. The epidemic is cured by Melquíades, once José Arcadio Buendía has managed to write out fourteen thousand labels in order to “fight against the loss of memory.”
Rebeca brings the plague of insomnia with her from La Guajira, along with the habit of eating earth and lime from the walls. This practice of geophagy, in an effort to taste primary minerals, dates back to her ancestors, who are made up of various American tribes, including the Wayuu. Úrsula’s struggle over this custom belonging to the orphan left in her charge results in a process of alimentary acculturation, much like the experience of the conquistadors in the face of the new foods they resisted by virtue of their unfamiliarity.
Years later, while her husband attempts to photograph God with Melquíades’s daguerreotype, Úrsula expands her business with new products. The prosperity of the house becomes, in turn, the prosperity of Macondo. The town grows as the economy of the house accelerates and the gastronomy of Úrsula’s sphere is enriched through a variety of breads and desserts.
Amaranta and Rebeca are now old enough to marry, and in order to keep them under the same roof it becomes necessary to put an addition on the house. Úrsula takes advantage of the remodeling to expand her kitchen, hoping to install two new ovens and double the size of the granary so that they will never go without food.
Úrsula’s new abundance is reflected in the dining room: the pianola that enlivens the inaugural party of the new house, as well as the Bohemian crystal, the India Company chinaware, and the Dutch tablecloths that complete the place settings.
The table is the place for sharing, for discovery and fraternity. Around it, the internal and external relations that maintain the family are constantly being constructed.
The austerity and moderation that characterizes the Buendías’ food consumption up to this moment changes with the return of the family’s son, José Arcadio, from his sixty-five journeys around the world. He has a voracious appetite, eating sixteen raw eggs for breakfast and half a suckling pig for lunch, having survived a shipwreck thanks to the “body of a comrade who had succumbed to sunstroke.” Following the arrival of José Arcadio, the civil war begins, and his brother Aureliano, leader of the liberal revolution, goes away for twenty years. In these times of unease for Úrsula, milk appears as a symbol of motherhood and the affective link created by lactation.
With Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s emotional recovery following his disappointment for having signed the peace accord between the conservatives and liberals comes a new renovation for the house. The first people invited to eat are the soldiers sent by the government after the colonel proclaims his threat of war to the death for the violation of the Treaty of Neerlandia. This invitation of the army to his table serves to demonstrate that the peace will be respected.
Soon after, begin Aureliano Segundo’s grand bacchanals, who has become one of the richest men of the swamp. Úrsula, now a centenarian and almost blind, advises her great-grandson to save up for leaner times. But he is a man of excess and the champagne never stops in the Buendía house, nor in the house of Aureliano Segundo’s mistress, Petra Cotés.
Opposed to her husband’s vulgarity and licentiousness, Fernanda del Carpio enforces at the table the restrained standards she learned from her parents and the nuns who educated her.
The strict imposition of etiquette and courtesy represents Úrsula’s total loss of control of the house. This relentless authority assumed by Fernanda is brought to an extreme when she orders the closure of the candy-animal business. This arbitrary measure forever spoils the prosperity of the Buendías.
Úrsula accepts this new way of life with the calm and patience she developed at her stove, because in cooking with wood, far from gas and electricity, “time was both fire and water.” Then, a new form of industry associated with the kitchen arose between the members of the family: the ice factory belonging to Aureliano Triste, one of Aureliano Buendía’s seventeen sons named Aureliano, from his revolutionary adventures. The business’s production grows quickly and necessitates a mode of transport for the distribution of ice and ice cream beyond the swamp. While his grandmother lacked a commercial vision, he invests in a business that will allow progress and modernity to walk hand in hand into Macondo.
Aureliano Triste’s yellow train brings the North American Mr. Herbert, whose discovery of bananas at the Buendías’ house attracts the establishment of the banana company. This North American intervention sets in motion a negative transformation of both Macondo and the entire country. The economy is, once again, colonial, undiversified in production and exports, and dependent on a foreign power.
With the banana-tree fever come the agronomists and other specialists, followed by an avalanche of gringos and foreigners. These new colonizers disturb daily life so much that “the old inhabitants had a hard time recognizing their own town.” Caring more about the harvest than anything else, they change the environment: “they changed the pattern of the rains, accelerated the cycle of harvest, and moved the river from where it had always been and put it with its white stones and icy currents on the other side of town.” At the same time, they alter the daily routine in the Buendías’ house, with strange guests overwhelming the capacity of the bedrooms, the dining table, the china, and the service staff.
The uncontrollable sexual desire that Aureliano Segundo has felt toward Petra Cotés since they were young is accompanied in his adult years by a desire to eat in excess. Úrsula foresees that her house will end up a den of disgrace once news of his voracity reaches the coast and prompts the biggest gluttons in the region to challenge him to epic, grotesque duels.
This presages a tragedy that becomes a reality the day the banana company workers’ strike, led by José Arcadio Segundo, results in a death. Following this, the Buendías begin their decline, and Macondo is plagued by a hurricane of dust.
Although the official line is that nothing happened, José Arcadio Segundo claimed that the army had gunned down more than three thousand workers and that he had awakened wounded in one of the two hundred train cars carrying dead bodies to the sea in order to dispose of them. The train of happiness ends up being a train of death.
Cook Some Meat and Fish
After this disastrous episode, “it rained four years, eleven months, and two days.” The plantations are flattened by the hurricanes’ attacks, and the banana company dismantles its installations. Food becomes scarce and Aureliano Segundo, once fat, purple, and neckless, slims down considerably and loses his libido. Abandoned to her fate, Petra Cotés tries unsuccessfully to save the animals that are drowning slowly in the mud of the pens and paddocks.
Fernanda raises the table up on bricks, but keeps the linen tablecloths, the china, and the silver candlestick, because bad times are no excuse for relaxing customs. But the situation becomes increasingly serious and her husband’s apathy eventually breaks the dams of her patience. For days she vomits hurtful words to vent her bitterness. Aureliano Segundo answers these attack by pulverizing all the plates and everything else breakable.
Seeing herself alone and ruined, Petra Cotés pledges to regain her lost fortune. She is so determined that she feeds a skeletal mule with the fine linen from her episcopal bed, with the goal of raffling it off. In this Macondo beset by hunger there is no more room for luxury nor excess.
Fernanda’s delicate china is replaced with ordinary ceramic dishes, and the silver cutlery is replaced with nickel silver. Unable to recreate her past miracles with the candy animals, Úrsula proposes to exorcise this misery through the use of the kitchen:
Cook some meat and fish, buy the largest turtles around, let strangers come and spread their mats in the corners and urinate in the rose bushes and sit down to eat as many times as they want and belch and rant and muddy everything with their boots, and let them do whatever they want to us, because that’s the only way to drive off rain.
With the animal raffles, Aureliano Segundo and Petra Cotés hope to keep their family, their priority, from starving to death. In their misfortune, they understand that poverty is an obligation of love.
Úrsula loses her vision and then her lucidity. She speaks incoherently and can be fed only with teaspoonfuls of sugar. She withers away languidly from malnutrition.
An oppressively sore throat signals to Aureliano Segundo that he too will soon die. In the face of his imminent mortality, which will also take his brother José Arcadio, he raffles off his land, destroyed by the deluge, and fulfills his promise to send his youngest daughter, Amaranta Úrsula, to study in Brussels.
After the botched burial, Petra Cotés sends a weekly basket of provisions to Fernanda, which the widow thinks she is receiving as payment for an old debt. Santa Sofia de la Piedad takes charge of cooking for her daughter-in-law and her great-grandson Aureliano Babilonia, until the day she surrenders to the ruin of the house and the attacks of the red ants. After her hasty departure, Aureliano Babilonia becomes the new cook.
Fernanda del Carpio does not know how to light the stove, nor even how to prepare coffee, which is why Aureliano Babilonia emerges from his captivity, to which he has always been condemned for having been an illegitimate son. During the day, he only gets up from his careful study of Melquíades’s parchments when it is time to prepare breakfast, lunch, or dinner, which Fernanda eats at the head of a solitary table with fifteen empty chairs. Each, in their solitude, continues with his or her routine, until the morning on which Aureliano Babilonia finds on the embers of the stove the food he had left for Fernanda the previous day. Death had surprised her in her bed, where she lay covered with the old ermine cape of her queen’s dress, which in her last years she used often as a memory machine.
José Arcadio, son of Aureliano Segundo and Fernanda, whom Úrsula educated in the hope he would become the Pope, returns from Rome to bury his mother and discovers that each has been deceiving the other. He was not pursuing his religious education, nor was she the bearer of a formidable inheritance. Fleeing hunger, he is forced to sell the silver candlesticks and the gold heraldic chamber pot.
But Divine Providence “only comes every hundred years,” as his father would proclaim while selling his raffle tickets. Thanks to four of the many deviant children who visit him, José Arcadio discovers three canvas sacks that contain the treasure that was once hidden inside a life-size plaster Saint Joseph, which had been left in the house at the end of the war. Úrsula had protected the gold from the eccentricities of Aureliano Segundo, in order to keep depravity away from the house, but now it is in the hands of José Arcadio, who will effectively turn it into a degenerate place.
Disgusted with himself, José Arcadio decides to untangle himself from his accomplices and return to Rome. While awaiting the boat to take him far away, he shares with his cousin Aureliano Babilonia the exquisite delicacies that still remain in the pantry: ham, pickles, wine, and sugared fruits that taste like spring. He will never make the journey because the children exact their revenge by drowning him in the same pool that they have become used to filling with champagne as part of their licentious parties.
His sister Amaranta Úrsula returns from Europe with her husband, Gaston, and in three months has repaired the house to return it to the splendor of the years with the pianola and the Dutch tablecloths. The Belgian is a lover of Creole gastronomy, and, displaying a gluttony comparable to that which José Arcadio brought back with him from his journeys around the world, he is able to eat eighty-two iguana eggs while his wife’s refined palate only accepts the seafood, canned meats, and syrupy fruits that arrive by train. The dining room table once again becomes a meeting place, and Aureliano Babilonia tears himself away from his parchments to eat with them.
This new rebirth of the house of the Buendías contrasts with the solitary, dusty streets of Macondo. With the curiosity of an anthropologist, Aureliano tries to reconstruct the past that no one remembers anymore. Of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, it is said that he was invented by the government as “a pretext for killing Liberals.” Of the banana company, that it never existed and that the killing of the workers was merely a fairy tale. In his travels around town, he makes it as far as the red-light district, now in ruin and squalor. The only person he encounters there who remembers the Buendías is an old West Indian.
Fleeing the confusing and troubled passion he feels for Amaranta Úrsula, Aureliano Babilonia is seduced by the chicken-head soups of the black woman Nigromanta. But this new experience only fuels and stirs the fire of his capricious love. Neither the exuberant beauty of the West Indian’s great-granddaughter, nor the youthfulness of the girls in the town’s outskirts who sleep with him out of hunger can replace the woman he weeps for in the lap of his great-great-grandmother, Pilar Ternera.
Gaston returns to Brussels in search of his airplane, and when he hears of his wife’s new feelings, he leaves her to fend for herself. Aureliano Babilonia abandons the parchments and surrenders himself completely to Amaranta Úrsula. He has discovered the practical meaning of life through the culinary metaphor of his Catalan friend: “wisdom was worth nothing if it could not be used to invent a way of preparing chick peas.”
Aureliano Babilonia and Amaranta Úrsula’s love withstands both anxiety and the cruel attacks of the natural world: passionate, untroubled, and free. When she becomes pregnant, she does what her great-great-grandmother did: she attempts to establish a business to help them through this economic tight spot. Only Mercedes, the silent apothecary, buys a dozen of her fish vertebrae. The ants, the moths, and the undergrowth make their last attack, but the solitary lovers defend themselves from decline.
At the dining room table, the only Buendía ever conceived out of love will be born. His mother wants to name him Rodrigo and his father Aureliano. But he will not win thirty-two wars, as was predicted for him, because licentiousness and sin will condemn him to monstrosity and death.
Amaranta Úrsula dies following the birth of her son, and Aureliano goes out to try to find the past, but everything has disappeared. With only a poor bartender for company, he drowns his sorrows in cane liquor, listening to the songs of Rafael Escalona. When day breaks, all that can calm his grief is one of Nigromanta’s soups.
On returning to the house, his horror reveals the key to deciphering the parchments and allows him to read one hundred years of his family’s history. Here he discovers his own origin in Meme’s rebellion and Mauricio Babilonia’s yellow butterflies. As it is written, when he comes to the final paragraph, Macondo is being destroyed by the wind.
For García Márquez, history repeats itself over and over again in a country suspended in an environment of horror and plagued by persecution, aggression, and murder. Like a nauseous dinner guest forced to eat the same dish every day, he hopes to end routine violence, raise consciousness, overcome economic setbacks, and reverse the foreign plundering of natural resources. The only way out is to destroy all that came before. A radical and revolutionary change in power structure. Only then will Macondo have “a second opportunity on earth.”
Behind every one of the foods mentioned in One Hundred Years of Solitude is a story. Some have their origins in the pre-Hispanic, others were brought by the Spanish, and many are a product of the culinary crossovers resulting from the mediation between two cultures, signaling the cultural hybridity of the Caribbean.
Unlike novels of the nineteenth century, the inclusion of culinary elements within the narrative is not an attempt to inscribe symbols of differentiation and affirmation of a local and national identity; rather, in this case, the question of what is eaten, in what context, and in what way is used to demonstrate social inequality in Colombia. In the end, this lack of common ground makes it clear that the demands of war leave the population in generalized poverty. Moments of false prosperity, owing to the exploitation of labor and natural resources on the part of foreign capital, are symbolized by Aureliano Segundo’s grand bacchanals. However, aside from champagne, there are never any complicated or elegant delicacies with incomprehensible or unpronounceable names from French, English, or Italian chefs. Everything is local and typical. The importation of products spreads slowly, as luxuries that, in the novel, are only for those who have lived abroad, momentary whims that succumb to the economic crisis.
The eating habits of the coast differ greatly from those in the rest of the country. Plantain pudding, rice with coconut, fried fish, carimañolas, egg arepas, and cayeye. All these we can imagine in the kitchens of Macondo, even though none of his novels, with the exception of The General in His Labyrinth, includes mentions of traditional dishes from the Colombian Caribbean or the rest of the country.
Instead of documenting gastronomic variety, García Márquez emphasizes its scarcity. A dearth that, in times of war, is not only a consequence but a mechanism of control of subjectivities.
Translated by Will Morningstar