Rice in PanamaLet’s talk about arroz nuevo.

Do you eat rice? Do you know where it comes from? How it is grown, harvested and threshed? To me – a U.S. citizen with roots in the mediterranean (wheat-eaters) and ireland (potato-eaters) my rice has always come from a box – it is cooked on the stove top or even in the microwave and usually comes with a little packet of powder to dump in with a drizzle of oil or slab of butter. After witnessing a recent Panamanian rice harvest, I have come to discover that rice grows as a grass, must be dried by the heat of the sun, collected by many hands and then thrashed until the little white bead I have always known as rice is released from it’s encasing husk.

Rice is food here. Rice is culture here and the culture is rice.

During the rainy season, lush, green feilds of long, tall grasses cover half of the 65-hectacres of the family farm. With the arrival of the new year, Panama welcomes the time they consider summer: heat and sun; and while it is breezy, it does not rain. For a farmer who grows rice, the fact that it hasn’t rained in a month and a half and is stiflingly hot, is a great thing. For an outsider, it is an excuse to snooze on shaded hammocks and devour watermelon slice by slice.

The rain stops. The rice dries. Fields become a golden bown, grasses crack and crunch like hay and workers bear the constant pounding of the sun’s rays as blisters form between the thumb and forefinger with nothing more than a sombrero pintado (painted hat) and the prospect of a midday respite – in the shade of a tree with a plate of that same grain they are collecting today- in the near future.

When a farmer’s field is ready to harvrest his ever-drying crop, he calls a junta – a meeting of sons, sons-in-laws, grandchildren of laboring-age, neighbors and fellow farmers. It is understood here that a junta means: “I lend a helping hand, you feed me. Maybe I walk away with some of the harvest”. No contracts are signed. No overtime is considered. There is no eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth conversation. If you are asked to participate in the junta, you know what you are getting yourself into so, you either accept – thus reaffirming what kind of person you are – or you don’t – thus defining what kind of person you are.

Workers begin after a breakfast of coffee, fried bread, tortillas and (with any luck) some stewed beef. The group swarms over the rice feilds. They use handheld wooden-handled razors – individually whittled to fit the hand with a a leather strap – to collect the grain. They leave swaths of padded-upon grass in their path, now empty of its brush-like tufts of husks containing this season’s gold.

Rice Harvest Panama

When a particular worker has accumulated a bundle larger than the grip of his two hands, he ties the husks together with a long strand of grass, drops the packet behind him and continues on.

They grudge through the morning, sweating and sizzling until they see their wives and daughters climb over the hill, carrying a picnic of rice, plantains, meat and sugary juice to replenish those lost electrolytes.

The men plop down to the ground under the shade of the tree which was strategically left here when clearing the land so many years ago forseeing this very moment.

The right hand spoons in close to three cups of rice per worker while the left holds a piece of tough meat periodically chomped down upon with a mouth already full of rice. With a full, hard, round rice-paunch, the men sit back to joke, tell stories and disregaurd their blisters and the daunting task still ahead of them: they have only made it about an eighth of the way through the field.

A twenty minunte rest and a last swig of juice has them up and ready to brush through the sea of tall grass once again.

After two and a half days, ten workers and sixty plates overflowing with rice, the junta is over.

Friends and family go back to their own farms, jobs or families as the farmer himself begins the drying process before he can either send the rice to be threshed or perhaps do it himself (depending on time and funds available).

A plastic tarp covers a wooden frame upon which the rice is laid. Here the husks will become brittle, the grain inside will dry.

The dried rice is carried to the piladora in town to be threshed an ‘lo – shiny white arroz nuevo is ready to be packed, sold and consumed by those of us who had no idea that rice has such an intricate life cycle from ground to table.

Where to get it/ How to find it: Arroz nuevo is most likely found in the months after the rice harvest: February, March, April. If you don’t know a local farmer to keep you in the Know, then find a local piladora (where they thresh the rice). At the piladora, just ask when they might have some arroz nuevo then search out a local restaurant that will cook it up for you over an open fire. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that you can cook this rice just as well as a Panamanian woman. You can’t.