After some time wandering around village asking people where to find peas, I was finally directed to a small vegetable shop run by a Quechua Indian woman. In Spanish, peas are arverja NOT al verga, as I learned the hard way. The important difference being that verga is a crude word for a part of the male anatomy, making my requests for peas sound like I was saying “Excuse me, I’m looking for some ‘of the c*ck’. Please, do you have any ‘of the d*ck’?” I found the woman, dressed in the traditional ankle length black velvet skirt, flowy white blouse, with a colorful woven belt, her hair in two tight long braids down her back. I figured out how to ask her for peas, and she pulled out a burlap sack of hard green pods.
While I had grown sugar snaps in my backyard before, and conceptually knew that peas grew in pods, this struck me as strange. Having never having actually seen a pea in it’s natural, unfrozen, podded state, the sight of the familiar little green spheres nestled in a foreign looking envelope gave me pause. “Wait and minute,” I thought. “Are those actually peas or did I screw up the Spanish again?” I ate one to make sure. As we spent several minutes together, pulling each individual pea out of the pods into a little plastic baggy, I reminisced about when getting a bag of peas required pulling a massive sack out of the freezer. After what seemed like a very long time we had only accumulated a small amount in the little plastic bag, and feeling lazy I decided that was all I would need.
When I asked the woman for a couple potatoes, she handed me what looked like softball-sized clots of dirt. I stared at the chuck of mud in my hands, wondering if it was some kind of joke, until I realized that there was a potato inside. Of course, I know that potatoes come out of the ground, and I’ve had to clean a bit of dirt off them before cooking before, but the 1/2 inch think mud incrusted spud in my hand more than drove the point home of what and where a potato came from in a way that I had never really considered before. Later in my kitchen, scrubbing through the layers of muck like a scientist at an archeological site, I needed to use a toothbrush to get it clean. The vegetables were only the beginning.
A few days earlier, Jorge had picked up some shrimp in San Pablo, a village about 30 minute bus ride away. He had warned me not to forget to cut out la vena when I was cleaning them, and suggested that I wait until he was able to clean them for me. Being a chica necia, as has become my new nickname, I decided that, of course, I could do it myself, how hard could it be? After pulling the heads off of 20-something shrimp, my hands and shirt were coated in bright orange goo (brains? guts?) that smelled worse than it looked and persistently refused to wash out. The skin on my hands, besides being stained shrimp-guts-orange, were covered in nicks and punctures from pealing off the surprisingly dangerous shells. De-veining (as I figured out after asking a neighbor how to do it) involves using a very sharp knife to slice down the back from its beheaded gory neck to the tip of its tail, and pulling out a little tube full of black muck (it’s last meal).
After what seemed like hours, including the breaks that I had to take to fight off brief waves of nausea, I had what seemed like an incredibly small amount of perfect little pretty pink shrimp. As with the peas, I thought about the last time I cooked with shrimp in the States. I had never prepped shrimp in my life before, and only had the vaguest idea of how much went into creating the convenient frozen bag that I would pull out of my freezer. After all this time and work, I smelled like shit, had crusty orange hands, a destroyed T-shirt, was slightly nauseated, and I hadn’t even started cooking yet.
None of the little tiendas where I buy eggs and milk had chicken. The directions I was given were: “Walk to the road closest to the beach, take a right, ask at one the houses on your right a little ways down.” Ok… I examined houses as I walked along the beachfront, eventually coming upon a house that had an open door and windows. I hesitated, imagining the shopkeeping had been playing a joke on me. He has taking opportunities to use my poor Spanish to mess with me before. I looked for any sign that the inhabitants of this house sold chicken. It was a small one-story home, modest, with unpainted cinderblock, the mortar between the blocks starting to crumble, and bamboo cane window shutters and door under a corrugated tin roof. Through the large open windows I saw a baby playing on the floor of the living room with a wooden spoon. What did I have to lose?
“Hola?” I hollered into the house. “Permiso, estoy buscando pollo. Este es la casa correcta?” A young woman came out from the kitchen, confirmed that I had found the right house, and asked me how much I wanted. ”Sólo necesito…” Crap, I thought to myself, I should have looked up how to say chicken breast before I left the house. I’m pretty sure it isn’t teta. “Umm…, esta parte,” I said, pointing at my chest. When in doubt, acting is always the way to go. She chuckled, and then pulled a whole chicken out of the fridge behind her. She held it up by one leg over the sink and hacked it in half so that the top part plopped into the sink. She then threw it into a black plastic bag and handed it to me. “$3.50.”
Back at home, I examined the carcass. This is a long throw from the nice packaged clean chicken breast I would buy in Stop&Shop. Despite the woman having pulled it from a fridge, and chicken is room temperature, even slightly warmer. It must have been killed very recently, and the warmth threw me. It wasn’t meat, it was a chicken. The skin was prickly, the pores still clinging to the remnants of feathers, and the skin didn’t feel like the mush chicken skin you pull off your drumsticks, it felt like…skin. I pulled out my sharpest knife and had at it. Butchering an animal is a quick way to get intimate with the fact that your food was once an animal. As I separated a wing from the body, I squeezed and pulled at the appendage while jabbing the knife into the body, trying to find the joint between the wing bone and the shoulder. The wing was not flexible, and it felt like the bird was trying to fight with me. Eventually I found it and carefully cut through tendons and there was a crunch sound as I pulled the wing away. I think of a shoulder dislocating. Being very fresh, there was more blood then I had expected, and I had to stop and wash it off several times. Cutting the breast meat off the ribcage was also an unexpected challenge. I wanted to get as much meat off as possible and rib bones kept slipping to the wrong side of my knife. At one moment I was holding the bird by the neck to steady it, and suddenly found myself with something mealy and yellow in my hand. I quickly realized that I had squeezed the partially digested corn that the chicken had last ate from end of it’s severed esophagus. Unlike with the shrimp, it did not smell bad, so as horrific as this was, I held it together. I ran to the sink, to not only clean the whole bird again, but to find the rest of the gullet and squeeze out whatever else was left in it.
I have never been a vegetarian, and one of the beliefs I’ve always had is that there’s nothing wrong with eating meat as long as one appriciates that it was an animal and not just some food product that you find in a store. Part of what makes American food so American is our tendency to clean it up, sterilize it, package it, and refrigerate it. I have met many many people who didn’t know that peanuts grow underground, or that a tuna is an enormous fish. I learned at 9 years old about pork, when my uncles in Tonga slaughtered all the piglets that I had named and played with for 3 months for a feast held for me before I left to go back to States. As shocked and tearful as I had been at the time, I still ate them, and they were delicious. The natural state of all the things I bought meant that dinner took me about 4 hours of preparation and cooking. And maybe because of localness, freshness, and lack of processing, or maybe just because of all the stains, cuts, time, and gross surprises I experienced, it tasted better than anything I’ve ever cooked before.
Original published August 4, 2011, on tumblr as “La Cena”.