A little brass band tootled its way through a waltz from their post in a small gazebo at the center of the plaza. The sun felt hot on my shoulders. At twelve thousand feet above sea level the sun burns with intensity. The short, stubby musicians sweated under the weight of their gold braid and heavy military uniforms. I stepped into the shade of a nearby plane tree and surveyed the scene around me. An ambulatory vendor sold ice creams from a push cart. A woman in a little kiosk sold colorful balloons to excited children. A shoeshine boy quizzically inspected my red Converse All-Star tennis shoes and offered to shine them up nice and black. I paid him to go away. What I really wanted was an ice cold lager.
Behind me in an old stone building was a tiny restaurant - three tables. I stepped into the cool, empty room and took a table by the window. The proprietress bustled out from her kitchen and handed me a menu. I’d been in Bolivia long enough to know that a menu was a list of what an establishment might be proud to serve when ingredients were available. It would be gracious of me to study the menu but even more gracious to ask my hostess what was best that day. I asked for a beer and some time. The house specialty, trout caught fresh that morning in Lake Titcaca, sure sounded great. Through the window I could see an Indian woman presiding over a colorful shawl heaped high with prickly pear cactus fruits. Passers-by would indicate the fruit of their choice and she would spear it with a popsicle stick, deftly pare the spiny hide off and hand it to them, red and juicy, to be eaten on the spot, seeds spat to the ground. Maybe I’ll have one of those for dessert, I thought.
My beer arrived accompanied by a plate of crispy fried potatoes. The beer bottle was huge by U.S. standards and had been recycled so often the heavy green glass was milky white from minute scratches. “Trucha?” I asked hopefully.
“I’m sorry señor,” she replied. “My husband catches trout every morning and they’re very delicious but this morning he didn’t catch many. Tal vez mañana.”
“I’m sure everything you cook is as good as the trout,” I responded. “What do you recommend?”
“We have goat’s head soup,” she replied. “Very satisfying.”
“Then goat’s head soup it is,” I answered, and she shuffled off.
But she was back in a moment looking concerned. “Ah, señor,” she began. ”It’s just that the soup is very picante - it has aji in it. Muy picante!”
Aji is chile. The cultivation of chile peppers started out high in the Andes and spread north to Mexico. Having grown many northern varieties of chiles myself I was delighted to taste the roots of the plant, so to speak. “Excellent!” I replied.
“But Germans don’t like food that is muy picante,” she answered. “Germans don’t like aji.”
“Not a problem, Doña,” I responded. “I’m not German.”
She looked long and hard at my red face and blond hair but she fetched the soup. Trailing behind her as she returned from the kitchen were teenaged daughters 1, 2, 3, all come to watch the white guy eat aji. Even the husband poked his nose through the door. The soup was delicious, hardly spicy at all, with kernels of corn, fava beans, and potatoes in a rich broth. “Muy rica.” I said after my first spoonful.
The youngest daughter asked her mother, “If he’s not German, what is he?”
“I’m an American,” I answered. The two older girls began to giggle at this news.
“He doesn’t look much like Michael Jackson.” remarked one to the other and all three girls broke out in a spasm of laughter.
“How do you come to speak Spanish?” asked the mother.
“Where I’m from, señora,” I responded, “more than half the people speak Spanish.”
“Then you’re from Miami,” my hostess declared.
“Do you know Gloria Estefan?” asked a daughter.
“No,” I answered with regret. “I don’t know Gloria. I work on farms. Nobody I know is famous.”
At this point the father entered the dining room carrying another beer and he shooed the women away. “Let the man eat in peace,” he said as he pulled up a chair at my table. His wife brought him a big bowl of soup, too, and put a saucer of fresh aji paste on the table.
“We eat the soup like this,” he declared, swirling a big dollop of aji sauce into the broth. I did likewise and soon could feel a familiar glow in my mouth and belly. “What do you grow?” my host wanted to know.
“Well,” I said, looking at my soup. “I raise goats, and I’ve grown potatoes, fava beans, corn, and aji.”
“I grew up on the farm,” my companion announced. “But when we married we moved to town to make more money. My wife cooks. I go fishing.” After a swig of beer he continued. “My father and brothers are still on the farm. This soup,” he said with a wave of the arm, “the goat, the potato, the corn, the fava beans, the aji - all from our farm.”
I considered this news as I savored my soup. “A lot of Americans have a dream,” I replied, “of a little restaurant, all their own, where they can cook and serve the food grown by their own family on their own land.”
My host was quiet for a bit. We could hear the waltz music from the park and see the barefoot shoeshine boys scurrying after patent leather shoes. I could feel a warm buzz from the beer, the high altitude, and the aji suffuse my body.
“They are dreaming of the countryside,” he finally answered. “And we are dreaming of Miami.”
Copyright Andy Griffin 2010
Julia’s note: This ran as part of our ladybug letter in 2003. and yes, this piece is 8 days late! Andy will have a new piece ready for early next week. We are also working on starting a weekly recipe letter apart from this article/Andy-driven note. Stay tuned. I believe this piece is so beautiful on it’s own, I’ve not added any photos or links or anything.
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