Food Is Culture

Food is an essential element to one’s culture. One of the first things you might do to experience a new culture is taste a typical food or drink. Here in Paraguay we were immediately introduced to mbeju, a type of cheesy flat bread; sopa paraguaya, a type of cheesy corn bread; and cocido, a hot drink made with sugar and yerba. These foods have played an enjoyable part in immersing us in the Paraguayan culture.

Isaiah and I really enjoy cooking and have often found ourselves craving some bolder flavors and spices than what the mild Paraguayan fare has offered us. So this past weekend we traveled to San Juan, home of fellow volunteer Ginsey, to taste the flavors of the Indian culture. We endured a bumpy bus ride along dirt roads which kindly emptied out the contents of Isaiah’s stomach (which, after a moral dilemma over being a litterbug, got tossed out the window in a yellow plastic bag) so there was plenty of room to fill up on delectable curries, dahl, and naan. Ginsey even generously sent us on our way with baggies of all sorts of spices from the States which we’ve already put to use back in Yuty.

But in addition to all the tasty food, it was fun to get to know Ginsey more and hear about her year plus of Peace Corps experience. I peppered her with questions of how she schedules her days to how she’s gone about starting community groups – tapping into her expertise as much as I was able.

And to top off an already great trip, I got to meet a former Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in Ginsey’s town with her Paraguayan husband (who she met just three months before her term of service was scheduled to wrap up) and their three kids. What makes this “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer” so special? She grew up in Washington, Iowa, the next town over from my hometown of Kalona! Tears sprang to my eyes as she and I recounted the beauty of observing fall in eastern Iowa while driving along the Sharon Center Road. Or the green of the endless cornfields over the gently rolling hills in the summer. I’m so aware of how crazily obsessive it sounds, but sitting on a patio in small town Paraguay talking in English with strangers-instantly-turned-friends about mutual acquaintances brought too much joy to contain.

Upon our return to Yuty, we continued the food fest by baking tiny cookies that are near and dear to my heart: peppernuts. They’re a Mennonite thing and I have wonderful memories of going to IMS, my local private high school, to roll, cut, and bake peppernuts with the countless volunteers. These peppernuts, or at least the ones left after I sampled frequently checked for quality control, would be sold at our Relief Sale – the annual event that happens all across the country to raise funds for the national and international relief work of Mennonite Central Committee. Think state fair minus the rides, carnies, and animal competitions plus absolutely delicious homemade food (homemade pies, ice cream, kettle corn, apple fritters, and of course peppernuts just to name a few of my favorites), handmade quilt auction, and running into people you know at every turn. And knowing that all the proceeds go to a top-notch cause.

This past weekend was the Relief Sale in Indiana, my home for the past ten years. So in honor and remembrance, we stirred up some batter, rolled in into snakes, cut the snakes into little rounds, and baked them until golden brown. Our recipe made one and a half gallons of the little beauties (which neither contain pepper nor nuts). That is a lot of cutting and baking, but definitely worth the flavor of home. Not to mention it’s been a fun way to share a taste of our culture with our new friends in Yuty.

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8 thoughts on “Food Is Culture

  1. Allison, sounds like you may be getting a little homesick! Glad you were able to make some connections (and peppernuts), to give you a taste of Iowa. Isaiah, always the clever one – so smart to empty your stomach before the big feast! Kind of like what I did on the back of the boat coming from Isle Royale before we ate at the Ambassador.

  2. I loved this post! I got sad and joyful for you as you talked about getting teary when you talked to a fellow Iowan! And I am so glad that you guys got to make peppernuts! Love those things! It sounds like you two are settling in wonderfully!

    • Yes, Heather, you understand that Ioway connection! I’m realizing I can miss things back home while at the same time be happy here – that it’s not one or the other. I’m sure you get that too!

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