If you had happened to be walking down 4th avenue in San Miguel Escobar last Saturday around noon, you would have seen me and my Spanish teacher Blanca carrying a massive, scalding frying pan in a Guatemalan swaddling cloth woven for newborn babies. This strange event was only one of many misadventures that day.
As my time in Guatemala began to come to an end, I wanted to cook a thank-you lunch for my host family, my instructor and his family, Biz and Nell, and my Spanish teacher. I settled on an overly-ambitious menu of avogolemono (a Greek chicken soup), a massive Greek bread, two salads, and strawberries with cream. I wanted to share a few of my favorite foods, like the Greek cuisine I eat with my grandmother at Christmas, the strawberries I associate with summers in New Hampshire, and the obligatory kale salad I must like as a Brooklynite.
The adventure began on Thursday, when Biz, Nell, and I went to Antigua to buy ingredients. Our first stop was La Bodegona, a massive grocery store that caters to locals and tourists alike, resulting in an overwhelming maze of food. We found three separate pasta aisles, went on a several-minutes long quest for powdered sugar, and even stumbled into a whole separate building dedicated to clothing, which felt a little like stepping into another dimension. After La Bodegona, with our iPhone translators at the ready, we crossed the street to the municipal market where we spent an equal amount of time finding our way to the vegetable section as we did actually shopping.
On Friday, I spent the whole morning cooking the soup, and prepping the other dishes for lunch the following day. My grandmother helped me start the wood stove for the soup, and then watched in horror as I put my chickens directly into boiling water without washing them. She efficiently helped me rescue the birds and run them under the tap, and although a crisis was averted, she and my host mother asked me if I had washed just about everything else every time I added it to a dish. Whoops!
A few minutes after chicken-gate, I ran into soup crisis number 2. In Greek, the name of the dish means egg-lemon soup, and although fresh eggs abound here, it turns out there’s not a lemon to be found in all of Antigua. As I later learned, lemons require cooler temperatures than limes, and are thus not well suited to tropical, warm countries like Guatemala. Fortunately, my instructor Juancho brought me an alternative citrus fruit he grows at home, and combined with lime, I used that to replace the lemons. Satisfied with my soup, I put it in the fridge, and called it a day.
On Saturday, I woke up very early to start the bread dough. Guessing roughly how much yeast to add in absence of the rapid-rise packets I’m used to, I got the dough rising right about when the rest of the family woke up. The mornings here are quite chilly, and as a result, I was having a hard time getting my bread to rise. I tried putting it various parts of our patio and kitchen, boiled water to heat the bowl, and finally settled on an elaborate system of heating and cooling the dough on our stove, around the boiling coffee, beans, eggs, and tortillas my host grandmother was preparing for breakfast. Eventually, I was satisfied with the dough, and enlisted the help of my hosts sisters to braid it.
Once the bread was set, my host sister and I carried it down the street to my Spanish teacher’s house to bake. The oven in my kitchen doesn’t work, so Blanca generously volunteered hers. When we arrived, however, we discovered that the massive frying pan we were using for the bread didn’t fit into her oven. Fortunately, she had a larger oven in a different part of the house, and her husband kindly dragged it to the kitchen and connected it to the gas. Unfortunately, however, this oven only had two markings to measure temperature, a plus sign and a minus sign. I took a guess and selected plus, and then told Blanca I would return in an hour. I guessed wrong. 20 minutes later, Blanca texted me a photo of some very crispy looking bread, and asked me if this was what I was going for. I sprinted down the street (my host sister led the way on her bike) and found my bread several shades darker than it should have been. Fortunately, with some scraping, we managed to salvage the bread, and the inside was just as tasty as usual. The final challenge, however, was getting the bread back to my house. Blanca volunteered her baby swaddle, and that’s how I found myself on fourth avenue with a piping-hot Greek holiday bread.
Meanwhile, a situation was developing at home. Before picking up my bread, I had put the soup on the stove to heat up. As I was walking home, my host mother called me to say that the soup smelled horrible, and had separated overnight. Disappointed, I was resigned to cooking spaghetti as a last-minute replacement, but my host mother would hear none of it. “We’re going to remake the soup!” she declared confidently, even though we had less than an hour until our guests were going to arrive. I tried to reason with her, but she had already fired up the wood stove and enlisted her mother to help us. “¡Manos a la obra!” she declared, and went into a frenzy of buying replacement chickens, helping me chop ingredients, and heaping wood into the stove to speed up the cooking. One second I would see her at the woodpile, and the next she would be stirring the soup side-by-side with my host grandmother who was picking apart chicken carcasses like it was an Olympic sport. And, about 45 minutes later, just as our guests were walking in the door, we had a fully-completed soup!
The lunch ended up being a huge success. The food (against all odds) turned out well, but the best part about the meal was spending it with all of the people who have made my two months here magical. I’m so sad that I only have one more week in Guatemala, but the lunch reminded me that the connections I’ve made here will last a lifetime.