degrees of separation

We’ve all heard that there are supposedly six degrees of separation between people in today’s world.  With the global economy and social structure that we have, the world is quickly becoming smaller as our relationships become more and more intertwined.  Recently I began to think about the increasing degrees of separation between many of us and the food that we find on our plates daily.  Becoming more connected to my food has been a constant goal for the last few years (though is admittedly difficult while living on the road).  My time in southern Ecuador has brought a heightened appreciation for those who truly are living in close relationships with their food sources.  Here in many cases there may only be one or two degrees of separation between a person and where their food comes from, if any at all, and none of it goes to waste.

Women sale vegetables at the outdoor Sunday market in Gualaceo.

Women sell vegetables at the outdoor Sunday market in Gualaceo.

Every Sunday in the small village of Gualaceo, people from surrounding villages flock to the large market to buy their provisions for the week. Hundreds of people weaved through the umbrella lined outdoor market shopping for vegetables.  Inside were permanent booths filled with potatoes, herbs, and fruit.  Both women and men carried large sacks of produce on their necks or tied to their backs as they left the market.  The variety here was incredible.  South America hasn’t seen the consequences of seed patenting and the subsidizing of crops that the US has.  As a result, there are still numerous varieties of corn and potatoes readily available.  When I asked one vendor how many different types of potatoes she sold, she quickly pointed out the 10 that she sold in her small booth.  I’ve had the pleasure of trying several of them and the flavors and textures are as varied as their shapes and colors.

The variety of potatoes (left) and corn (right) at the Gualaceo market was incredible.

There is a great variety of potatoes (left) and corn (right) available in the Gualaceo market, and throughout South America.

A short walk away is another market that, while you can still buy some meats and produce, is mostly dedicated to cooked foods.  This is THE place in town to eat lunch. Gualaceo is well known for its tortillas.  These cheese stuffed pancakes are either de maiz (corn flour), de choclo (a different type of corn, coarsely ground), or integral (wheat).  The tortillas de choclo may be one of the best things I’ve tasted in the last year.  They are the perfect combination salty and sweet with a wonderful texture. Upstairs, two to three dozen whole chanchos (roasted pigs), lined the balcony.  Outside women sat around small fires cooking cuy (guinea pig).  While we watched this process for a while, we opted for the pork.  As we drove out of town we passed street-side cafes where these same typical meat and tortilla dishes were being served to locals in the surrounding towns.

Gualaceo is known for its tortillas, which are made of wheat or corn and are stuffed with cheese.

Gualaceo is known for its tortillas, which are made of wheat or corn and are stuffed with cheese.

Our lunch of roasted pig, is a typical Ecuadorian meal.

Our lunch of roasted pig, is a typical meal in the mountainous regions of Ecuador.

Cuy is something that I have wanted to try since my first visit to Ecuador in 2003.  At the same time, it’s something that I have never been brave enough to order.  While I never had a guinea pig as a pet growing up, they still seem to belong in a pet store and not roasting over a fire in my mind.  It’s a delicacy here, and is actually quite expensive.  The cuy at the Gualaceo market cost $12 each.  Restaurants in Cuenca sell them for $30. The cost coupled with the fact that it’s a lot of food have been my “excuses” for not trying it to this point.

A woman cooks cuy outside the Gualaceo market.

A woman cooks cuy outside the Gualaceo market.

One of the benefits of living with a family here is that I get to share in their daily life.  The weekend following my trip to Gualaceo, we went to a friend’s home for lunch.  They were hosting a large feast that evening and had butchered a pig and lots of chickens.  Due to some family obligations, we weren’t able to attend the evening festivities but joined Isaura and her family for lunch.  My initial understanding was that we too would be eating roasted pig, but I quickly discovered that it was another sort of “pig” we’d be having.  We were greeted upon our arrival by a couple, cooking cuy over coals in a wheelbarrow in their front yard.  It takes about an hour to cook them, so I had plenty of time to prepare myself mentally for the meal.

Isaura lives in a compound with her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces.  They grow almost everything that they need.  In just a few small acres they had fields of corn and wheat.  Their fences were densely planted raspberries, peach and other fruit trees.  Gardens beside their homes provided vegetables and medicinal herbs.  Chickens roamed freely, while the pigs were housed by the cornfields, and the guinea pigs were kept in a section of the crawl space of one of the homes.

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Isaura and her niece, Estefania, process chickens for the evening’s festivities, while her mother supervises.

The meal was large and starch heavy, as Ecuadorian lunches are.  Chicken and rice soup was followed by cuy with potatoes and rice.  The first few bites were difficult psychologically, but the flavor was good.  I was thankful that I wasn’t handed a plate that included a head.  The toddler next to me, Nati, gnawed on the head of one of the guinea pigs with the same voracity with which I ate ribs when I was not much older than that.  And much like ribs, you eat cuy with your hands, and finish by the licking your fingers clean.  After lunch, we drank cane liquor mixed with sweetened herbal tea, which is supposed to help with digestion after a heavy meal like this one. The only things that were not produced on Isaura’s land that we ate that day were the rice and liquor.  It was very satisfying, and I was thankful that my cuy experience was homegrown and not from a market or restaurant.  I was also happy to be able to mark it off my to-do list because as much as I enjoyed the meal, it was not something I felt the need to doing again.

Isaura lives in a compound with her family, including her two nieces, Estefania and Nati (left).  She prepared a typical lunch of roasted cuy with rice and potatoes (right).

Isaura lives in a compound with her family, including her two nieces, Estefania and Nati (left). She prepared a typical lunch of roasted cuy with rice and potatoes (right).

Whole roasted animals are a common sight here, especially at roadside restaurants. Seeing them one after the other, day after day, can be a little uncomfortable, as can eating directly from one of them.  I am someone who values using as much of an animal as possible and am often looking for different ways to use as many parts of the deer that I harvest as I can.  So, being a hunter who is involved in every part of the process from pasture to plate, I didn’t understand where this discomfort might be coming from.  Then I realized that all this meat, in the market, in the cafes, on the plate next to mine, still had their faces.  The vast majority of meat, aside from fish, we buy in markets in the States come nicely packaged in cuts, or in the case of chickens, with their heads and feet removed.  Not everyone can raise animals at their home and have access to freshly harvested meat.  But if we had more faces in our markets, would we think more about where this food comes from? Would it register that it took a life to bring this nourishment to our plates?  Would we hesitate before we threw out pounds of leftovers every day?  Would we try to eat as much of the animal as possible, so that next to none of it went to waste? If there were fewer degrees of separation between us and our food, would we appreciate more the daily miracle that a huge portion of our health comes directly from plants and animals that are tended by human hands?  Would we realize that real food does not come from the box and jar lined supermarket but from fields and pastures, and in an ideal world, from our own backyards?

Isaura's home, as many houses in this area, is surrounded by fields of corn and gardens where the majority of their food is produced.

Isaura’s home, like most houses in this area, is surrounded by fields of vegetables and animals that provide the majority of their family’s food.

taking in the sights…and the flavors of colombia

Fruit and fish, plantains and potatoes, corn and coconut…these are some of the treasures of Colombian cuisine.  I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through the country and seeing different takes on staple foods in each region I visited.

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A food vendor serves grilled meats at the beach in Santa Marta.

It is clear that people here are connected to and through their food.  Street vendors selling fruit, ice cream, meats and arepas were ubiquitous in every town I visited.  In the evenings, as the people congregated in plazas and parques, the air was filled with the melding of aromas from the various vendors.  During the day, fruit vendors sold multiple types of mangoes as well as other fruits, an array of juices, and coconuts.  There’s no excuse to go hungry here….fresh food is at every turn.

Away from the cities, it was not uncommon to see people working the land and livestock to provide food for those in town.  During a hike, I crossed paths with a man bringing milk into town in large stainless steel containers mounted on donkeys.  This was the first of many similar scenes I saw, particularly in the Cafetera area, where many of the coffee farms and dairies are located.  While visiting a small cafe near Villa de Leyva, some friends and I encountered a woman skinning a pig.  It was such a beautiful scene, as light filtered into the room and she methodically processed this animal that would provide nourishment for many.

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A man makes the journey from his finca with milk to sale in town, near Salento.

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A woman processes a pig near Villa de Leyva (left). Mangoes for sale are a common sight on the streets of Cartagena (right).

Fresh fish was plentiful in the coastal towns of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Cabo de la Vela.  In Cartagena, La Cevicheria served some incredible ceviche with shrimp, fish, conch, and octopus. Even though it was one of the higher priced meals during my time in Colombia, I could not help but return to eat there again my last night in town.  Fried fish served with arroz con coco (coconut rice) and patacones (fried plantains) is a typical meal in coastal areas.  In the Guajira area, we had several of these meals, where the only thing that varied was the type of fish. It was all incredibly tasty.

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Fried fish with arroz con coco near Cabo del la Vela is a meal typical of the area (left). Mixed ceviche in Cartagena was a special treat at La Cevicheria (right).

Arepas and patacones are two foods present throughout the country.  Patacones are fried thinly flattened plantain patties.  While in the coast they are small and served as an accompaniment to a meal, in La Cafetera, they are the size of a large plate and served as vehicles for any number of combinations of meats, cheeses and salsas.  Corn based arepas vary greatly between regions.  In La Cafetera, they resemble thick grilled corn tortillas, covered with meats, cheese, vegetables, or just butter.  On the coast and in the regions around Bogotá, instead of piling food on top of the arepas, they are stuffed with meats, cheeses, eggs, or sweet creamy cheese.  Many of these are grilled as well, but others are deep-fried.  I made it my personal mission to try as many combinations as I could…within reason, of course!

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Arepas near Manizales in La Cafetera are served with butter alongside eggs for breakfast (left). In Santa Marta, a street food vender sells grilled arepas filled with chicken or eggs to hungry beach goers (right).

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Patacones with chicken, cheese, and salsa serves as a filling dinner at the cafe-lined plaza in Salento.