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Friday, June 28, 2013

A Cow Head 25th

Day one of marinading
          I recently found myself in a conversation with a few people about birthdays and what constitutes a memorable birthday celebration. As I sat there thinking about the question I tried to reflect on as many individuals’ birthdays as I could, but found myself unable to remember anything before the age of 18. I guess that makes sense given that it is always easier to remember things that occurred more recently, but it got me thinking about my birthdays especially since mine was coming up. Turning 25 is not exactly a milestone birthday other than I think I can now rent a car in America, which isn’t my idea of exciting. The more I thought about it the more resolute I was in my decision to do something memorable for the big 25. Considering 24 was spent in the middle of a Peace Corps sponsored workshop, I felt that I hadn’t yet partaken in a Paraguayan style celebration of me. That being said I still didn’t have much of an idea of what I was going to do, or who I was going to include until inspiration struck me like a sack or bricks or in this case bones.
                                  I was having lunch a few months ago at Julio’s, my community contact and host father in O’Leary, during Paraguayan Labor Day. Julio’s brother, Jorge, operates a brick making operation in his backyard. In celebration of that important day he and his buddies were busy participating in; well let’s just say imbibing the copious amounts of the local nectar. I noticed that between gulps they were picking at an oddly shaped piece of meat wrapped in tin foil. I asked Julio what they were eating, and he quickly told me that it was a cow head. They promptly served me some tongue after my inquiry, and have to admit it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Having been brought up in a time and place where organs and other less desirable cuts of beef are not consumed, I was intrigued at the prospect of grilling a cow head for my birthday. I thought when else would this even be an option let alone delicacy? I decided right then and there that was what we were going to do. I’ll concede that living in Paraguay, or any country for that matter, makes celebrating a birthday memorable, but feasting on the head of a beautiful behemoth bovine was exactly the kind of bang I was looking for.
The turn
                                  I asked Julio if they were expensive and if he knew where we could get one? He immediately said that they only cost 35,000 Gs. (roughly $8.00), and that he knew a guy that would sell one at a good price. I am not sure why I was so excited at the prospect of eating the head or a large animal. If head was such a treat why does nobody eat it aside from the obvious? That all didn’t matter what did matter was how they hell were we going to prepare and serve it?
Fresh off the grill
                                  I was eager to get peoples opinions about how to cook and marinade the cow head. Julio told me that the best way to do it is to put it in a bath or vinegar, garlic, pepper, seasoned salt, and cumin. Not having any basis to disagree I said that sounded great, and in the weeks leading up to my birthday celebration this past Saturday I was sure to get a bevy of opinions from my friends around the community. Given that Paraguayan cuisine isn’t exactly world renown, I was surprised by the mixed reactions I got from people when I told them about my plan. Some people loved the idea while others looked at me in disgust. The diverging opinions sort of baffled me at first, but the more people I asked the clearer the reasons for the differing opinions were. For anyone who has spent some time with their grandparents growing up can attest, their food preferences can at times leave a young child running for the bathroom. Now I’m not talking about gross vegetables or leftover whatever, but more along the lines of internal organs. I have vivid memories of my grandmother and I going out to eat at a buffet style family restaurant where fare had many dishes that were geared towards the more elderly clientele. I always remember having grandma ask me to bring her a plate of chicken livers to which she would eat at a maddeningly slow pace while waited often times impatiently by engorging on enough soft serve ice cream to me as sick as I perceived chicken livers would make me if I ate them. The chicken livers were easily her favorite dish and would constantly rag me about not trying them. The older I got the more I relented, but I never acquired a taste for them and probably never will.
Digging in
                                  My desire to not eat chicken livers with my grandma is similar to my younger Paraguayan friends desire to not eat cow head. I noticed, however, that socioeconomic status had lot to do with people’s choices of meat and taste preferences. I guess this is pretty obvious because the less desirable cuts of meats are not only cheaper, but also abundant. Many families who have animals sell the prime cuts to supermarkets in the cities or towns and either keep the parts like the stomach, liver, or feet for themselves or to sell in their neighborhood. I notice this occurring in the supermarkets in O’Leary. From time to time there will be a display of a pig or cow head hanging on a sinister looking meat hook in the display case of the meat counter, but for the most part the most prominently displayed meats are shown in front with less desirable hidden in meat lockers behind the counter. It seems as though the supermarkets only display the expensive cuts for the obvious reason that they cost more to buy. Seeing something in front of your face underneath a sign that says special offer might change the mind of the shopper who originally went in to buy cow ankles or some other marginal cut. I have said in other entries that Paraguay is in many ways reminiscent of 1920-1950s America and the butcher shop and the cuts of meat people buy directly support that theory. As the country develops there is more money available to buy choice cuts of meat and more demand. As the demand goes up so must the supply that in turns drives down the demand for cheaper part of meat. It is basic economics, but unlike my upbringing in a time where all I knew were the best cuts of meat in Paraguay, I see the traditional meals and customs that come from the other cuts that have long since left most Americans perceptions of what is edible. Additionally, the number of butcher and butcher sops in communities across America plummeted as supermarkets became abundant and could offer the same meats for less cost. That has not yet happened in Paraguay. The local butcher shops still exist in rural areas and still sell what I’ll call more traditional options.
Playing with the jaw to avoid eating more
                                  My 11-year-old host brother Mathias says his favorite food is breaded and fried cow stomach. Some other traditional dishes that are often served in the rural areas included a soup made of internal organs called caldo ava, what my close neighbor and fellow volunteer calls cow ankle soup, and whenever possible whatever wild animal you happen to shoot when it stupidly wondered onto your property. Even though it is technically illegal, many people hunt and eat wild animals like alligator, carpincho, and opossum. I was recently served a big chunk of what turned out to opossum while eating over at Julio’s house. It had been rooting around the chicken coop in the wee hours of the morning and by the afternoon was the steaming chunk of grill seared meat in front of me. I initially thought it was pork, but my taste buds would not be fooled as I chomped down the first bite of chewy white meat. I did not like it, and took a dictionary for me to figure out what it was. Julio now tells the story that I stopped eating it as soon as I figured out what it was, but neglect to mention that we had eaten our body weight in food before it was ever placed on my plate. I am glad I did it, but probably wouldn’t be grilling the rodent I killed that morning had I been in that particular situation.
Our first ever bite
                                  For the most part, however, my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer has not been defined by weird foods or their subsequent food traditions. Sure I have a few stories, but they more often than not involve me trying something I have had a million times in a way that is only slightly different than the time I had it before and convincing the cook that it was the best version of it I ever had. In spite of all my younger Paraguayan friends telling me not to get cow head, I couldn’t personally think of a better thing to eat on my birthday. Even my close friend Claudio who is about turn 18 had never tried it, which I thought was incredibly given that his dad raved about how delicious it was suppose to be. It makes sense, though, because Claudio’s family is what would classify as middle class for rural Paraguay. They own a store, a motorcycle repair shop, and Claudio now owns a computer repair business in the center of O’Leary. Meat is very much a symbol and I have noticed during my time here that whenever I go over to a family’s house I am always given the biggest and best looking pieces of that is available. People will apologize if we are eating beans or some other non-meat dish because those foods are poor people foods and reminiscent of many people’s childhood when there was much less to eat. So in some way I felt as though the purchase of a cow head for my birthday was a celebration of my personal appreciation for the traditional festive foods of Paraguay.
   It took 4 hours on the grill to cook the cow head after 24 hours of marinating, and to be perfectly honest it looked pretty much the same before it went on the grill as it did afterwards. As I helped Julio lift the cow head from the grill to the table where I was standing with many volunteer and Paraguayan friends I was not exactly salivating at the prospect of eating what was underneath After staring at the smoldering tin foil wrapped head for about 2-minutes I have to admit I was perplexed as to how we were going to eat it. Then with a clang Iris, my host mother, dropped about 15 forks on the table and said lets eat. I’ll now rank my top 5 favorite parts of the cow head, but first I feel that it is prudent to mention that none of it really tasted that good.

1. Back of the head meat
2. Snout
3. Cheek
4. Tongue
5. Brain
Post eye reaction
                                  Some of my braver friends ate the eye, but I was too thrown off by the prospect, and the brain I had just eaten, to give it a shot. The fact that they both woofed it down with minimal flinching after tons of ribbing from the peanut gallery telling them how they were going to vomit was admirable. To say that I left the table satisfied to me means two things. First I did eat enough to feel full. There is a surprising amount of meat on the head, but mostly it was because of my fear of getting nausea by over eating that told my stomach it was satisfied. Second, I couldn’t have imagined a more enjoyable birthday meal for sake of memories. It’ll surely be hard to forget that cold night in Paraguay where I ate my first cow head to celebrate 25 years of existence. Now I can say with confidence that if that is not what makes a birthday special I don’t know what is.

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