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