Down to Earth

New neighbors recently bought the land and house next to ours, where the late Johnny and June Carter Cash once lived. The Cashes famously enjoyed the privacy of the wooded peninsula, situated atop bluffs overlooking the lake.

Knowing I had worked for many years as a landscape architect, my new neighbors asked if I’d landscape their home. I happily accepted. I knew the property well, as it held an unusual collection of native plants and I had often hiked there over the decades. No design could possibly improve upon the natural beauty of this place, so I decided to recreate that natural setting.

With the help of cranes, backhoes and a crew of four, I brought in tons of boulders, mixed tons of topsoil with peat moss to make a planting mix, and relocated native plants and herbs among the rocks. On the lake side of the house I created an herb garden. The homeowners both enjoy cooking, so having an herb and vegetable garden outside the kitchen was important.

One member of my crew, Guillerimo, was from Guatemala. Guillerimo didn’t have a car, so I drove him home each evening. He always offered to pay me for taking him home, and I always refused–until I came to understand that Guillerimo’s pride would be hurt if I did not accept some sort of payment.

I considered the matter carefully, then came up with a plan. Communicating through his grandsons, who translated my English into Spanish for Guillerimo, I said, “Tell your grandpa I would like your grandmother to teach me how to cook a Guatemalan dish.”

Guillerimo looked very pleased and said he would ask his wife Judith. The next day, Judith rode along to work with Guillerimo and her son translated for her: “I would be honored to teach you to cook a Guatemalan dish, but wouldn’t it be better if I taught you to cook a meal?” So the deal was struck. We would gather and cook a meal together.

When my neighbor heard about our plan, he said he too would like to learn, and couldn’t we have the lesson in his new kitchen?

We gave Judith money to shop for supplies. She looked around the herb garden and made note of garlic greens, cilantro, Mexican oregano, paste tomatoes and a few other items.

The evening of the lesson, Judith and her whole family arrived with bags of groceries, and she immediately began to cook. She explained each step to my neighbor, who translated for us. She cut up a chicken and placed it in a pot with celery, carrots and garlic. In another pot, she simmered pork ribs. She placed Roma tomatoes, garlic, onion and two slices of bread all on a hot griddle. While she worked, we watched the items on the griddle slowly blacken and char. When they were completely black, she turned them and repeated the process on the other side.

Into a blender she poured chicken and pork stock, then added the charred vegetables and bread, along with fresh cilantro, chives and Mexican oregano. The blender ran as Judith removed bones from the simmering broth. She added more pork broth to the soup pot, then poured in the contents of the blender and stirred. To our amazement, the soup thickened and she said, “That’s ready.”

She offered us a taste. It had the most enchanting, delightful flavor and was perfectly thickened! As we tasted the soup, Judith divided the contents of the pots and pans into serving dishes to create a beautifully presented seven-dish meal.

Before we sat down, I asked my neighbor to convey to Judith our gratitude and added that I hoped she wasn’t intimidated by having so many people watch her cook. The room was quiet as Judith’s grandson translated his grandmother’s words.

“Grandma says, ‘No, she’s not bothered by an audience. She has a weekly cooking show on television back home. She’s just glad we were so enthusiastic.'”

— Contributing Editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm, Long Creek herbs, located in the Ozarks Mountains. To contact him, visit his blog

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