Sunday, August 5, 2012

Death To Mayonnaise

As my journal, hobby, and therapy, this blog has often carried my reflections on food in my life as a volunteer abroad. In “Now We’re Cooking” (October, 2011) I mapped out the direct link between my sanity and having access to a kitchen to cook my own meals. In the very next post (“Sugar and Spice,” October, 2011) I celebrated the arrival—via care-package—of spices, marinades and what should have been a year’s supply of Sour Patch Kids. “Commitment and Canned Meat” (December 2011) was a study in will power, and what it means when canned hot dogs actually start to sound tasty. More recently, before leaving Cape Verde, I reflected on the different eat-spots that I had grown to love in São Vicente (“Restaurant Quality,” May 2012).

Here I am—again—seven weeks into a new adventure in a new country, in a world of culinary opportunities... and obstacles. The good news is, I’ve been here before. I won’t get into whether I like Cape Verdean or Colombian food more—they both have the potential to be absolutely delicious or utterly disappointing. What matters is that it’s not what I grew up eating; therefore, I have to get my mind right, get myself a game-plan, and work the plan. 

I live with a host-family, and eat two meals a day at home. Normally, this is a small breakfast—coffee with some combination of arepas, empanadas, papa rellena*, deditos, bollo or eggs. A typical dinner might be arroz con pollo or carne** with a sopita ("a little soup") on the side.

I am blessed to work in a program with a nutritional element. In addition to playing soccer and doing workshops, our students also eat snack and lunch at the center—which means, so do I! I was recently singing the praises of my Peace Corps dental insurance, but free lunch is easily the second most valuable work benefit that I enjoy. The meal is different everyday and it’s always served with fresh squeezed juice—patilla, melón, mora, maracuyá, tomate de arbol, guayaba, and more. Plus, since it is brought to you by Nu3, you know it’s tasty and nutricious!

I’m not big on sweets, but I do love to get my snack on in various ways. Since there are no Sour Patch Kids to be found in-country, I’ve had to be more creative. Luckily, in Barranquilla I’n never more than 100 yards aways from a delicious avocado, available at your local street vendor or market for the equivalent of 50 cents (lime and salt optional).

When I’m not eating at home or work, I’m exploring new spots around town. My friend Emily has turned me onto some excellent pizza at Panaderia 20 de Julio. Even better is when I’m lucky enough to enjoy a home-cooked meal at a friend or colleague’s house. Fourth of July was a great excuses for us to gather around and celebrate the fine cuisine of the American Melting Pot (pasta, watermelon, chips & salsa, Budweiser). 

I can still taste the tastiness of the authentic Italian meal that my Country Director (boss) and his wife served up over a week ago. Thank you, Napoli, for brining Signori Baldino into our lives.

Overall, food has been no problem here in Colombia. According to the plan I mentioned before, I have taken a few steps to keep it kosher. One of the first things I did was buy a bottle of hot sauce to keep near. My host-family wants no part of it, but they see that I love it and they respect that. Now I find that bottle waiting next to my plate of food when I sit down to eat. One can never underestimate the importance of condiments when it comes to food sanity. With that I mind, I recently made a trip to the big grocery store in the city to grab some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But sometimes it’s not about what condiments you put on your food—it’s about what you don’t put on it.

Earlier this week, I felt the time was right to make my first foray into the kitchen at home to cook a meal for myself. I chose the simplest thing possible: pasta. I grabbed a pack of spaghetti from the corner store and almost bought some “tomato sauce” before remembering that it was really ketchup. Instead, I grabbed a few fresh tomatoes, garlic and a bell pepper from a street vendor and went to work. As expected, a could feel a few members of my host-family start to creep in close over my shoulder as I started to boil the water. “Stay calm,” I told myself, “just stick to the plan.” I positioned myself between them and the stove, boxing them out of the paint just long enough to get the noodles al dente.*** Then I threw in the chopped tomatoes and a little butter, and began to plate it up. Reaching over the pot, my cousin immediately started to reel off a list of everything that my pasta was missing. Actually, I agreed with some of his suggestions (bell pepper, garlic), but explained that I was too hungry and lazy to sauté them up—plus, he was using the only pan at that moment. But then he told me that what my pasta was really missing was mayonnaise... and that's when I lost it. I pivoted, clearing him out—possibly a loose-ball foul—and made it clear that my pasta DID NOT FALTA MAYONESA! He backed down, and we all laughed about it, agreeing that there were a hundred different ways to make pasta. Plus, I reminded them that there were plenty of things (like hot sauce) that I love that they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

The pasta turned out fine, although it was admittedly bland. The important thing is that I survived the process without pissing off or offending my host-family. Like I've said before, cooking a meal brings me peace of mind, even when it's just boiled noodles, tomatoes and butter. After I knocked down two bowls and retired to my bed to enjoy the rest of my lunch break, my host-mom popped her head in the door.

“Baby, can I finish off the rest of the spaghetti in the pot?” And nothing could have made me happier.

Pura Vida,


* "Papa rellena" literally means "stuffed potato." Not to be confused with the better-known Peruvian papa rellana, the local version is more like a thinner-skinned samosa, without the heavy spices.

** Carne = meat

*** Yes, they were appalled that I did not cook the pasta for another 30 minutes.


  1. Next challenge is to take on the American mid-west's cultural love affair with Waldorf Salad.

    1. I'm sorry, but to, the words "salad" and "mayonnaise" are mutually exclusive

  2. I know exactly how you feel! Even making scrambled eggs can feel amazing. When I lived with a family in Venezuela, they let me cook dinner for everyone.. I managed to find some soy sauce and other ingredients and made beef/vegetable stir fry and fried rice. It was such a novelty for them! I'm loving the posts lately :)