Monday, May 28, 2012

Hot Sauce in Haiti

Everyone expects that if you're a missionary you will have some really gross food stories.  And with 25 years of mission experience under my belt, yeah, my stomach could tell you some stories you'd rather not hear.  But this blog entry by Barbi Boots, a physician assistant in Haiti, far surpasses my story-telling abilities, so I will let her do the speaking. 

By the way, this was all triggered by a recent meal in which David couldn't make out the taste of the meat chunks, and it being Haiti, I volunteered that it was likely goat. 

And to think I used to believe monkey brains were the worst thing I ever ate for the sake of the Gospel.  Silly me!

As always, praying before my meals,
               Menudo-eating Melinda (but only when I have to) and David

I am so immature.

I stare down into the bowl of brown meaty chunks floating in a greenish brown watery chum, littered with specks of this and that, surrounded by a slick of swirling oil. I have a sudden flashback to the Louisiana gulf coast, and the BP oil spill catastrophe. The meat bobs like so many slimy, contaminated pelicans in a sea of sticky black crude.

Stew. Oh, no. Please...not stew. No no no. Not stew.

I stand in the dinner line and tap one of the brown floating blobs with the ladle and watch it momentarily sink, then bob resiliently back up to the surface. A strange, stringy, brownish floating leathery substance.


This appears to be Estelle.  The goat.  Last seen tied by a short rope to an overturned toilet out in a distant corner of our compound.  Looking a little different now...her brown fur coat, elongated pupils, little goat smile...all stripped away.  Literally.  Oh, Estelle.  Mwen regret sa.  You have become a stew.

It's not that I'm a picky eater with stringent criteria for meals such as flavor and nutrition.  I eat my own cooking for heaven's sake. And it is a rare day when my culinary efforts contain both items simultaneously.  I learned long ago to be grateful for any food that is put in front of me.  So, though I have never been a fan of most meat, and turn pink and wheeze at the thought of certain shellfish, I will rarely push away a meal that has been prepared for me. At least outwardly. Inwardly, however, there is sometimes a whole lot of resistance going on.

There was that great dish "slaninia" when I lived in the former Soviet Union. That's raw pig fat with skin and, yes, coarse spiky hair still attached. A favorite of the locals, especially fresh from the slaughter. (Sometime, let me tell you the story of a disease called neurocystercercosis... from a 10-plus foot tape worm acquired from eating raw pork. But that's another story for another day.)

Ah, yes...nothing like the sound of a screaming pig as it is slaughtered deftly in a neighbor's yard, hanging from its hind legs from a tree. As it exsanguinates into a bucket from its recent machete slice to the carotids, there is also -- unfortunately -- nothing quite like the sound of a thoughtful, neighbor, generously hacking off a slab of warm fatty flesh and skin, and calling out to you over the fence, "Friend...friend....would you like some slanina?"

I can't say that I ever "liked some slanina."

Thanks, "friend."

But, would I blankly turn my lips upward into a pseudosmile of pseudothanks, force my hand into extension, take the proffered still-warm, hairy, rubbery pig fat between my index finger and thumb, slowly lift it towards my reticently parting lips and shove it deftly at my clenched teeth until they reluctantly parted, then chewed wide eyed with an "mmmmmm..." sound that, depending on one's interpretation, could equal either pleasure or a suppressed whimper?
Yes. Yes I would.

The dance of cultural culinary acceptance.

When I lived in an Alaskan native village, did I similarly extend my hand to the generously proffered dish of raw seaweed, raw sea snails, and some sort of pea-sized raw fish eggs collected in honor of the coming of spring?  Did I pseudosmile as I chewed, each fish egg popping like a small eyeball in my mouth, squirting out a gelatinous sharp fishy ooze that simultaneously caused sweat to pop similarly from the pores of my brow, a reflexive gag in my posterior pharynx and sharp tears to sting the corners of my widely held, unblinking eyes as I whimpered internally?

Yes. Yes, I did.

And, when my friend -- a native Alaskan -- grinned knowingly as she watched me slowly chew and pop with a watery-wide-eyed "mmmmm," pseudosavoring the fishy slime, then quietly reached over and wordlessly scraped the remainder of the mix into her own bowl...did she become one of my heroes for life?

Yes. Yes she did.

Like the Native Alaskans and Native Americans that I have known, I am an omnivore sometimes out of necessity.  But, as a not-avid meat- and living- creature eater, I acknowledge the sacrifice of the creature that gave its life for mine.
So, I will quietly eat what is lain before me...and be grateful for its generosity.

Or, so I try to tell my so-called-noble self.

This intellectual challenge to the palate is far more acute when one spends the day staring at malnourished children. Ten pound 2-year-olds. Young teenagers no taller than a first grader.  Mothers who grab at my arm and say, "Dokte...I cannot feed my children. They are starving.  Can you please help me?  Can you give me food?"  Orange-haired Haitian children...with scaling skin, bulging bellies, protruding ribs...evidence of protein malnutrition.  Marasmus Kwashiorkor. Starvation.

I am lucky to be eating.  Even luckier to have protein.  I am so overtly well fed. Overly fed.  More than fortunate.  What a hypocrite I am, I think, as I balk at the proteinacous floating bits before me.  Hungry sunken child eyes and flaccid skin and bony ribs flash behind my eyelids.  Selfish hypocrite.

And so, I take a deep breath and face the bobbing oil-slickaceous goat stew.

Thank you, Estelle the goat, for the days tied without dignity to the toilet, fattening yourself up for this day.  That can't have been an inspiring life for you.  Thank you cooks, who raised, slaughtered, skinned and slaved to prepare this stew for me today.  Because you are honoring me as a volunteer in your clinic and a guest in your land with this gift of meat. Because you take the time to caringly cook for me.  In a land where so many go hungry every night.

Thank you for this food today. And for the contrast of my lot in life...with those that I meet every make me realize how fortunate and comfortable I truly am.

Don't let me forget that.

And, well, in a flash of extreme immaturity, here's a shout out to Louisiana Hot Sauce.

You are the ambassador of the international food ingestion challenge. The peacekeeper.  The great leveler of the experimental palate.  Creating peace, understanding and culinary tolerance wherever you set your beautiful red-orange glass-bottled self.

Glad to have made your acquaintance here in Haiti.
You single-handedly retrieved the shards of my wavering idealism while effectively suppressing my overly zealous goat-induced gag reflex.

Today, you -- in your uniquely fiery, spicy, distractingly vivacious nature -- are my hero.  Perhaps, starting today, I will endeavor to be more like you.

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