Papas para Pusunchas

The following tale is a dramatization of real lunchtime events

“Why didn’t they finish all their food?” she wonders, only able to find one explanation. “They must not like my cooking.”
He knows she thinks this. It should seem rather simple to clean one’s plate, seeing as it’s a matter of good manners and lunch is always preceded by hours of long hikes. But it is not so simple. One torturous obstacle stands in the middle of his journey from rudeness to politeness. The lumpy, starchy centerpiece of Peruvian cuisine and nearly every lunch. He shudders at its name.

The potato.

He wishes he could express how thankful he is that she cooks lunch while they work, more than just a “muchas gracias” after each meal. But in order to clean his plate, each time he must face a yet unconquered opponent. Always there, sometimes the highlight of the plate, sometimes hiding beneath the cuy and rice, waiting to push some unknowing soul to levels of fullness he hasn’t felt before. And hopefully won’t feel again. He knows the challenge he will face, but he decides that night that he will do what it takes to show his gratitude for her cooking and hospitality.

He wakes in the morning a little uneasy, having had a hard time sleeping, but still with equal determination. The hours seem to fly by, the ride in the pickup truck, the hike through the community, the mapping and data collection. Each task completed while the mind remains expectant of what’s to come. He does his best to prepare himself, walking a little faster and a little farther where he can. He seems to feel a little hungrier than usual as noon begins to approach. He thinks to himself that he might be ready, but he does not know that nothing could prepare him for what’s to come.

He enters the brown adobe house with the mien of a gladiator about to enter battle. His senses are heightened as he sits at the small dining table. His nose catches a whiff of something from the kitchen. It’s a familiar scent, muted but foreboding. It drafts from one room to the next. He can almost feel them boiling from the room over. Closing his eyes for a moment, he tries to empty his mind. But the relief is only temporary. He hears footsteps and he opens his eyes to see a plate being placed in front of him. The battle has begun.

He goes for the meat first, not because it was on top, but because he knows it’s lack of carbohydrates will leave him ready for the rest of the meal. As he lifts the meat however he is bewildered to find that what he thought was four potatoes is actually six, two hidden by the cuy leg. Their round fullness (not to mention their ‘six’ness) causes him to hesitate. After a second’s pause he attacks the meat with a newfound intensity. It’s gone in less time than it takes to say “Princeton University student chapter of Engineers Without Borders – Perú team.”

He’s off to a strong start. For a short moment he thinks the tide of the fight is in his favor. That sentiment however is short lived. The first bite of potato is almost too much to swallow, lasting long enough in his mouth that he can feel the chewing in his jaw muscles. He takes a bit of the rice and maiz to help the potato down, but the collection of starches hits like a rock at the bottom of his stomach. And looking at his plate he struggles to even find a dent.

It is at this point that he realized he must change up his strategy, lest he be defeated by the next whole potato. Taking a whole potato, he chops it up into a dozen pieces. He knows he has to do this quickly or else he’ll start to feel full too early. He grips the spoon a little tighter and begins to lift the first potato slice. His forearm strains as he fires the potato pieces down his gullet, following each with a small bit of rice to pack it down. The first whole potato is gone in a flash. He starts to think that he is on to something as he got the whole potato down in one shot and hardly even felt it hit his stomach.

He continues to use this strategy. One. Two. Three potatoes down in nothing more than a couple of minutes. There was even a sizeable dent in the rice. He then decides that it is time to take a break from the potatoes so as not to exhaust himself. Instead he goes to finish off the maiz. It looks like it shouldn’t be a problem, just a small pile. He spends a little less than five minutes on it before it’s gone and he feels content to have finished two parts of the dish.

But then he feels it.

A single drop of sweat drips down his brow. He is starting to get a little hot in the face. He knows before he can even feel it in his stomach that he is starting to get full. He looks again at the plate. Two potatoes and about a quarter pound of rice. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem he thinks. He begins his strategy of cutting the potato into slices. But after he swallows the first slice his body nearly rejects the lumpy ball of starch.

He no longer knows if he can do it. It seems that he has come so close but just the thought of another potato is nearing on revolting. His mouth feels as if it has taken on a mind of its own and is refusing to open for more. He closes his eyes so he can think apart from his food. After a brief moment of pondering he decides that hesitating now will only make things worse as his stomach realizes just how much food has already been put inside of it.

He finishes the fifth potato just as the others before, though this time something does not feel right. His stomach begins to feel queasy as it tries to stretch but cannot. He thinks this might be the end. He looks down at the few spoonfuls of rice and the single potato left. They stare back at him, straight into the deepest parts of his soul. They penetrate his being, as if they are speaking directly into his consciousness. “You are weak,” they say. He starts to believe it.

But then something he sees from across the table shocks him. The Peruvian community member at the table is already on his second plate. This is troubling. Rather than continue to be discouraged however he decides that he will not let himself be defeated. He turns back to his own plate. He decides he can go for the rice.

A few uncomfortable spoonfuls later the rice is gone, not necessarily having made it to his stomach yet but still at least trapped somewhere in the middle of his esophagus. He no longer feels full. He feels like a balloon. But not a balloon filled with air, no. He feels like a balloon filled with sand, held open under an endless stream and struggling to support the growing weight of its contents. He looks back down at the plate. A single potato. Though for some reason it seems to be growing larger and larger.

He realizes that if he tries to take this one in steps that he’ll never finish. He’ll have to take it all at once. He puts the whole potato in his mouth and starts chewing. His cheeks are entirely full such that it is almost impossible to move the food around to chew. He looks and feels absurd, like a squirrel. The more and more he continues to chew however he realizes that it is a futile effort. There seems to be an impassable gap between the acts of chewing and swallowing that he never knew existed before. He’s not going to be able to swallow this food normally.

This can’t go on for any longer he decides. That’s it. He’ll have to swallow it like a pill. He grabs his water bottle and prepares himself. As he uncaps his water and lifts the cool plastic to his lips he is unsure of how he is going to do it. But he proceeds without thinking. The water rushes into his mouth, only partially surrounding the starchy potato mass that never really got broken up. It’s not enough but it’ll have to do. He feels as if he is pushing a square block through a round hole. There’s a brief moment of pain in his throat but, like that, it disappears along with the potato. He’s done it.

He looks down at the plate. Sheer white without a speck on it. He visually sizes up the amount it had contained and looks down at his bloated stomach, wily eyed, still in disbelief that it had all fit in there. At this point however the feeling of unbearable fullness is drowned out by the satisfaction of having cleaned his plate. He did it. He achieved his goal.

His stomach is questioning why he did it, but he knows why. He is glad he is able to show his appreciation, even in a small way, for not only the cooking, but for the hospitality of the whole community. He knows it is this relationship of gratitude and respect that sits at the core of the project. It is this driving factor that helps him do what he thought he could not.

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