Kaqatij k’i uwach qawa’

(We eat all kinds of food)

We were warned by our professors that if anyone in town started asking about our family-stays, it was probably out of jealousy.  Therefore, we should be as vague as possible in our replies.  Questions about how much we pay them should be answered “Not very much;” questions about what we eat should be answered, “We eat all kinds of food.”

I generally consider myself to have a strong stomach.  I’m not afraid of street food, and I’ll try just about anything once.  Aside from my unfortunate bout with parasites last time I was in Guatemala (due to, I believe, brushing my teeth with tap water that came from dangerously near the human sewage dump), I haven’t been ill while traveling.

That said, dinners in my family’s house have been fairly predictable: beans and eggs and sometimes some queso fresco; bright-orange squash soup with cilantro and a hard-boiled egg; fried chicken; ichaj (“herbs”– basically collard greens) in their own broth; and the ubiquitous tortillas. I’m pretty fond of the food: it’s simple, more or less nutritious (the fried chicken being “less”) and it tastes pretty good.

The other night, my oldest host sister presented me with a bowl of the bright orange squash soup. It’s the same orange sauce/ broth that they use in chuchito filling, but slightly thinner.  In the middle of the soup floated an unidentifiable, pale object.  It had the texture of chicken skin, and I thought that it was simply a piece of skin on a breast/ leg of chicken.

I went to remove the chicken skin and found that it was actually a bundle of chicken skin-like objects. It looked like a little booklet of chicken skin.  I was unsure whether it was plant or animal.  The puckered texture and bundled form made me think that perhaps it was a vegetable I had never seen before, but the composition (slightly rubbery) suggested otherwise.  I couldn’t cut it with the spoon they had provided me. Hm.

Turning to Julia, my oldest host sister, I asked, “Um… what is this?” And then, trying to soften my inquiry, “We don’t have this in the United States, and I’m just curious.”

“It’s panza!” She replied. Ohhh, right! Panza!

… What the hell is panza?!

Trying to figure it out without looking like a complete moron (and still having no idea whether it was vegetal or animal), I politely continued, “I see, and how do you prepare it?”

She looked at me quizzically (which is the nice way of saying that she looked at me like I was a complete moron), “You just cut it up and cook it.”

Right.

At that moment, my host father looked at me and said with his standard big grin, “It’s panza! Panza from a cow!”

Oh god.

I still didn’t have any idea what the hell panza was, but I knew that it was some unidentified part of a cow.  I knew that it couldn’t be tongue (lengua), or liver (hígado) and wracking my brain for other edible cow- parts, all I could come up with were stomach and intestine. Oh god.

I suddenly felt dizzy, no joke, and thought I might end up face-flat in my bowl of cow-part soup.

“Is it good?” My host sister asked.  “Yeah,” I replied, lying through my teeth and choking back my gag reflex, “it’s delicious.”

I couldn’t even take a bite. Every time I looked at the pale, puckered mass in the middle of the bright orange broth, I felt the bile rise in my throat.  Even the smell was making me feel nauseous.

Chatij! Chatij!” My family took turns encouraging me to eat.  I carefully dabbed at the broth with tortillas from the enormous stack next to my plate. “Chatij! Chatij!” They said, until all the tortillas were gone. A meal isn’t finished until your tortillas are gone.

I failed. I didn’t try the cow- part in my soup (later confirmed as cow stomach in my Spanish- English dictionary).  I felt even worse when I found out that the vegetarian girl who is staying in a house that does not understand what vegetarianism is was served and successfully consumed cow stomach a couple of nights later.

I have found the frontier of my culinary adventurousness, and it is sadly limited. Perhaps I will have another chance to prove my mettle, and be served fried larvae or grasshoppers or some similarly exotic Guatemalan special-occasion dish.  For now, it looks like it’s eggs and beans for me.  And I’m alright with that.

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