Eating Well in the Peruvian Sierra

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Eating Well in the Peruvian Sierra

“There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle.” --Sara Miles

In the small village of Hualqui, high up in the Peruvian Sierra, there is a tiny Presbyterian congregation that meets by candlelight to worship and pray and give thanks to God for sending rain to grow their crops. Years ago when I was traveling in South America, some friends and I hitched a van to visit Hualqui and experience life in the Andes Mountains. It was there that we met Pedro, an 85-year-old elder of the village church and our host for the week.

On our last day in Hualqui, I hiked to the dirt road at the top of the hill to hitch a ride back to Cajamarca. From the road I could see the village stretching out down the hill with terra-cotta rooftops and mud walls, and a patchwork of small farms surrounding the river that spiraled down to the valley. Then I saw Pedro making his way towards us, with a stick cane in his hand and a determined smile on his face. “I’m inviting you to my house to eat before you leave,” he eagerly informed us. “The truck will wait on you. Les invito.” In Peru—and especially in the highlands—an invitation like this might as well be a command.

Unable to refuse, we followed Pedro down the stone path through fields of alfalfa and lavender until we got to a little shack at the bottom of the hill. I can still picture his daughter—an elderly woman herself, dressed in braids, a straw hat, and a bulbous skirt—running from shack to shack to borrow enough speckled tin mugs for us to fill with hot porridge. This was not a home that tended toward the excessive, in dinnerware or anything else.

At their home we sat under the rafters of a chicken coop and ate egg sandwiches and creamed honey. I noticed a large stone nearby sitting atop a flat one—it was the millstone they used to grind the wheat to make the bread I was eating. Incredible.

The bread was dense and chewy on the inside and crusty on the outside with bits of char from the wood oven. The eggs were scrambled loose right in the pan with bright and springy yolks marbled with the soft whites. The honey balanced the saltiness of the bread and tasted like the wild flowers and alfalfa from which it had come. Everything they gave us came from what they had put into the land and gotten in return: the result of dirt and seeds and water and sweat and patience. The distance from farm to table was mere steps.

I can’t reimagine this meal without the experience and the sting of nostalgia. In a place where death is ever present and labor is closely connected to survival, this meal had a sacred, almost Eucharistic, nature to it. Through our eating, we were literally “giving thanks;” we were living gratitude. Thanks for life, thanks for rain in season, thanks for human hospitality and kindness.

We eat, fundamentally, to survive. Too much time without food, and we will cease to exist. Yet in our eating the very nature of our existence is revealed. It is a constant reminder that we are incomplete, fleeting, transient, dependent, perishable. No matter how much we eat today, we hunger again tomorrow. Eating, then, is the labor of the living—every meal is a celebration and a reminder of the delay of death.

But for those of us who eat from the Bread of Life, it is more than that—it is a reminder that things will not always be so. We will someday dine at the feast of the Lamb in the land of the eternally alive. And on that day, all that we hunger for will be found.

- Joshua