Thinking about the notion of eating sensibly, seasonally, and close to home. Inspired by Emily’s lifestyle and ”Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” by Barbara Kingsolver, I am looking over my eating patterns and questioning what, from where, and when?
In Arroyo Morroti, the small intersection that is the town where Emily lives, there isn’t a whole lot of choice – you cook what you have around you. Obviously no Whole Foods or vegetarian restuarants have crept in to rural Paraguay but neither have such luxeries as whole coffee beans or more than one kind of cheese. While we feasted on eggplant and lettuce our first night, hauled in from the grander farmer’s market in the ”big city,” since then we have been eating ultimately from the hills around us.
The equatorial sun plays a fierce role in determining what survives in the garden, sending many plants to their death with its powerful rays before they get a chance to fruit. The same rays that keep us slathering on sun screen and hiding in the shade mid-day allows only the hardiest of crops to survive. Yerba máte, stevia, clocho (a thick kerneled corn), mandi-o (the potato-like tubor that paraguayans use as the starch for most meals) dominate the fields that stretch over red-dirt hills. Some exceptions exist, Emily’s bamboo-fenced garden behind her simple one-room home has lima beans, sweet potatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash, peanuts and two basil plants hiding under shade structures. In the harvest heavy months of summer and fall, one can eat well from the product of your effort, sweat and the answering bounty of your garden, or from that of your neighbours.
Mostly the locals eat simply, from I’ve seen from the meals I’ve been honored to share. Meat such as pork or chicken, mandi-o, eggs, and variations on cornbread: chipa, which is made from corn meal and shaped like a donut, and chipa guazu which is made from whole clocho kernels, cheese, onions and oil, baked in a brick oven and enjoyed hot.
In addition to these staples we dine on home-made bread slathered in butter and honey, which Emily harvested from the bees herself. We make soup from beans, clocho and an unreasonably long phallic squash from the garden, seasoned with basil, freshly ground pepper and the other Paraguayan staple – salt. Chicken noodle soup with home-made egg noddles, squash, onions and garlic. Ravioli ala Paraguaya served with tomato sauce – all made from scratch. We drink juice made from cantalope, asian pear, or the mouth-gasm that is passion fruit. Snack on gauvas and grapes from the yard or freshly roasted and salted peanuts with honey. Yes, one can eat well here, even when limited to the local cornucopia.
But that’s not to say that eating well doesn’t require ALOT of work. A gift of a bag of dried beans isn’t taken so lightly when you know the work that went into it – from saving the seed, to planting, weeding, watering, protecting it from the sun, harvesting, drying, shelling…
To my delight, when I arrived to Arroyo Morroti, Emily already had peanuts drying she had recently dug up from her garden. Peanuts grow like little clusters of potatoes on vines underneath the earth. Who knew? With visions of salty roasted peanuts in my head, I labored for an hour shelling little purple peanuts – enough to fill a small dish. In a moment of relapse from my newly acquired ”working with the land, in its own time” mentality, I remarked to her, ”I don’t think this is very efficient.” To which she replied, ” Maybe you’re not efficient.”
Ooo-kay. Maybe this lifestyle of eating locally and seasonally takes a little practice and effort. It’s hard to maintain that ideal when you, say, live in a city, work a full-time job, or maybe most difficult to overcome, have the freakish ability to consume whatever you wish, whenever you like, for a price. But what is that price? Aside from the high price of peaches in winter, what about the fossil fuels used to ship it from Chile? Or the disconnection that humans have from the land that feeds them, or the lost art of family meal times?
In Barbara Kingsolver’s book, ”Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” her family vows to eat solely locally-produced food for a year, and in the process, gets back to the land, becomes closer with their neighbours and with each other. I can attest for these results as well – in three weeks of eating from the land, I have witnessed how it it brings communities and families together. Emily and her neighbours are in a constant flux of passing around dishes laden with freshly baked bread, chipa guazu, just-shelled beans or whole milk straight from the udder. Each time a plate passes hands it seems to strengthen the bond between them. Sitting around a big pot with a few other women, gossiping and sharing the task of peeling and removing worms from guava to be turned into dulce de guayaba, it seems a deeper connection is being shared, one that has linked women throughout history. And I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than involved in the process of creating, cooking and delighting in freshly made ravioli with my sister.
Eating locally and savoring the process of preparing food as well as eating it is easy in the summertime. Farmers markets bring the bounty of the countryside to the city, and even a small garden patch can enliven any dinner table with sun warmed tomatoes and basil. But what about those cold winter months where no tomato in its right mind would be seen in Portland? For some unnatural reason, we have become accustomed to eating fresh produce even in winter, shipped in from faraway places, to satiate our need to be pleased, RIGHT NOW. Instant gratification is so good but so… ultimately unsatisfying.
Ms. Kingsolver describes the two qualities lacking in an American local-food culture as patience and restraint. ”Waiting for the quality experience seems to be the constitutional article that has slipped from the American Food custom. That is the sublime paradox of a food culture: restraint equals indulgence.”
But, here in Paraguay it is summer, and in summer we indulge.
RAVIOLI A LA PARAGUAYA
Combine two cups of flour with salt, two generous tablespoons of oil and then add water until it forms a dough. Roll out until it makes a thin sheet and then cut it into two inch squares.
For the filling sautee squash, greens onions (diced finely), parsley and basil in butter. Remove it from heat and mix with a soft cheese.
Place the filling on the ravioli square with a tabkespoon, and cover with another square, wetting the edges of the dough so the two sides adhere to one another.
For fresh and simple tomatoe sauce sautee onions, garlic, peppers and finally, tomatoes. Cook the mixture down until it is less watery, add basil and salt.
Boil the ravioli and top with tomato sauce. Enjoy in the shade.