Changungas Never Tasted So Good

by Andy Griffin

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I'm spitting out changunga pits again so we know Don Gerardo is back from Uruapan. As near as I can make out from the roundness and hardness of the stones and the size, texture, and flavor of the pickled fruits changungas must be some kind of cherry. They're yellowish in color when fresh Don Gera tells me, and sweet/tart. These are yellow-brown, soft, and reek of alcohol. Let's call their flavor "unique."

Every year Don Gerardo works on our farm during the high season from March through November driving trucks and harvesting. After Thanksgiving he loads his car up with consumer items that are unavailable or prohibitively expensive in Mexico like toasters, hair dryers, or tool sets, and heads south to home and family (or at least to that diminishing part of his family not already living here.) In early spring Don Gerardo returns to el norte bringing with him consumer items unavailable to the stateside shopper at any price. Like changungas.

Changungas grow wild in thickets throughout rural Michoacan. During their brief season country folks gather them by the basket to sell in the streets to passersby that want a juicy snack. Popsicle makers buy changungas in bulk to flavor the paletas they peddle. Because they are soft-fleshed and don't keep for long many changungas are preserved by drying like raisins or by soaking in "vino." Gerardo uses the term vino rather loosely. Changungas wouldn't be soaked in grape wine which would be very expensive in backwater Michoacan if it was even for sale, but in some manner of locally elaborated cane sugar moonshine like charanda.

The greatest virtue of the changunga must be that it tastes unmistakably of Tierra Caliente, the hot lowland sugar-producing zone of Michoacan where the shrub is native. I can't imagine that this humble wild fruit could compare in flavor with less regionally identified piñas, plátanos, or mangos. But to someone without even the meager capital necessary to start up an ambulatory chicklet vending business changunga gathering must offer a taste of opportunity. And to folks in economic exile from their native lands a mouthful of changungas conjures up all that is missing. You can bet that Don Gera and his compas will be planted in the shade of the elderberry tree come lunch break tomorrow, sharing changungas, spitting seeds, and swapping tales.

Since only Don Gerardo returned to Michoacan this winter he will have lots of news to share. I earned my annual baggie of changungas squatting with the guys in years past and listening to their stories. If I enjoyed the conversation more than the changungas I never let on, and anyway, I'm a gringo. Unfortunately most of the news of Mexico has never been good. "Prices are up." "Even the barber was kidnaped for a tiny ransom." "The only jobs available were scaring blackbirds out of the sorghum for 10 pesos a day." "Whole herds of milk goats are being rustled at night for slaughter."... But some funny gossip always gets aired during the desultory hail of changunga pits.

¿Remember huevon Enrique," Don Gera asks, "the one they call El Marijuano?" (And the one I fired seven years ago for being so cross-eyed stoned he couldn't connect two irrigation pipes.) "Well he's got a job now in Tareta"...spit, spit..."As a cop!"

Manny and German laugh at this predictable turn of events but can't wait to tell Gerardo their scandal. "Remember that mayor of our village who was so corrupt and lorded it over everyone taking bribes for simple public services that were ours by right? And then he was run out of town by a mob when Fox was elected?

"Simón." spit, spit.

"Well he showed up last week right here in Watsonville looking for work in a strawberry field and one of the women recognized him and all the people started jeering at him and throwing rocks and he ran away."

"Ha, ha ha." spit spit.

Changungas never tasted so good.

Copyright 2003 Andy Griffin


This is a photo of the changungas that Don Gerardo brought back from Michoacan.