The sight of an old-fashioned iron stove.
The smell of wood smoke.
The aroma of beef-steak milanesa.
Or the crackling sound of empanadas frying in bubbling grease, stuffed with ground beef and hard-cooked eggs, perfumed with a hint of cumin.
That’s all it takes to reconstruct her magical touch in the kitchen, in my mind anyway.
Who was this cook, with the spirit of Tita in Like Water for Chocolate?
For a brief time in my life, the best food in the world came to me from the hands of Doña Olga, a Ukrainian cook in the pension in my Peace Corps village of Fram, Paraguay, about 24 miles north of Encarnación, on the banks of the Parana River. However, given the red-dirt road that led out of Fram to the paved highway to Asunción, it might as well have been a thousand miles away. When rain poured down, the road oozed with thick, sucking mud, and the local police closed it off, in an attempt to prevent serious ruts from developing.
And so, with the aroma of Doña Olga’s dishes, as I often reconstruct them in my own modern kitchen, I recall the drizzly cold September day when I first entered Doña Olga’s small-but-bountiful world and her down-to-earth cooking.
The Peace Corps doctor drove some of us from Asunción to our villages. He unceremoniously deposited my one suitcase with a dull thud on the wooden sidewalk in front of the pension. Then together we dragged in the footlocker full of paperbacks Peace Corps supplied to all volunteers. I waved to the rest of the volunteers and walked through the pension door, my knee-high leather boots covered with thick red mud, my nerves humming like a tuning fork. My stomach growled, but as a stranger in a strange town I hungered for something more than food.
Cold nervous sweat rolled down my torso. I felt like it was the first day of school.
Inside the pension’s main entrance, Doña Olga gently led me to a rickety thatched chair in front of a none-too clean square table and bustled off down three short steps into the kitchen. Soon a steaming cup of yerba maté tea, my first nourishment from Doña Olga’s hands, warmed my cold trembling fingers.
Pleased that I had taken to the warm tea, Doña Olga proudly placed in front of me three small turnover-like pastries on a small plate lined with a paper napkin and stepped back to observe my reaction to THAT. Tittering, she pushed a strand of blond hair out of her blue eyes, and shoved a cork-stoppered wine bottle full of pickled hot peppers in vinegar towards me, indicating that I should douse the turnovers with a drop or two of that liquid fire. I did. My mouth then closed around the first empanada I ever ate, the flaky crust encasing a savory ground meat filling lightly scented with cumin, onions, a hint of garlic, black pepper, and warming hot pepper juice.
And so day after day, amidst chickens cackling at my feet and stray starveling dogs sniffing at my plates, I became a very partial observer of the wizardry emanating from that dark smoky kitchen.
No doubt some of the chickens clucking at my feet eventually arrived at my table on a plate and not on their feet. Not often, though. Cooking a chicken was usually akin to killing the goose that laid the golden egg. In that household, indeed in the entire town, where no one never knew if there would be meat for sale in the local market, eggs lived up to their role as the perfect food. Many weeks often went by with no meat in that town.
But when meat hung bloody in the early morning market, the endless fried eggs and rice gave way to celebration and Doña Olga’s best creations: bife à caballo—beef steak done to perfection with a sunny-side-up egg perched on top or milanesa—beef steak flattened with a mallet and fried in bread crumbs until golden brown in color.
Unfortunately, meat on the menu also meant menudo — tripe stew — with noisome whitish chunks of flesh floating in broth, along with a few carrot and potato chunks. Over the years, I tried menudo again and the verdict is still “No thanks.”
Knowing my intense dislike of tripe, Doña Olga made up for it by fabricating her version of pain au chocolat, thick cake-like chunks of sweet white bread with a bit of a chocolate bar buried in the center of the dough balls before baking. Like a child, I would break open the bread and eat the chocolate first. Bliss it was! Or the next day, she might turn her hand to a rustic version of pissaladière, spread with a tomato jam and an onion confit-like mixture, dotted with a half a black olive on each square piece; this “pizza” satisfied the longings of my pizza-deprived American soul.
Insulated by the ignorance and arrogance of youth, it never occurred to me to ask Doña Olga for a single recipe. I hope that she is still cooking and creating taste memories for all those who pass through her small dining room. For that period of my life, her food saved me and nourished me and gave me the strength to do the job I volunteered to do.
Alas the only photos I took of Doña Olga were on a roll of film in a backpack that fell off my boyfriend’s motorcycle when we hit a rough spot in the road on the way to Encarnación. We never did find the backpack.
So all I have left are the memories.
EMPANADAS: To make empanadas, follow this link with step-by-step photos.
For more about Paraguay, click HERE.
© 2020 C. Bertelsen