You Can Never Go Home Again

I think many of us who spend long periods living abroad have this kind of experience when we return home.  We realize that the United States (or where-ever our home is) we remember was somewhat idealized.  When we get home, we are reacquainted with the things that irritated us, and have new appreciation for the little things that we think make our society work as we expect.  And we find new things that we used to take for granted that now surprise us.

One moment of realization for me was when, shortly after I returned to the United States, a friend took me to visit Costco, where he had a membership.  Going through that warehouse, I was amazed.  I could see why a restaurant or cafeteria would want to buy bananas or nutmeg in huge quantities, but what did it say about our 3.4-person households that we had the capital in our bank accounts and the space in our homes to invest in buying enough frozen pizzas to feed an army for a month, or enough toilet paper to last through the New Year?!  Not only that, but we were willing to buy memberships for the chance to shop at such a place?

Now, I’m not trying to criticize Costco or the people who shop there; I realize with the work hours and commutes that many live with in the U.S. “car culture”, Costco is an option that it culturally rational.  But it was an unexpected shock for me after being in rural Bolivia, where much larger households (with no refrigerators) provisioned themselves for a week at a time through the local market and their own farms.  It didn’t surprise me that the U.S. was an urban cash economy — I knew that, I grew up there —  but what struck me was the huge quantities of cash we could mobilize in order to stuff our freezers and closets, and the energy we could use to climate-control those spaces.

But the LA times article also points out that you can never really go home again.  Life goes on “at home,” history continues to be made, events occur, are remembered and forgotten.  Nothing stands still, anywhere.


As if eating guinea pig wasn’t enough…

Since it is near Halloween and all, yesterday’s Chicago Tribune had this column by John Kass on the “Gastronomic Festival of the Cat” in La Quebrada, Peru. Kass fills his column with sarcastic humor, noting that Americans “won’t abide a nation of cat-eaters” so we need to put a stop to the “villainous cat-munching.”

Stewed, grilled, and seasoned cat delicacies are consumed (even cat milanesa). They don’t taste like chicken – unlike what is said about almost every other “weird” (to North Americans) food – and, not surprisingly, PETA has gotten involved to stop this practice, which they likened to witch trials. Too bad, Kass notes, that cats were associated with witches and are thought to suck the souls from sleeping infants. But, according to him, that’s not enough reason to eat Fluffy.

Ok, this is one of the least sensationalist columns I’ve read about how different peoples eat “weird” animals (to us). The usual stock explanations for why on earth they eat such an abhorrent protein source is there, too – because Peruvians needed more in their diet way back when and now it has become part of their culture (justifications for cannibalism, anyone?)

This column’s shock value comes from the fact that those people demonstrate their difference from us because they dare celebrate eating Meowser (which they first off *had* to do because of an biological imperative, but now that things are better, they choose to continue because of culture), thus drawing lines between self/Other.  Still a troubling move, even seasoned with humor.

U.S. confusion between coca and cocaine

The latest: Andean leaders use native product in culturally accepted way.

Seriously, it would seem strange for Chavez to admit to using coca paste (rather than just chewing coca leaves). We’ll have to find the original statement in Spanish — can’t be too careful where translation is involved.

Aside from that, there is a general confusion about coca leaves and illegal coca products in the United States in general which seems reflected in this press report. I can’t count the number of people who asked whether one gets high/has hallucinations/gets addicted from drinking coca tea. I’m quick to clarify this to with my students as soon as coca is discussed: Coca is like coffee. Mild stimulant. That’s it, folks. Comparing coca to cocaine makes less sense than comparing a cup of coffee to an OD on Vivarin.

And what is up with quoting Sánchez-Berzaín?

Inflation creeping up (again) in Bolivia

Ever since the 1984-1985 hyperinflation (which hit 60,000 percent in its final month), Bolivians have been especially worried about inflation. And except for a spike in 1991 (21.4%), inflation in Bolivia has remained below 20% since 1985. Today’s La Razón has a special section on inflation. So far, it doesn’t look like a major crisis yet, but food prices are creeping up (particularly in La Paz-El Alto). As La Razón points out, inflation is a “tax” on poor people (though clearly the most affected are the lower middle classes & micro entrepreneurs).

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Appetite at Altitude

Many of us who travel from sea-level to the Andes (12,000 feet or so) experience a loss of appetite for a few weeks. Not my kid – he’s become ravenous!

Hungry baby

Bolivian Cuisine Blog

Miguel C. found a great Bolivian cooking blog today. It even has informational videos, commentaries, and recipes!

Enjoy all!

Restaurant Review: Aji in Boulder, CO

I was recently in Boulder, Colorado (USA) and came across the restaurant Aji. The name immediately caught my attention. It was named after the Bolivian spice we miss so much. How could we resist?

The decor was modern, “world culture” hip. A Peruvian textile that could have been purchased on Sagarnaga street, in Cuzco, or at Boulder’s own Art Mart hung from one wall. Miniature devil masks from an artist in Lima (according to the website) lined another. An iconic image of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe had a prominent place. Large, artistic photographs of Cubans led to the restrooms, where there was a replica of a pre-Columbian Mayan calendar stone. The take-out menu featured a line drawing of a classic-era Mayan stela.

Our meal began with bread — cornbread with jalapeno butter, and banana bread. To my mind, cornbread (rather than Mexican-style tortillas) evokes Thanksgiving, a holiday only Americans celebrate; banana bread is what middle-class American women (myself included) make with over-ripe bananas, imported from the Caribbean and left too long on kitchen counters.

The “Papas a la Huancaina” involved no peanuts. We were told that one of the chefs brought the recipe back from a short trip to Peru, so perhaps this is a regional difference. Meanwhile, the “Bolivian Aji de Lentejas” — that spicy stew prepared for Todos Santos (Day of the Dead) lacked potatoes, but rather was served over jasmine rice. The “Bolivian salsa” was raw onions and tomatoes sliced on top. We had expected llajwa; while onions and tomatoes were commonly served with some meals, I’ve never seen them on this dish. The “Feijoada Brasileira” (which I should mention I’ve only ever had in Bolivia) was Stew, Deconstructed. Its elements, all dry enough to maintain their shape, were laid out in a neat line on a modern rectangular plate.

In short, this is not a restaurant for reminiscing about my comadre’s amazing cooking. Based on our short conversations with one of the staff, it’s not trying to be that, either. It is about an idea of globalization, where dishes are created from ingredients associated with place, rather than by the methods of cooking used in those places. The staff made no claims to authenticity or local culinary understanding; waiters emphasized fresh food, healthy eating, and taste rather than regional knowledge.

The menu spanned the Caribbean, coastal Peru, highland Bolivia, and Brazil. It wasn’t how I had eaten in some of those places, but nor are my experiences the standard to which others should be held. Latin American cuisine is highly variable by region, class, and individual chefs. Given the changing migrations, trade routes, and travels that have connected regions of the Americas since long before 1492, cuisine will — and should — continue to change. May all those culinary experiments be as tasty as Aji’s!

But I had to wonder about American understandings of Latin American food — that these diverse cuisines can be lumped together, ingredients mixed, preparations ignored, contexts erased. If Aji’s chefs are not trying to be “authentic” (whatever that means), then why name their creations for well-known Latin American dishes? Obviously the appearance of authenticity is important for someone. Is it the chefs? Their investors? The patrons who enthusiastically crowded the restaurant on the weeknight we were there? Not us, certainly.