Monday, January 26, 2009

I´ll Have What She´s Having

I can pinpoint the moment when I relinquished any residual vestiges of picky eater-ness. I was in Turkey, traveling with four other girls, and we were dining at the home of family friends. I can´t remember most of the details of that feast (other than the fact that it was all indescribably delicious), but I do distinctly recall that one course featured whole artichoke hearts. I had spent the previous 18 years declining all things artichoke for no better reason than that they looked weird, but my desire to be a good guest overrode the force of my habit. I took one bite and I swooned from gastronomic delight. And I thought to myself, “My god! What other glories of the table have I been neglecting out of ignorance or fear?”

Ever since, I have made a point of trying any and all local delights, no matter how unusual. In Chinatown, I slurped my way through chicken foot soup, in London I tried jellied eels (actually not one of my most successful gastronomic adventures, but a good story nevertheless). Now that I’m in Colombia and happily ensconced with a host mother, I’m wolfing down Colombia´s “comida tipica” with daily delight.

I knew that I would love Luz Elena, my host mom, when her first order of business upon my arrival was to take me grocery shopping. We filled a grocery cart with fruits, vegetables, and the trappings of the illusive Saturday “Bandeja Paisa” (the Colombian version of Sunday dinner), and as we left the store she bought me a cup of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. The sugarcane juice sealed the deal; I would go to war for this woman.

Ever since my arrival in Colombia, people have been bringing up bandeja paisa repeatedly and asking me if I have yet experienced the magic. It really doesn´t take much to get my hyped up at the thought of food, so by the time Saturday rolled around my anticipation had reached a fever pitch. After attending mass, Luz Elena and I made our way to the home of her 93-year-old mother, where I expected to eat prodigious quantities in the relatively calm company of a few close family members. Instead, upon my arrival, I discovered that I had stumbled into an unofficial, unexpected extended family reunion for Luz Elena´s cousins, nieces, nephews, children, and friends. Everything before had been merely an introduction, THIS was a Spanish immersion experience. I did my best to answer questions about my journey and my hometown, and what I liked best about Medellin. I received unreasonably generous compliments about my Spanish (the fact that I frequently had to ask for them to be repeated, but slower, ought to give an idea of my hosts´over-kindness). Eventually, we migrated to the tables, and the feast began.

We began with a simple bean soup, sopa de frijoles, which I laced with avocadoes. We followed the soup with rice, salsa, carnida molida (cooked beef that has been finely shredded), chorizo sausage, fried plantains (both the sweet, mature ones that cook down like bananas foster and the immature green ones that fry up like potato chips), chichorones (heavenly bits of fried pork skin that melt in your mouth with a entirely misleading suggestion of airy lightness), and of course the ever present arepa, Colombian corn cakes. All the while Spanish was flying thick and fast—jokes cracked, stories related, congratulations and condolences offered all around. I was content to be a quiet member of this gathering, the adopted gringa for the afternoon whom everyone silently welcomed even as they talked past her at 500 words per second. After dinner someone brought out a tub of ariquipe, a caramel dessert made according to the family recipe. I found myself eating the ariquipe with the same helpless craving with which I attack peanut butter. Eventually you give in and start eating it by the spoonful rather than the serving. Colombians, I have learned, generally eat the largest meal of the day for lunch, and after Saturday I could see why. I needed the better part of the day (spent wandering the grounds at a gorgeous country house, to be chronicled shortly) simply to digest my meal.

Now, I have not yet made any of this myself. But I purchased a bag of arepa flour tonight and I am working up the courage to reenter the kitchen after the disastrous experience of my wild yeast bread. So, “good Lord willing and the creek don´t rise” (as we say in Georgia), I will soon be bringing the secrets of Bandeja Paisa to any other good eaters out there who also travel with minds and mouths open.


Alexandra said...

This post made my mouth water. That meal sounds incredible!

As usual, beautifully written post, my dear friend. :) Atlanta misses you!

Chiot's Run said...

OH, I'm so jealous. I grew up in Colombia (my parents are missionaries) and I so miss the food. Mr Chiots and I travel back every so often so I can enjoy the delicousness. I do make the items up here and all of my friends love it.

I really miss the fried green plantains (patacones as we called them in the Llanos).

Make sure you try some areaps and sample all the delicious fruits, like tomate de arbol is it's in season, and ganabana (which you may not like, but it's a crazy fruit).

One of the things I really miss is all the fresh tropical fruits. Guavas are one that I just can't get here in Ohio.

Oh, eat tons for me!