Pizza in Peru: Baking simply?

It is official, I cooked my first meal for my host family. I had a lot on the line with this meal. Before arriving, I’d let them know that I enjoy cooking. I do, in fact, enjoy working in the kitchen, yet no matter the language, that is always communicated as: “I cook really well.” I’m not really sure where this unfortunate misinterpretation of words originated, but it put much more at stake than I might have intended.

Per their request, I tried my hand at making a pizza. To anyone who knows my history of internet-based kitchen literature, it may come as a surprise to learn that the meal, went quite well. Paco paused between a slice of the ham and pepperoni pizza and a slice of the spinach and red pepper pie to suggest I make pizza next Saturday. Celia suggested that I teach each of them to make pizza some weekend soon. Celia’s mother, who was visiting for the day, repeatedly thanked me and repeatedly insisted that the meal was “rico.”

Yes, the baking went well, and this was not an insignificant accomplishment. It took no small amount of quick thinking and (I’ll admit) some ingenuity to navigate the gaps between the equipment called for in my dough recipe and the equipment in Paco and Celia’s kitchen. Whether it be kneading in place of a dough hook or closely monitoring the baking process in an oven without marked temperatures, the process was far more thought-intensive and as such, rewarding, than I expected. Call it a new branch of living simply: baking simply.

I’d cooked pizza once before, with fellow member of Trinity Presbyterian Church and former pizza shop manager, Steve Parsons. Steve taught me how to use premade dough and canned tomato sauce to make a delicious pizza. As it turns out, neither of those ingredients are readily available in Peru.

I am not so sure about the tomato sauce. Celia bought ketchup when I asked for “salsa de tomate,” so it very well may have been a communication error. Call that the first hiccup of many I overcame in this battle to bake well.

No matter, I just had to create my own pizza dough and sauce. I’d never made a dough before, but with a recipe, it couldn’t be that hard! I found a simple enough recipe online and provided a list of necessary ingredients to Celia.

She bought all the ingredients and everything looked in order (save the ketchup, but we’ll get to that later.)

So I started out Saturday morning. First the recipe called for 1 ½ cups of warm water and 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast. I looked around and realized there were no measuring cups around. Uh-oh, I thought, this is a measurement heavy recipe.

I’ll take a moment here to point that I am pretty sure Celia and Paco do not have measuring cups by choice. They live in a large house and have many possessions. No, I think measuring cups are just less essential in the recipes of the family and therefore are far less likely to find themselves in the family budget. My point is, the difference seemed cultural, not economical.

Not looking to eyeball my way through the recipe looked for anything with a clearly marked measurement. Soon I found a set of plastic cups labeled at 3 oz. A quick google using Celia’s phone, showed me that 3 oz. was .375 cups.

I grabbed a coffee mug and set to testing how much it held using water from the sink. The answer, 1.5 cups, just the amount of water I needed. So I poured a coffee mugs worth of recently boiled water into a cold bowl and used a smaller spoon to put the yeast into the water.

Moving onto the mixture of flour, salt, and sugar, I grew dismayed that the yeast did not seem to be bubbling in the water. Perhaps, there was too little?

I looked up the amount of teaspoons in 3 oz., which turned out to be 18 and found that six spoonfuls of water filled just a sixth of the cup. So I doubled the yeast and found that after some stirring, the mixture started to bubble gloriously.

Satisfied, I made sure to double all other amounts of salt and sugar in the dough recipe and kneaded the dough together by hand. Wrapping it up in a plastic bag, I placed the dough on the sill to rise.

All seemed in order, so I moved to making the sauce. I found three week-old tomatoes in the fridge and chopped them up and dropped them in the blender. I secured the top to prevent a messy, red catastrophe and pressed “Pulse.” And nothing happened. Later, Celia explained that the blender no longer worked, but in the moment I spent five minutes investigating until I discovered that the blender did not actually have blades.

So I moved on to the food processor. Having not used one before, I resigned myself to learn by doing and soon had one bowl of tomato juice and another of gutted tomatoes meat. I dumped this in a pot, which after a simmer I realized would not be enough for two pizzas of 10 and 12 inch diameters.

Apprehensive that my pizza my taste like old Domino’s, I dumped ketchup into the pot to make the sauce go further. In the end, I had just enough sauce to cover both pizzas and luckily, the toppings and cheeses covered up any notable vinegary taste from the ketchup.

At long last, I put on a small show for Ani and Franco as I tossed the dough and spread the crusts in their pans over corn meal (that stuff is non-stick magic, by the way). I plopped the meat lover’s in the oven, keeping a close eye over as the pie baked. As that pie finished, I did the same with the veggie lover’s pie.

By some magic, I caught each pie as the crust browned and cheese turned a light gold. In the moment I was shocked. The pizzas looked, not only edible, but their smells made me realize just how hungry I was after three hours of intensive kitchen work.

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My own pride and the compliments of Paco, Celia, and even Celia’s mother aside, the true moment of victory came when that evening Ani, who resists putting anything edible in mouth that isn’t cheese or slathered in butter, ate two (!) slices. I’m not sure she realized that I made the pizza and I’m not sure if that would have changed her behavior, but all the same I beamed.

So why share this with you? One, it’s my blog and I can write what I want, but also I feel overcoming these unexpected gaps between a Western, privilege-assuming recipe and the kitchen of Paco and Celia has an interesting message for living simply. If you are patient and stay logical it is completely possible to eat richly and live simply.

That said, it is pretty annoying not to have measuring cups and I doubt having them would have diminished my feeling of accomplishment.


Celia and Paco know what they’re doing

That’s how I feel writing this now after an unexpectedly uncomfortable intentional conversation with Celia and Paco. As I got up and start cleaning the house, Celia and Paco exchanged a look and asked me to sit down. The look made it clear, Celia and Paco had discussed having this conversation and to my mind that is rarely a positive sign.

You see I value intentional conversations as much as I tend to find them uncomfortable. In fact, I’d say that’s common for most people. They are essential to addressing issues and maintaining the health of a community, but it’s a rare person whose skin an intentional conversation doesn’t make crawl a bit. It’s easy to feel as if you’re making mountains out of molehills, or when you are the perpetrator of an issue, like you took the relationship for granted. Of course, I admit, I tend to be sensitive, so this experience may be uniquely my own. Still, I’d caution that most people feel this way to some degree, it’s a pretty convincing explanation for the rarity of intentional conversations.

So I was glad that Paco and Celia pointed out that they regularly try to speak with the YAVs they host. Essentially, they check in with YAVs to see whether they can improve and also point out areas they’d like the YAV to change.

That put me somewhat at ease, but the conversation held several uncomfortable moments. I soon realized that I had misinterpreted a few things and as such been less respectful than I thought. And as a temporary member of this family, that’s the last thing I want to do.

Largely, we spoke about logistics within the household, most of which was fairly run-of-the-mill. Additionally, we discussed how I could better interact with Ani and Franco. Specifically, how I could help them to better care for the kids, who are both going through a rebellious, barrier-challenging phase. They apologized that I’m often on the receiving end of this behavior and added that I can help by ignoring them when they act poorly and reporting misbehavior.

I’m hopeful that with time I can do a bit more than engage in approved tattling. More than anything, this strategy doesn’t really work in practice. I mostly just gather a laundry list of offenses to report to Celia and Paco later. For now, this is the best plan to make sure we are a united force. As time goes on, I hope both this phase ends and I will work out how to have authority beyond glorified tattle-telling.

So, most of that went well. Other than the general discomfort at the forced nature of these types of conversations, most everything seemed alright. And then, there was a terrible moment. A moment that felt like a first major failure during my YAV year.

Paco and Celia said that they were uncomfortable with the photos I had posted of their children on Facebook. As they explained, Peruvian culture puts a larger premium on respecting the privacy of children. For example, children’s faces are blocked out on the news. Without express permission of parents in Peru, you cannot show a child’s face in any public media.

I was confused at first. I thought that I had their permission. I remember asking Paco if I could take Ani and Franco’s photo to share with friends and family, and he said sure. As I look back now, that wasn’t even close. I let my excitement at getting to post photos cloud my judgment and lead to a major offense as a YAV.

And I feel terrible about it. Mainly, I don’t see how I could have screwed this up. I’ve heard the speech more times than I count and can condense the takeaway message in one quote: “Don’t assume that’s appropriate to ever post a photo on social media.” I just got so excited about sharing photos of my fantastic companions that I screwed up.

And no lame, “Well you didn’t say anything for the last three weeks,” excuse has a place here. That doesn’t really matter, in fact, it makes it worse. I’ve been acting out of order with the rules of the community for three weeks now.

As I understand it now, I should ask explicit permission before posting any more photos. The rule is not, “Never post photos ever,” but more “Check in. We the parents will approve this.”

Naturally, I appreciate and plan to follow that rule. I also immediately asked if I should take down any or all of the photos I had shared. I was offering a Band Aid for a gaping wound, but I stand by it. After repeating the question several more times to be sure, Paco and Celia said I could leave them up, but I should change my posting habits.

I left that conversation shaken and feeling as unsure of my place within the family. I violated their trust, though they are highly understanding. For a moment, I considered I might as well give up on the YAV year. “Don’t mess up social media” could be a fifth core tenet of the program. Yet, two things helped me move forward.

First, is a message I take from my mother on the “Promise of God/Assurance of Forgiveness/Pardon/whatever-you-want-to-call-it” within the PC(USA) tradition. In my church, we use the words, “The Good News is that in Jesus Christ you are free to begin again.” As my mother often read it the words were, “The Good News is that in Jesus Christ you are free to begin again, again, again, again, again, … , and again.” That indefinite repetition has obviously struck with me, whether she repeated just four times or 14, the message was clear: God’s grace is there for every single screw up you acknowledge and for which you seek to repent.

So that, naturally helped. Yet, even more important, more critical was the realization that Paco and Celia chose to speak with me. They chose to address the issue. And after the discussion, we moved on. I made pizza later that afternoon. On Sunday, we walked around the neighborhood for Election Day.

I am so thankful to Celia and Paco for initiating this conversation and for seeing the importance of open dialogue. In reality, we have a lot to learn about each other. There is no reason to try and do so passively and via context clues, like people often do. We have voices. We can communicate. So why not do it?

Paco and Celia know what they are doing. They do not shy away from intentionality, knowing all the positives it offers. And I’m hopeful you can find similar compassion in the company you keep.

My first excursion: Reflecting after observing

After a false start on Monday, I saw CEDAP’s work in action on Tuesday. I also learned a bit about fellow workers’ worldviews and personalities, which challenged my own opinions. Additionally, I saw the effects of global warming in real time, which was just startling.

I went with Alberto, an older, opinionated engineer who directs the “Dimanización de economías” program, Marco, an assistant engineer at CEDAP, and Paul who drives for CEDAP excursions. Dynamization of Economies involves giving more economic opportunities to the communities than they previously had. A large part of the “Dimanización de economías,” or Dynamization of Economies is a reservoir project. The reservoirs are used to provide water during dry seasons, which are growing more frequent and longer.

We visited the community of Santa Fe, in the Paras district of Ayacucho, and Catalinayocc in Chuschi, closer to the city of Ayacucho, to evaluate the progress of reservoir projects and drop off materials to finish the projects. Santa Fe’s new reservoir was near completed, while Santa Fe’s had at least two days of soil and rock removal left. This was our second attempt at the trip, having found out Monday morning that the local leaders were not ready for our visit. Having traveled in Latin America before, I wasn’t shocked by the false start, but I was apprehensive as I woke up at 4:30 a.m. for the second day in a row.

Luckily, we were off by 6:30 a.m. after stopping for breakfast and picking up member of the community we’d be visiting, Gordofreddy. And over the next two or three hours we navigated the llama-dominated roads.

This was the largest crowd during our drive. They just sort of takeover the road while the shepherds move them along.
This was the largest crowd during our drive. They just sort of takeover the road while the shepherds move them along.

First, we went to the Santa Fe community in Paras, a district of the state of Ayacucho. During the drive, I saw mountains covered in snow and as we reached our destination, at an altitude of 5,000 meters, the incline and slickness of the road proved too much for our Toyota Hilux. (Let me just give a shout out to Toyota for making the Hilux. I felt like I was actually in an off-roading commercial navigating the mountains.)

Very snowy mountains  at 5,000 meters up.
Very snowy mountains at 5,000 meters up.

We started walking over the mountain, through a half-inch layer of wet snow, and arrived at two reservoirs. The smaller one held around 10,000 cubic meters, while the one next to it, still under construction held around 60,000 cubic meters.

Alberto explained that these reservoirs serve to provide water for the local pastures and livestock herds during seasonal periods of drought. He also said that it was critical that I perform an economic evaluation* of these reservoirs. He also added that the larger reservoir cost just 13,000 soles, and compared that with a similar government project, which cost 1,000,000 soles. He said the government wastes money paying supervisors and other workers, which CEDAP does not face**.

Just 10,000 cubic meters of water there.
Just 10,000 cubic meters of water there.
60,000 cubic meters of water!
60,000 cubic meters of water!

Marco and Alberto surveyed the reservoir pump, which was not functioning correctly. They quickly solved the problem, saying that a bolt needed to have another nut added. Honestly, I’m not really sure about the specifics, but it was clear that they solved the issue. I was in a strictly observational role on the trip, save a few moments where I provided minimal manual labor assistance.

While I missed the finer details, I couldn’t miss the snow melting all around me. Alberto explained that just 10 years ago there used to be feet of snow on the mountain. After maybe an hour and half at the reservoir nearly all the snow and melted away and was flowing down towards the reservoirs. As we slowly climbed back towards the truck, the quickly flowing runoff only added to my struggle through the thin oxygen.

After an hour and a half all the snow had melted.
After an hour and a half all the snow had melted.

Of course, this goes far beyond a personal inconvenience. It has completely disrupted the water cycle and changed the ecosystems of the area.

Later, Marco suggested to Alberto that climate change was the primary factor leading to the lack of food in this area. Alberto said it was a factor, but he said it was secondary. Marco suggested that perhaps it was the increase in population, but Alberto said that was also secondary.

Instead, Alberto suggested that leading factor was a loss of communal knowledge for how to allocate and manage resources. This surprised me and I’m unsure whether I agree.

It’s not difficult to work out why communal knowledge stopped spreading after the Green Revolution and twenty years of political violence. The Green Revolution pushed for increased output via Western-technology-focused methods. While it did increase food output, it ignored the value of some cultural practices. The push of the Green Revolution in the 70s followed by the years of violence hindered the transfer of knowledge for an entire generation. So I can see how this knowledge could get lost.

Still I don’t know if I completely agree.

For one thing, I find little use in prescribing a leading cause for the poverty when so many factors are driving this issue. Plus, who is to say that the old ways to manage resources would hold up as the temperatures rose and altered the water cycle? And the population has started to increase in the area, leading to an increase in demand on the land, unlike previously known.

I like that CEDAP is they are sustainability focused, but not technology-neutral. New technology, like community-funded reservoirs, can help reduce the water crises in a sustainable way. So I wonder why Alberto argued that a lack of communal knowledge was to blame when a brand new technology is being implemented.

My response is that perhaps I misunderstood Alberto. Communal knowledge can grow and change, but that only happens when there is communal learning. And that process was most certainly stopped in the last forty years.

I’m hopeful that as my confidence increases both in my Spanish and in conversations with this thoughtful, but opinionated engineer, I can discuss this with Albert in the year to come. After all, communal learning is vital to any community.

*This term keeps popping up. I’m really hoping to get a chance to figure out exactly what an economic evaluation means in the context of CEDAP, because I think it means something very different to me. Look for a post on that later.

**Of course, I wonder whether CEDAP replaces the role of the supervisor. This will be part of the economic evaluation and it may not be one that CEDAP appreciates at first.