October 2012


Teasing is an important part of Nicaragua humor. Sometimes people say the opposite of what they mean, and if you are lucky they’ll accompany it with a smile or a wink to convey it’s a joke.  Usually I get it – it’s fun to joke around with friends this way, and sometimes a creative way complimenting someone.  Like most types of humor it generally works best among close friends or coworkers, people who you know well enough to be able to detect the double meaning!

This is a type of humor I have learned well here, and can really enjoy.  For example, while I was serving plate after plate of food from a giant pot of carne en baho this weekend, every now and then I would look up from the monotonous task of selecting the right proportion of yucca, plantain, meat and salad to put on a plate and handing it to the next person waiting and see an old wonderful friend who I haven’t seen in a very long time.  “Hi!!! Que bueno que veniste, pero que lastimo que ya se acabó la comida y no hay nada para ofrecerte….disculpe…”  “Hi!!!  So nice of you to come, but such a shame the food just ran out and there is nothing to offer you…” All while standing obviously in front of a giant pot of steaming dinner.  And smiling.  Of course it’s a joke, and received with a good laugh and a hug.

Sometimes the humor is a bit harder to detect, though.  The following day we delivered plates of leftover baho to some of our neighbors, and friends who couldn’t make it to the party.  I walked a heaping plate of food down the block to where a family has a small pulpería (corner store) that we always shop at.  We don’t know the family very well, but we see them nearly every day (sometimes several times a day if our shopping is disorganized!).  There are so many little stores scattered around the town, that almost anything you want is dangerously convenient.  It suddenly becomes an incredible nuisance to have to walk the five blocks to the nearest supermarket for something because the pulpería a half block away doesn’t stock it!

The older señora who is super sweet wasn’t attending the store at the moment, so I left the food with her grand daughter and asked her to just hold on to the ceramic plate and we would pick it up later.  An hour later I was walking down the street and the older señora waved me over.  “Su plato!” she called to me.  I went over to get our plate, and she said thank you for the food and asked whose birthday we had been celebrating.  Then she said, “Gracias, pero fue muy poquito, fue solo poquito.” “Thanks, but it wasn’t very much.  It was just a really little bit.”  She said it so seriously, and wrinkled her brow just a bit, and I was totally taken aback.  We don’t even really know them, they aren’t really friends, and she was complaining that I didn’t give her more than one plate of bah0!  “Well, we just divided up what we had and gave it around to everyone, to all the neighbors, even the drunk who is always on the corner you know….” I was kind of flustered and felt silly making excuses but was also a bit offended.  Man, some of the people here sure are hard to please.

Nick laughed when I explained that I was a bit offended by her reaction.  Apparently, saying that food is “just a little bit” is a common way of saying it was really delicious and they could have eaten much more of it!  Well, come to think of it  I guess she was smiling after she said it, and thanked me again, but I was so caught off guard by her words, I didn’t pay much attention to that.  Even after several years here, it still pays to talk things over with a person whose been here longer before getting annoyed at someone.  Imagine if I hadn’t, and stopped shopping there or chatting with this nice woman because I thought she had been so ungrateful.  The layers of culturally specific information cast over a simple phrase can so easily obscure its true meaning!

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     To celebrate Nick’s birthday this past week he decided to do another Carne en Baho, a traditional Nicaraguan dish that we first tried making two years ago.  The party was planned in a casual, informal style – word of mouth, calling friends, making sure that we invited everyone we ran into out town – but there was no facebook invite or big email sent out.  As the date got closer, friends of friends began asking us what they could bring, and we realized that the word really had gotten out!  So the baho plans became more ambitious and in the end we made the most enormous single pot of food I’ve ever seen.  Possibly too big – although passing out all the leftovers to neighbors and friends was fun and earned us quite a bit of social capital points in the neighborhood (and maybe helped to mend any bad feelings left after having played loud music until the wee hours of the morning).

Putting together the baho is an creative endeaver.

     My favorite part of making baho is actually layering all the ingredients into the giant pot.  It’s a very artistic endeavor, and the aesthetic of packing all the ingredients in to the pirol as tightly as possible is visually very pleasing!  The colors of all the raw ingredients are vibrant and beautiful, but when you open the pot after steaming them for 4 hours they have all faded to a dull brown in the meat juices.  But if you’ve done it right, the smell that then fills your whole house makes up for the not-as-pretty-anymore dish.

     We have learned some things since taking on this endeavor  – this time we sat down before hand with our Nica friends and worked out the ingredient list in weight and volume measurements rather than in prices, so we didn’t have to worry about getting ripped off at the market and coming back with less than what we needed.  In the end, we ordered 50 lbs of salted beef from our neighbor across the street, and got a half a sack of yuca, 50 ripe plantains and 20 green plantains, 5 lbs of onions (enough for salad and chili sauce too), a bucket of tomatoes, a bucket of big green peppers, two dozen each of sweet and bitter oranges, three big bunches of mint, a head of celery, and four heads of garlic at the market.  Don’t forget the plantain leaves to line the pirol too – they need to be shiny green and fresh.  The first batch we bought in a hurry as a thunderstorm began at the market, and when we opened the roll of leaves they were moldy so we had to go find more.  We didn’t add up what we spent, but it probably came to around $150 with the meat included, which is a really good deal considering we served at least 150 plates of food in the end!

Our little friends Naomi and Yulisa, relaxing together after actually helping us with a lot of food prep and sweeping!

     Everyone loves a good party, and thank goodness some people love putting together a good party too!  Two of our good friends Melania and Maria Jose spend the whole day helping us chop and prepare and clean, giving us the space to run some last minute errands.  Hooray for our village.  They have been very supportive!  Somehow we managed to create a space that all sorts of people could enjoy – early in the evening our friends with small kids came and had popcorn and played with balloons and helped with last minute setting up.  Some of them left when the house really started filling up and we opened the Baho.  We asked the DJ from our favorite salsa bar in town to come play, and he has such good taste in music that everyone danced – the real Nica indicator that it was a good party!  At the very end of the evening (er, that is, pushing 4am!) the DJ stopped and some of the guests who are musicians played piano and sang, which was a super sweet ending to a rather exhausting but fun evening.

Oof, just barely too much food even for such a giant pot….

 One of my main objectives was to throw a big party without creating a load of awful plastic and styrofoam trash afterward.  I think we were quite successful at that – we shopped at the market using canvas bags instead of buying packaged produce from the supermarket, and also got a few dozen re-usable plastic cups and plates that are light and pack tightly together so we can store them away easily for most of the years.  We served the Baho on the re-usable plastic plates on top of a banana leaf, so after a person finished the leaf could be put in our compost bucket (oh man, our chickens are having a three-day post-fiesta feast now!!!), and the plate could just be rinsed quickly before another leaf was put on and Baho served to someone else.  We were definitely short overall cups, but when someone asked for a cup we just asked them to find an abandoned one and we (or they) would wash it, and no one ever failed to find a used cup sitting under a chair to grab.  With the largest party that has ever been thrown at this house (probably 120 people in total!), at the end of the night we generated – one giant tub of compost for the chickens to enjoy, one large sack of empty plastic soda and rum bottles (which will be recycled), and one medium kitchen garbage bag of paper and plastic trash.  Not bad!

     As before, we were reminded that it’s important to make extra, because it’s customary here to ask for a plate of food to bring home to the person left watching the house while everyone else is at the party.  Some of our neighbors even came the next day asking for leftovers – a true compliment!  My favorite response was from our next door neighbor, when her daughter remarked to her that the baho was really tasty: “well, my goodness, he (Nick) has lived here in Nicaragua for long enough to have learned something useful by now!!”

Can you smell it?!