Nicolas Nemtala


The Food We Eat

Before I can begin with the journey of my dietary practices, I feel it is important to give some background. I was raised in an upper class family in La Paz, Bolivia. Like most of the families in our socioeconomic level, we have nannies, cooks, and drivers. The uniqueness in my case was the relationship formed with my nanny. Calling her my “nanny” sounds awfully inaccurate and borderline offensive because it transcended the employee-to-employer relationship. She was, and is still to this day, as important as my biological mother. My brother growing up called her “Mami-Nana” (mommy-nanny), which at times he would just abbreviate to “Mami”. This did upset my biological mother at times, but it made no difference. My brother still calls her that to this day. For some reason I began calling her “Poppa-Joe” (her name is Juana.)

My earliest recollections of eating are of Poppa feeding me soup and vegetables. I remember when I did not want more food out of boredom or genuine satisfaction, she would guilt me into eating by saying things like, “One more for your dad, one more for your mom” and so on until it reached extended family. It was a form of extortion where when I had already eaten for my uncle, I could not refuse to eat for my grandmother.

When I was a little older, we had a rule where we ate at the dinner table at eight on the dot. This rule was enforced by my grandfather, who had a strict demeanor and ethic. I have memories of the dinners, the formality at times was flirting with extravagance. My grandfather in his suit, my grandmother in pearls, the Lebanese food, and the Johnnie Walker Swing that was never out of hand’s reach. Playing with that bottle was one of the things that kept me from extreme boredom in those dinners, although it did upset my grandma when she had her political friends over. There were always guests dining with us, more often than not they were my grandmother’s friends from the government. A specific occasion comes to mind, my grandmother once hosted a very lavish lunch for President Hugo Banzer. To the surprise of everyone it was focused on seafood, a luxury to a landlocked country.

All this ended at the sudden death of my grandfather at age 55, and soon after the change of government in the country. The lavish dinners ended, and tradition of eating at the dinner table as well. Dinner was then moved to our smaller table upstairs which only sat four. Normally only my brothers and I ate together, while my mom ate by herself in the TV room later at night. This infuriated my dad to no end because the tradition of eating together was one he wanted to maintain but couldn’t enforce because of his absence.

When Evo Morales ascended to power, his government began to persecute people who were involved in the opposition, forcing my father and grandmother to spend more and more time in the U.S. Worried that his constant absence would lead our family to disunity, he emphasized brotherly unity and started a tradition where we would all go out to eat on Wednesday nights. Later in life while building our new house, he purposely made an immense dinner table and a barbecue area to host large family events. Hosting people was important to strengthen family ties.

The food we ate was at one point predominately Lebanese food, but when my grandmother passed away unfortunately she took her excellent cooking skills with her. I will never forgive my mother for not taking more time to learn more of her culinary secrets!

The food my family ate was never the same as what the employees ate, we gave our cook certain amount of money to go buy ingredients for what they wanted to eat. Many times as a kid I would find myself in the kitchen eating with them, I enjoyed what they cooked for themselves much more than what they prepared for us, even if it was unbearably spicy at times. They usually prepared very typical foods that almost always included some sort of potato (there are more than 10,000 different varieties of potatoes in Bolivia). Some other common dishes were m,ajadito – rice, dehydrated meat, plantains, and egg; chairo – a stew made of vegetables and beef; and, antichucho – skewered cow heart.
Poppa and another lady working for us at the time went over with a piece of my clothing to call my soul back
I returned because of the joy it brought our employees for me to eat with them. To this day I still sit down with them to tomar té (drink tea). This event is commonplace for all social classes in La Paz. Much like the British tradition it’s a leisurely moment around 5 o’clock when everyone goes out to get coffee and pastries. This is the perfect moment for extended family to make a visit, or to go visit family you can only stand 30 minutes at one time. At home my mom allows this break for the employees to relax, and when I’m home I’m usually there with them enjoying a coca leaf tea and a marraqueta (a bread unique to South America). They take this opportunity mainly to talk to me about something that is troubling them or to complain about my mother.

Coca is considered sacred and is tremendously important to the indigenous people of the country. Chewing coca leaf helps people endure a hard day’s work by giving them energy and decreasing hunger. The U.S.’s persecution of the coca leaf led to the resentful feelings many Bolivians hold against Americans.

Something else I’ve found interesting eating with our employees was their superstitions; how they refuse to directly hand over knives believing it will create tension between the people passing it, or how they spill some drink on the floor for the Pachamama (mother earth). These go beyond the dinner table, for instance once when I was 14, I took my parents’ car for a joyride only to cannon into a tree not a mile away from my house. Poppa and another lady working for us at the time went over with a piece of my clothing to call my soul back, which had supposedly escaped me at the moment of fright. Another more extreme case was when my mom believed our house was cursed, and to my horror was convinced by our cook to hire a witch to burn a baby llama in our garden.

Lunch was eaten at school and it was the norm that the kids’ moms or nannies would go and drop off home cooked meals. This was particularly interesting because my school ACS (American Cooperative School) was a private American school funded by the U.S. government, therefore we had numerous kids that were children of diplomats or military from all over the world. The food these kids received were usually something from their hometown and often we would exchange our food. I learned a great deal of other culture’s foods doing this. It was especially symbolic because this action of exchanging food was a representation of acceptance into social circles.

During summer vacations, my family would travel to the US. There my brothers and I would indulge on foods unavailable to us back home, which was usually fast food. We would visit McDonald’s almost religiously every summer. Not surprisingly our pants were always a size too small by the time summer ended. McDonald’s is a symbol of the United States to me, the term McDonaldization coined by George Ritzer perfectly describes my view of American society. Spending much of his time in the U.S., my father adopted this unhealthy diet permanently which eventually changed the way I ate forever.

When I was 17 my father passed away from a heart attack at 50 years old. It was apparent that heart problems ran in my family since both my paternal grandfather and my father died from cardiac arrest in their fifties. We decided to take a drastic change in our diet. Immediately the food served in my house became healthier; we ate more vegetables, less salt, and stayed away from fatty foods. It wasn’t until around year after his death that I found myself in a McDonald’s again.

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I moved to Italy for a year after high school. I was living in an apartment by myself mainly because I felt the need to be independent after living a comfortable life where everything was cooked and cleaned for me. Before leaving I asked Poppa to teach me how to cook basic things like rice, the rest I learned via YouTube. I sincerely enjoyed cooking for myself and found pleasure in being independent. The only problem I encountered when it came to cooking for myself was money, I was traveling as much as possible and it left me counting coins. When I was especially broke, I ate concernedly cheap gyros at one of the many joints opened by Middle Eastern immigrants. I was surprised to learn about the substantial amount of immigration in Italy.

I was saved from a potential stomach infection when I started dating a girl who was in a homestay with an Italian woman named Cinzia who cooked for her. Cinzia was a very nice lady, and would allow me to join them in their meals. The food was incredible, I could see just how much food means to the Italians. It isn’t something to do only because you need to eat, but a daily ritual made with care meant to be enjoyed to the fullest.

Cinzia’s apartment wasn’t very big, so her bedroom doubled as a dining room. I found this uncomfortable at first, but then again in a crammed city like Florence apartments are very small and space had to be used efficiently. Having to use the bathroom at her place was always something I tried my very best to avoid, the constraining space just made for an awful experience.

It was dining with Cinzia that I acquired a taste for wine, there was always wine at her table. Although to my surprise, the most significant food culture I learned while in Italy was that of coffee. One of the first sentences you will learn in almost any Italian course right after basic greeting is: “Andiamo al bar a prendere un caffè (Let’s go to the bar for a coffee).” I didn’t think much of it at first, but soon I learned the vast culture hiding behind that phrase. Italians drink coffee as much as they drink wine, the smell of espresso is ubiquitous in any Italian town or city. My first challenge when I arrived was to learn how to operate an Italian coffeemaker, its ingenuity enthralled me. This is still the only way I ever make coffee.

The culture of drinking coffee was more significant at a bar. The bar serves coffee, alcohol, and snacks all consumed “al bar,” meaning at the counter. Your selection is consumed on your feet, elbow to elbow with other people. If you wish to sit down you may, but an espresso can easily double in price if you do. I began to take my breakfast in this fashion, it wasn’t too hard to get used to since an Italian breakfast is a cornetto (croissant), usually filled with crema (custard), Nutella, or honey, and a cappuccino you dunk it in. I noticed people sipping espressos and conversing in the bar on the corner of my university and thought, “When in Rome.” I made it a habit to stop by the bar in between classes to drink espressos. I realized that bar culture transcended the drink; it was a place to interact with others, catch up on the news, and for me to practice my Italian.

* * *

How I drank coffee was one of the things that drastically changed when I moved to the U.S. Suddenly those delicious espressos were replaced with the unpalatable drink that Starbucks somehow convinced people is coffee. Coffee is no longer part of my daily routine, now coffee is about driving somewhere. I now have the diet of a college student in the U.S., complete with a meal plan. Eating has become very detached sentimentally to me, I eat because I’m hungry. The food I eat now is dictated by what the cafeteria is serving, and the occasional fast food like Chic-Fil-A. Eating is frankly quite unenjoyable. For most college students food is not a priority, many times a nuisance, quick and accessible is preferred. If humans didn’t need food to survive, college students would probably go weeks without eating.

Eating a good meal is now a rare luxury to me, it’s only when I have some extra cash and want to treat myself that I go to a restaurant for a good meal. This way of eating is going to change in around 6 months. The next scholastic year I’m either going to be living in a house, where I can cook for myself or studying abroad in Paris. If the latter is where life leads me, I’m excited to see what new food culture I’ll experience.

Nicolás Nemtala was born in La Paz, Bolivia, and is currently studying International Studies in Old Dominion University. He hopes to finish his studies in Paris, France, and pursue a career in global development

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