Friday, September 3, 2010

Adventures in Guatemalan food: Paches

At the basis of many a Guatemalan adventure in food is the phenomenon of being “tortillar-ed”. Not to be confused with the action of “tortillar” in the sense: “The masa was tortillared into tortillas,” “tortillar-ed” refers to the rather passive phenomenon of being offered significant quantities of food no less than three times between your house and your final destination (generally involving significant quantities of tortillas, as implied by the verb). And here in Guatemala, being offered food is as good as eating it, so more appropriately, to be tortillar-ed implies being force-fed a large quantity of food within a short time via the Guatemalan ethic of hospitality and sharing.

I do not have to preoccupy myself much about being tortillar-ed. There are other things that occupy the prime worrying slots: the well-being of my wandering street cat in a land of rabies, vicious dogs, apathetic people, and assorted diseases; making friends and fitting in; trying to understand what people really mean to say or not say; avoiding spending more than 10% of my week in church; pick-pockets on the bus; attempting work of some value; among others. Now and again, however, I am tortillar-ed. And I mean hard.

Here I would be referring to my experience with one of the most popular typical foods of this region of Guatemala: paches. Paches are a mushy porridge of starch (either rice or potato) with a pepper sauce and large chunk of chicken in the center (bone optional) wrapped in a big green leaf and then boiled. They're good-sized and inevitably the meal of choice at every special event in my town (goodbye parties, birthdays, lo que sea), served on a styrofoam tray with two slices of Wonder-bread style white bread, which no one here eats under any other circumstances whatsoever. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around this particular tradition.) In some towns of this region the folks with economic means to do so make them every Saturday, although I assume they forgo the styrofoam tray and probably even the white bread- I get the sense that's a special touch for events.

Paches de papa (potato), served with white bread and a warm pineapple drink.

While I inevitably feel wonderful about being included in whatever special event warrants the paches - even if most of the conversation is in Mam and I'm left nodding and smiling - I have very divergent opinions about them depending on what they're made of. I'm always fairly anti-white bread and anti-styrofoam, but aside from that... Paches of potato are delicious. I could eat maybe 3 or 4 of them in one sitting. To me they taste something like curry. Whenever I eat them I always finish feeling more connected to my local community members and somehow happier to be alive. Definitely my favorite local tipico food. End of story.

Paches of rice are bad news. About five bites into my first one I'm remembering how awful they are and my stomach begins to feel as though it is full of sawdust. Nevertheless you have to smile and act extremely excited, because paches of rice are many people's very favorite food here, associated with happy memories of community and family and celebration.

It is common to give two paches here, as a type of snack or small meal, and typically I can manage one paches of rice just fine, and fake my way through the second. The striking beauty of paches is that they come wrapped in a huge leaf, so if you're sneaky, you can actually give the impression you've eaten everything, even when you feel another bite would possibly cause you to explode. I don't mean to come off as ungrateful or wasteful of food, and anyone who knows me knows I almost religiously subscribe to the clean-plate club. But man, you have to be there. There is only so much flavorless twice-boiled rice one can fit inside oneself. You get to be pretty thankful for that leaf.

The worst was when I was invited to the birthday lunch for the 1-year-old daughter of the coordinador of the Office of Municipal Planning. It was actually also the best, because the coordinador invited everyone from the muni a week ahead of time with printed, hand-addressed invitations, made a special arrangement with a local microbus driver to take us all to his aldea, paid for all our bus fares, was clearly so proud to present lunch to all of us in honor of his baby girl. It was really touching to be part of, if kind of comical. All of the characters from the muni traipsing out to this party was undeniably a bit reminiscent of an episode of The Office - if The Office were titled “The Muni” and 95% of the dialogue was in Mam.

At any rate: THREE PACHES for each person! Wow. It was incredible. The family pride was palpable; they certainly must have spent a fair chunk of change to make three paches for something like 40 people (as well as buying THREE professional cakes). I ended up taking my third paches away in a little plastic bag, as is socially acceptable here, since I couldn't even fake that I had touched it. No aguanté, pues. It's so weird, too. I usually can eat so much, and even immediately following the two paches I ate an enormous slice of cake.

But another rice paches, no. They're my kryptonite.

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