Beth Williams and her research partner, Jessica Arendal, are currently working for the American non-profit Primary Cares in rural Peru. In Peru, Primary Cares is focused on finding sustainable ways to improve maternal health in the region of Ayacucho. Beth and Jessica are completing the initial community assessment of this region so that Primary Cares may then implement a culturally appropriate aid project there in the coming years. Their base is in San Jose de Secce, a town of eight-hundred people centered high in the Peruvian Andes.
Spending the holidays in San Jose de Secce proved an interesting adventure in adapting some of our own culinary traditions to what is available in our small mountain town. In addition to introducing our new Peruvian friends to some of our favorite holiday traditions, we enjoyed participating in the unique (and to us often wacky) traditions of Ayacucho, Peru.
Our first test in creative substitution began when we tried to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for our friends in San Jose. Jess and I took a special trip to the nearest large town to see what ingredients we could find. We settled on roasted chicken instead of turkey, evaporated milk instead of cream for the mashed potatoes, and cinnamon or garlic instead of the twelve other spices that we would have used in everything from green beans to apple pie. On the day of our feast, we did what anyone in San Jose must do when they want to bake anything: we went in search of an oven. This meant asking every Señora in town if they were baking bread, and if so, whether we could pop our casseroles and pies into their hot clay ovens. On this particular Thursday in November, there was no oven to be had. We settled on baking our side dishes in the Medina family´s rotisserie oven after our chickens had already been roasted. Sitting on top of hot coals the sweet potato pie turned out a bit soupy and the apple crisp burned on the bottom, but our guests understood the gist of these foreign dishes. The only complaints we heard were that the roasted chicken was not accompanied by french fries and the appropriate aji, as it is in any proper Peruvian restaurant or home. But they did think that the apple pie I made with my Mom´s recipe was really something.
On Christmas, we joined the family in making and eating a roasted chicken dinner served the Peruvian way: 1/4 chicken roasted to perfection served over a heaping plate of homemade french fries, with mayonnaise and aji on the side. Peruvian food is sometimes very salty, but often not accompanied by any beverage at all. When a beverage arrives, it always comes at the end of the meal. It is often a glass of warm juice so sugary that it leaves me thirstier than before I drank it. I have watched closely and realized that even if the drink is served at the same time as the meal, it will always remain untouched until after the meal is finished.
Christmas also meant being introduced to the concept of the Chocolotada. A chocolatada includes two components: a form of hot chocolate or ponche, a milk and peanut drink (Yum!), and panetone. In the few days leading up to Christmas, Jess and I participated in no less than six chocolatadas.
I thought panetone was popular in Italy, but Peruvians go crazy for their panetone. We shared two chocolatadas with the Medina family on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. It amazed me how, when the last box of panetone had been consumed and appetites weren’t satiated, no one thought of frying up an egg or some potatoes. Instead, the kids were sent out and came back with two more six-dollar-a-pop boxes of panetone!
That´s all for now. Feliz Navidad y próspero año nuevo!