Now I realize what a severely limited diet people are forced to eat in North America and Europe. Thanks to the megafarms and food marketers, the only grain is wheat, and it is so common that many people develop allergies to it. Much more grain is grown to fatten beef cattle to be flipped over into fast-food hamburgers. Fruits rarely go beyond apples, oranges, bananas, and grapes, maybe the occasional peach or apricot. And the staple vegetables are just corn, carrot, and potato. Salads – when North Americans even eat them – comprise mostly varieties of lettuce and tomato out of which all food value has been genetically engineered. Corn syrup, indigestible fats, and unpronounceable chemicals are inside all that pretty packaging. They are grown in polluting fertilizers and weed- and insect-killers that will also kill human beings. They are picked before they are ripe because of the vast distances they must travel to your supermarket, stuffed with artificial preservatives and flavor enhancers, wrapped in tons of plastic that winds up in landfills, trundled in dank trucks over thousands of miles, consuming fuel and producing roadway pollution.
Here in Panamá the variety of fruits and vegetables is astounding. I have been discovering an endless number of new flavors and textures, and half the time I don’t even know the name for what I’m enjoying. Only hours before I pick up some interesting tuber or gourd or fruit at the grocery it was still basking under sun and rain, in rich fields no more than a few miles away.
I’m crazy, for instance, about otoë. It is a tuber with a shaggy
dark-brown skin. Once I wash and peel it, I have its lovely lavender flesh, which can be eaten raw, or baked, boiled, or fried. When you first bite into it, especially raw, it has a “snap” to it slightly reminiscent of ginger, but as you continue to chew it provides a wonderful velvety flavor. It is flabbergastingly good cooked soft in a stew. Then there is yuca – not to be confused with its friend related only homonymically, yucca. Yuca, again, is wonderful raw or cooked, with a yellow flesh that tastes like well-buttered potato. Both of these, I’m told, are rich in vitamins and minerals.
Chayote is plentiful; one can buy it at the grocery, but I find it for free growing wild here and there. Think of it as shaped like a large knobbly green pear, but with a flesh reminiscent of zucchini. And also ullama, which I discovered when it fell off a farmer’s truck; superficially resembling a melon in size and shape, its flesh is like that of a hearty squash. Onion is grown plentifully here, spreading its redolent aroma through the countryside from each household's little field.
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As they come to me to be written, new chapters will be added to this blog, so stay tuned! But the blogs up to a certain point are now chapters are now in a book.
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