“Worlding” the Tropical: Green Plantains, Aesthetics, and Social Infrastructures in Guayaquil

By: Robert P. Fenton III

In my previous post I addressed the phenomenon of middle-class “worlding” of restaurants in Guayaquil, highlighting the ways in which “world-class” aesthetics and urban informality generate opportunities and problems in certain sectors of the city. In this post, however, I want to focus on how intersecting networks of social reproduction, agricultural production, and cultural iconography intersect by examining how green plantains, known locally as verde, undergird and shape social practices across the city and the countryside. In my doctoral dissertation, I discuss Lefebvre’s concept of the urban fabric as methodological and epistemological device for understanding how urbanization links spaces through value production and circulation in capitalist societies. However, I tended to elide more “localized” notions of everyday social reproduction that shapes and channels investment into fixed capital. This preoccupation inevitably suggests the importance of food for grasping the development and utilization of natural, human and material infrastructures which facilitate more localized notions of the urban.

Supermarket Verde. Photo taken by author. All rights reserved.

Green plantains, it should be noted, are not unique to Guayaquil. They were transplanted from Africa anywhere the forced migration of African slaves brought them, as long as climatic conditions were sufficiently “tropical.” Coastal Ecuador, and Guayaquil, proved incredibly hospitable to plantain agriculture, which quickly joined yucca, maize, potatoes, and beans as the staple crops forming the dietary basis of coastal livelihoods. Historical accounts abound with mentions of the floating markets of endless balsa rafts overflowing with plantains (and other tropical produce), with stories of how creole Europeans quickly adopted a taste for the plantain as a bread substitute, and how the product formed the primary source for carbohydrates for the lower classes (rice being largely relegated to the upper classes prior to 1890s). In other words, green plantains have a long cultural and gastronomic history within coastal Ecuador.

Verde in the Markert. Photo by Author. All rights reserved.

Presently the ubiquity of verde for all sectors of Guayaquil’s social hierarchy demands a more thorough analysis than what I can provide here (a work in progress), but here I will venture a brief synopsis of an ongoing research project I am conducting with several students of mine at the Universidad de Guayaquil.

First, the great majority of the city’s poor supplement their diet by consuming vast quantities of verde daily, as the plantain is packed with starch, contains a decent amount of vitamins and minerals, and fiber. More importantly, green plantains are cheap, their price per pound at about 60% that of rice—the other cheap ingredient commonly encountered. Additionally, it is quite normal for poor migrants (from coastal areas) to the city to receive plantain shipments from family members in the countryside, further lowering the costs of reproduction in the city. However, even when foregoing gifted plantains, market prices for racimas of about ten will sell for US$1 or less, enough for a small family to supplement their meals for a week.

Secondly, though images on social media abound with degrading racialized memes typically depicting poor black and cholo (coastal indigenous groups) individuals loading up their bicycles with stalks of plaintains, verde constitutes the basis for several of the city’s most important food products enjoyed by members of all social classes. Verde serves as the chief component of several breakfast foods which power the city on a daily basis, the most important of which are the bolón, tigrillo, tortilla de verde, and the bollo. Plantain chips, chifles, and patacones (known as tostones in the Caribbean) compliment main courses like rice and beans or Ecuadorean ceviches. Plantains also work as soup thickeners when ground and boiled, constituting the main ingredient of various coastal casseroles and sango. These products are universally enjoyed by Guayaquileños regardless of social status.

Bollo with rice on plantain leaf. Photo by Author. All rights reserved.

Third, the consumption of verde corresponds to a segmentation of markets and preparation techniques that reinforce classic notions of the “urban” and the “rural” emerging from Simmel and the Chicago School of Urban Studies. Namely, the rusticity of the point of sale (hanging stalks from the rafters of a small shop, a “pop-up” restaurant serving bolón, etc.) tends to correspond with poverty and a closeness with classically “rural” social practices tied to cyclical rhythms of active and down-time, while more expensive offerings in aesthetically “formal” restaurants and shops reflect a distance from both agricultural production and the “idiocy of rural life.” A pile of cleaned and neatly stacked plantains in a supermarket, each with a sticker identifying the producer, and a price tag of some $0.85 a kilogram, or the rationalized production processes of the bolones at the KFC-owned Café de Tere do not veer far from the material realities of a pick-up truck overflowing with plantain stalks, or the patio that becomes a bolón stand during the mornings. The differences in the final product are primarily symbolic.

KFC-owned Cafe de Tere in northern Guayaquil. Photo by Author. All rights reserved.

The classing (and racializing) of plantain consumption obscures the underlying interconnectedness unevenly, but integrally, tying the city’s material and human infrastructures to the prodigious tropical conditions of coastal Ecuador. In general, the great majority of the plantains consumed in Guayaquil, that power everyday social activity, are produced on small plots (1 to 5 hectares) in Manabi, Guayas, Los Rios, El Oro, and Esmeraldas provinces, which are subsequently collected and channeled towards the city through a chain of transport protocols and procedures which owe to their existence the extension of physical infrastructure, cheap diesel, mobile phone networks, and the city of Guayaquil’s “forced” preservation of popular markets as a means of mitigating “informal” street vending. Whereas green plantains, prior to the 1980s, arrived in the city largely via river traffic, new more mobile and effervescent networks of buyers and sellers organize the production and distribution across the city. Based on ongoing research into the topic, agricultural cooperatives run by migrant evangelical indigenous groups from the sierra have organized the great majority of plantain logistics from the countryside to the city.

Nonetheless, while the bulk of the plantain trade grasped in the logistical fusion of the city and the countryside grounds and shapes the everyday itineraries of Guayaquil’s residents, the process is obscured as the distribution of the product slowly filters through the city’s spaces, where symbolic value is superimposed upon labor values. In the case of stores and supermarkets where additional labor is expended on the “image” production of “urban” plantains—those which are cleaned and polished, individualized and denaturalized—prices increase, reflecting the accretion of that social substance transposed into the aesthetic realm. The “rustic” shops, market stands, and street vendors, those who tend to typically more “popular” sectors of the city’s populations, minimally alter the form of appearance of the plantain commodity as they receive it. The classic presentation, as mentioned, is to hang the plantain stalk from the metal bars separating the store from the street, inducing the customer to wrench off the plantains one-by-one according to their necessities.

Processed plantain productions, likewise, follow similar lines of demarcation, though rather than the particular item being sold—which are fairly basic and standardized across the board—it is the “experience” (including “security”) which adds value to the final product. Of interest to me, is how this ubiquitous ingredient, often taking very particular regional forms in Guayaquil and coastal Ecuador, has managed to articulate (primarily) middle- and upper-class concerns tied to sophisticated dining experiences fusing both a certain “modern-industrial” aesthetic of rationality, predictability, measurability, accountability, and standardization with a “tropical” aesthetic of vibrancy, profligacy, overabundance, and rhythm.

Plantain grove. Photo by author. All rights reserved.

Driving through Urdesa, along the Avenida Victor Emilio Estrada, for example, one encounters several restaurants dedicating themselves to the sale of plantain-based products. From Café Bomboms, which sells “traditional” breakfasts made of verde, to a relatively new restaurant called Ceviche y Bolón selling Ecuadorian-style ceviches coupled with fried plantain balls loaded with fried pork and cheese, the sector indicates how plantains are being incorporated into the construction of “first-world”-type ambiances as relatively well-off customers search out dining options catering to local flavors—intimately fused with collective identities—and imported aesthetic cues. This group craves not only “innovation” in how verde appears on their plates, accompanied by new accoutrements and side dishes, but also for the “professionalization” of the dining experience itself.

But at the same time, while these options proliferate in wealthier sectors of the city, from which the majority of their clientele hail, one often hears, particularly in get-togethers between friends from the barrio, that “authentic” verde-based products can only be had in those rustic shops one encounters in the zonas—or the more impoverished communities. It would not be strange to hear comments like the following: “Ah, my wife has me eating those posh [aniñado] bolones from Café de Tere, but I long for those cheap ones the manaba used to sell on the corner back in the day!” The sazón of poverty, undoubtedly drawing on more “natural” aesthetics of the tropical as provisional, inventive, unpretentious, and prodigious, adds more authenticity to plantain-based fare that hasn’t veered far from its humble roots as working-class grub for agricultural workers. It would be hard to imagine much difference between the corviche street vendors of the present from the allegorical representation of Guayaquil in the figure of Baldomera, the fictitious and raucous corviche vendor of the eponymous novel from the early 20th Century.

Nevertheless, while verde constitutes a principle source of cheap carbohydrates and nutrients for the city’s poorer classes, it increasingly winds up at the center novel re-urbanization campaigns through restaurants and markets in a bid to “uplift” Guayaquil’s regionally deteriorated image. As the municipal government expends capital and resources on reconfiguring Guayaquil’s global representation, the culinary arts have become a profitable battleground, as evidenced by campaigns in Lima and Mexico City to transform themselves into indispenable sites for the “worlding” of “national” cuisines aimed at attracting international tourists. The City of Guayaquil has similarly sought to “aestheticize” its culinary prowess, sponsoring food expositions (Raíces and others; see:  https://www.eluniverso.com/guayaquil/2018/07/18/nota/6864338/huecas-listas-exquisito-menu) and incentivizing the development of “food centers,” like the recently inaugurated Mercado del Rio on the mega-project of Malecón 2000. In all cases green plantains comprise one of the elemental ingredients grounding of these interventions.   

As cities transform, with local actors articulating “global designs,” it is important to not lose track of the everyday as the specific time-space of social reproduction, where more macro-level strategies meet the quotidian tactics of individual and social actors. But these tactics and strategies, as de Certeau may have analyzed it, depend on subsystems of food provision that both structure and are structured by material and human infrastructures. Plantains, from their colonial history in the Americas, to the particular necessities of agricultural laborers, to their role as cheap sources of carbohydrates, to their identity-grounding role in coastal Ecuador’s gastronomic universe, inevitably constrain and shape Guayaquil as an unbounded scale of social practice, as a node in an urban fabric that pushes far into the countryside, and whose practical interconnections now project themselves in “global” arenas far removed from the tropical city itself.