Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Me-Food-Eat, A Story of Storm and Burn

David Knowlton

To eat.  Such a simple proposition—without eating there is no life.  Yet, so complex. 

Canoeing among stones and rapids while you know somewhere ahead there is a cliff.

If only it were me, food, eat.  Such a troubled sequence, but the middle, food, that is the flow among boulders and quick descents. 

The moving van arrived first.  We got out of the car and went in, after days driving from Georgia to New Mexico. The table was set in the kitchen, just like it always was, chairs around it.  Nothing to cook, though, and nothing to eat. 

Dad, came in the back door, packages in hand and set them on the table.  After a quick prayer, thanks for getting us here safely.  Thanks for new home and job.  Thanks for food.  Bless…

It was different. It smelled like nothing I had known before. It was red and white and soft.  Food from a new state, a new town where plains jumble into mountains. Staghorns stipple the day, Me, three years old. 

First bite. “Daddy, I’m burnin’ on the inside and burnin’ on the outside”  Race to faucet.  Water, water. 

New home, new food, chile, yes with “e”.  I learned that not long after I learned not to pump down water whenever it appeared. Didn’t I say food was stormy.  Sometimes it is chilli but in New Mexico, they said, it was always chile. In South American Spanish it is ají, and in the Quechua that I now often listen to, it is uchu.  

Me, 19.  Sitting at a table in Bolivia. A magenta blooming, years-old geranium standing tall in the window with blue curtains. Place mats in front of us along with a plate of sliced crusty bread and a small pot of ají blended with tomato called llajwa. We waited for the soup. 

Lunch always started with soup and some days we waited for it to be fully heated. That was hard after a morning of walking all over trying to talk with people.  

Though they meant the bread to be eaten with soup and the llajwa to season the soup, I lifted a slice, spread a spoon-full of llajwa on it and ate. The tingle was strong, throughout my mouth. It made me happy. 

I did not think, just went somewhere away from homesickness, away from hunger, away from frustration, tired legs, and insecurity.  

“Why do you do that?  Put llajwa on your bread?  It is not good for you. They should not eat so much of it here.”  

“It’s just like jam, only better!”

Mom had an ulcer. Dad and the doctors worried, though they said nothing.  You could tell.  They made her stop eating so many good things.  

“Chile is good for an ulcer.  It stings but it will heal it.”  She liked green chile.  We liked green chile.  Even if we now lived in Texas, we ate New Mexico.  

The ulcer went away, but she was ill again and I was far away, in another country, on another continent, though the people here say it is the same, just América. 

“Don’t eat ají.  It is bad for you.  It stimulates and burns your digestive system.  You will have gastritis.“ 

“Eat it. It is high in vitamin C and helps with digestion.” I ate, an act of faith and memory, a sacrament, a spice.  Food. 

Peppers, hot and sweet, began in the Amazon, many near where I was in Oruro. That is what the researchers say, because where the jungle piles up on mountains you find the greatest variety of wild peppers. Anywhere. 

The Spanish ate them first in the Caribbean, maybe on Santo Domingo.  Maybe it was Columbus.  Maybe he had to drink.  (Water?  Wine?  Beer?  What?)  I don’t know, but he called them peppers (pimientos) and also ají, like the people there did since pepper already referred to another seasoning.  

In Mexico, the Aztecs called them chilli and the Spanish there said chile, like us. They brought them to us in New Mexico. Coronado did, though the Indians may well have grown them with their squash and beans before. 

To us, that bite was Spanish. We, though Anglo and from elsewhere, became Spanish when we ate. When we left, we stayed Spanish, New Mexico Spanish, at least in eating chile. 

“The capsaicin in hot peppers slows down the growth of bacteria in food. That is why they are so widespread. You find them all over the world.”

“People who eat spicy food live longer. Capsaicin promotes longevity.”  “Capsaicin helps with chronic pain.”

“Capsaicin reduces tumor growth.”

So many claims. So much controversy. I looked. I found the top recent articles and read, science and jargon aside. So little known. Proof so slim. Still, evidence. Hum . . .

Me, food, eat.  Is there a me without the other two?  Yet food roils. There is no calm place nor safe food to eat. No peace. 

Red. Tortillas soaked in red and piled on the plate. Cheese and onions inside and on top.  Shredded lettuce on the edges. It burns. Makes the eyes tear. 

After eating, when burn settles, the mouth feels clean, refreshed. The body energized. 

Good chile burns the next day too, they say, on the other end.


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