Culinary considerations from living near the edge…

piva nuts
Pivas, pixbaes, pifás, pibas, palm peaches, Bactris Gasipaes – there is a bewildering array of names for this ancient Panamanian staple, which is endemic to much of the tropical Americas. Photo by Kristof Zyskowski & Yulia Bereshpolova’s Cataloging Nature.

Starch staples survival don’t have to be boring,
but if you have kittens in the house…

by Eric Jackson

Woke up this morning and turned on the computer. I saw that the “productive sector” — how some rich people who produce hardly anything by themselves like to style themselves at the moment — are on the offensive in the most offensively obsequious media, telling us that Panama’s big problem is that the teachers in the public schools are overpaid and ineffective. 

Then I looked over at the stool that I use as a side table for newspapers, reference books, coffee cups, plates and so on. I noticed signs of predation. The plate with the peelings and seeds from last night’s snack, which I will fashion as piva nuts here, had been knocked over and things that were on it were scattered. The peelings and the plastic plate were nearby. These are not all that interesting to a kitten. The seeds from the piva nuts? Those are round enough, hard enough and the right size to be of great interest to a kitten. The several seeds were scattered about three rooms. A piva seed plays something of the same function for a kitten as a soccer ball does for a 10-year-old kid.

The pivas? I was coming out of El Machetazo in Penonome and this woman was selling little bags of the cooked starchy nuts for a dollar. A fellow citizen, like me scraping by on the informal economy. It wasn’t just a matter of class solidarity that attracted me to buy. I like these things, too. Plus I can spin some health reasons, even if this batch was eaten in not such a healthy way, with a bit of salt sprinkled on the pulp. I might have eaten it in other ways, like with mayonnaise, or dipped in garlic butter. Or….

But it should be peeled and the seed in the middle removed, for starters. However you are going to consume them, remove these parts. Even if eating the skin will not make you die.

If you really are on poverty rations, a cheap and starchy diet, piva nuts can keep you from dying. There is a hint of this in Panamanian history, something that the schools here scrupulously don’t teach the kids.

C’mon — bowdlerized education here? Like in those US states wherein mention of slavery is officially prohibited “CRT?” 

Something like that. Ever since Panama has been an independent republic, there have been historical topics thought best left unspoken, especially around kids. Panama’s history of religious persecution from the start of the Spanish Conquest onward is one of these. So is the religious context of Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama. So are the religious politics of Latin America’s independence from Spain, and especially the recurring religious warfare of the period when Panama was a part of Colombia. 

(How DARE this guy call Colombia’s troubles of those times religious? It was Liberals against Conservatives. With the Conservatives favoring Roman Catholicism as the official state religion, and Liberals advocating a secular republic, at or near the top of the list of the main parties’ many differences.)

And what does that have to do with piva nuts? It’s a side topic of mass starvation in Panama City under Conservative rule, in the 1899 to 1902 Thousand Days War, and into the early days of the Republic of Panama, which was the product of a 1903 Conservative coup instigated by the Panama Railroad Company and backed by the US administration of Teddy Roosevelt. Saying nasty things about the Conservatives of back then, even though their party is long extinct, is saying unflattering things about the Proceres, the alleged fathers of our country, and some of the “better” Panamanian families. But the truth of the matter is that there was mass starvation in that wartime economy, even if mention of that was strictly forbidden by strict Conservative censorship of the press.

So how does the record come down to us? In early 1904, more than a year after the Thousand Days war ended and nearly a year after the Liberal guerrilla General Victoriano Lorenzo was executed in the Casco Viejo’s Plaza Francia, the US Army sent its first medical mission to Panama, and they started out with studies. The Americans found Panama City’s leading cause of death to be not yellow fever, nor malaria, but beriberi.

Beriberi is a starvation disease. Try to subsist on white rice alone and you risk contracting it. It’s something you get from the lack of thiamine (also known as Vitamin B1) in the diet. You can die from it. Eat a diet of brown rice (arroz integral) and you will avoid it.

After a disastrous Liberal charge into machine gun fire at the war’s outset, the Conservatives controlled Panama City. But Cocle was the city’s breadbasket, and its agricultural production was disrupted by a ferocious civil war and then came under General Lorenzo’s control. Panama City was increasingly subject to Liberal roadblocks. The Conservatives controlled Panama City, Colon and the connecting railroad, and could and did import bags of white rice. But they did not make proper provisions to feed the population.

So, what does it have to do with my decision to buy some piva nuts from the lady?

If you are to live on a meager, starch diet, vary the starches so that you are less vulnerable to deficiency diseases. Brown rice is better than white, but also more expensive. If you are putting potatoes into your starchy mix, leave the skins on and eat them. If bread is in the rotation, better whole wheat than white. Putting yucca, otoes and/or ñame into the mix would be a good ideal. Vary your starch staples and you vary the vitamin and mineral mixes of the things on which you survive. Trying to get through poverty eating just white rice is so boring that it could bore you to death. Of beriberi.

So, anyway, you’re a bit more upscale at the moment. What to do with piva nuts now? Try this:

Ingredients (no need to be exact)

  • Piva nuts
  • Bacon (lonja or other)
  • Water
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Salt
  • Sour cream
  • Sherry


  • Cut the bacon into bits and fry it to where it at least starts to brown. Set the meat AND the grease aside to add later.
  • Steam the pivas to be fully cooked enough to eat. Let them cool and then peel them remove the pits cut them into chunks and put them in pot with a cover with a bit of salt and simmer them until quite soft, then mash them.
  • Add more water if necessary, and cut up carrots, potatoes and onions. Mash and stir as you go. Add water if need to keep it as a viscous liquid. Add the bacon bits and grease and continue to simmer.
  • To get that perfect consistency, you may want to run the mix through a blender.
  • You got this orangey glop with the flavor sort of like you want it now? Heat it up again, add a dollop of sour cream and a bit of sherry, stir to mix it all in well, remove from heat.
  • You have a modified Jackson family recipe for Piva soup.

Contact us by email at

To fend off hackers, organized trolls and other online vandalism, our website comments feature is switched off. Instead, come to our Facebook page to join in the discussion.

These links are interactive — click on the boxes