The kitchen, humble or rich, was a prime target of this decorous
insistence upon the duties of a good woman.
~ M. F. K. Fisher
Dust, red as a circus clown’s rouged cheeks, billowed like smoke behind the beige Peugeot truck as its wheels dodged wide potholes and deep ruts. In southern Paraguay’s dry season, dust was to be expected. And lots of it.
Fram, where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer, took its name from Fridtjof Nansen’s Arctic exploration ship, the “Fram,” meaning “forward” in Norwegian. Never mind that no Norwegians lived within hundreds of miles, save Mike, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer also posted there.
On my way to a cooking demonstration, miles into the countryside, I mulled over the task at hand: cooking a soup using bland, mostly flavorless soybeans. Peace Corps urged home economics extension agents to seek ways to broaden the use of these beans for humans, at the request of the Paraguayan government. Soybean cultivation began in Paraguay in 1921, introduced by Pedro N. Ciancio, which he discussed in his book, La soja y el problema alimentario del Paraguay. But by the time I arrived in Paraguay, soybean production on large farms threatened to put small farmers out of business.
I’d asked the extension agent in the village multiple times if there’d be a stove (fogón) for me to use at her site.
“¡Como no! Of course!” she’d replied, multiple times .
Consulting an American cookbook filled solely with soybean recipes, I’d decided that the only dish translating to Paraguayan tastes would be a soup, seasoned with onions, garlic, some herbs, salt, and black pepper. And not much else. I remembered the disastrous soufflé I’d attempted at the local church kitchen a week previously, in a cooking class for some teenage girls. I did not want to repeat that mistake. The wood-fueled fogón burned the soufflé to cinders in a matter of minutes. A soup, I knew, would be a safer bet on one of those stoves.
The driver pulled up to a whitewashed cinderblock building, about the size of a garden shed. I jumped out of the truck and proceeded to unload the back: the dented 5-gallon aluminum pot I’d borrowed from Doña Olga at the pensión in Fram, the fresh soybeans, and the seasonings. Plus, a long wooden spoon for stirring, also courtesy of Doña Olga, daughter of Ukrainian immigrants.
Inside the minute building, no stove, nothing for cooking, not even for boiling water for Tereré or yerba maté tea.
My heart sank. Where was the fogón?
The agent bustled in, a plump woman about age 45, missing a front tooth, but otherwise impeccably dressed, her wide feet encased in high heels, in contrast to me in my denim skirt, sandals, and prim white blouse, its Peter Pan collar now slightly pink with my sweat and red road dust.
“Um, where is the stove?” I asked. Donde?
“Venga, venga, come, come,” she trilled, motioning with her hands, smiling.
I followed her outside, where at least 20 young girls and women stood waiting and giggling near a campfire. The agent pointed at the smoldering wood, around which three large carefully placed stones formed a perfect triangular-shaped perimeter
“There, there,” she pointed.
I blessed the gods for all the prep work I’d done in my shack in Fram, especially cutting up the onions and garlic, for there was no place to do that. But I’d brought a dull kitchen knife, just in case. I asked for volunteers to go the well and fill the pot with water up to a certain level. That done, the agent and I balanced the pot carefully on the three stones.
Looking at all the faces staring at me, the word poseur banged around in my head, a word so well-loved by my high school French teacher, the one with the trembly Julia Child-like voice. Who was I to deign to teach these girls and women something about cooking?
Somehow the time passed as each person shared her name and story as we waited for the soup to heat up and the fresh soybeans to soften. I’d brought paper cups that I’d somehow found in a dusty shop in Encarnación while shopping with Kathy R., an older, more experienced volunteer. She’d suggested that as a way for everyone to have taste without using the same spoon.
Polite smiles over the cup brims told me more than words could: soybean soup would not be bubbling away any time soon in Paraguayan kitchens. Even though it slightly resembled a popular Paraguayan soup, Poroto Quesu.
Rather, it would be a legendary dry soup in those kitchen―Sopa Paraguaya―shrouded in myth and the mistiness of history, as so many iconic dishes are.
Old wives and wags had it that a cook, or machu in Guaraní, added too much cornmeal to her boss’s favorite soup, possibly Vori Vori. The hour for the midday meal drew closer and she began to panic. One did not mess with President Don Carlos Antonio López’s food. Thinking fast, the machu grabbed an iron pan, poured in the mixture, and shoved it in a tatakua, a native clay-and-adobe oven. Naturally, with so much cornmeal, the dish came out more like cornbread than soup. There was nothing to be done but to serve the mistake to Don Carlos, who apparently loved it and christened it “Sopa Paraguaya.”
That day, I learned more than the women gathered to supposedly learn something from the foreigner. What looks good on paper doesn’t often translate well, so to speak.
2½ cups fine corn meal
2 cups whole milk
4 medium white onions, finely chopped
12 ounces grated queso fresco*
4 large eggs
Fine sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a terracotta baking dish. Sauté onions in a heavy cast-iron skillet until translucent, season with sea salt and black pepper. Beat eggs in a small bowl until foamy. Mix corn meal, then stir in onion and milk. Add eggs and cheese and mix well. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking dish. Bake for 30 – 40 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and cake tester comes out clean. Cool a bit and serve. *Use or 8 ounces shredded mozzarella and 4 ounces grated Parmesan instead of queso fresco if necessary.