Monday, 3 August 2015

Alimentary Quirks in Old South America

     Fritz Up de Graff was a New Yorker who went to South America in late 1894, and ended up spending seven adventurous years there. The result was a book, Head-Hunters of the Amazon, seven years of exploration and adventure, originally published in 1921, but now reprinted in paperback form. As one of the all time great travel books, it contains so many quirky vignettes that I shall have to reread it at some later date in order to allow them all to sink into my consciousness. But here are just a few.
     His first stop was Panama (before the Canal had been dug), where one outstanding feature of the sole hotel was the grass growing a foot high between the floor boards of his room. He slept on his luggage to avoid the bedbugs, but the mosquitoes were another matter.
     Next came Guayaquíl, Ecuador, which he disdained to tour because of the yellow fever and bubonic plaque. However, the American consulate explained the sewage system to him:
The refuse of all kinds, instead of being carried away in drains, was thrown out of the upper windows of the houses on to the roofs of passing tramcars which were surrounded by a special boarding a foot high. A fair proportion hit its mark. When the car arrived at the outskirts of the town, the deck-cargo was dumped by the conductor. A leak in the roof of one of those cars must have been a serious matter. This system must be unique in all the world. [pp 6-7 of the 1926 Cornstalk, Sydney edition]
     Quito, the capital, was still a little backward when I personally stayed there in 1982 and 1987, but it had greatly improved since 1894, when he was there. At that time there was not a single lavatory in the whole city.
Instead, there was the cuidado abajo system. (Those who have walked in the streets on such towns will be acquainted with the risk of disregarding the cry, "Look out below!" It precedes the ejection of refuse on to the pavement from an upper window.) As for the ultimate fate of the refuse which lies about the streets and patios, it is sun-dried, powdered by the hoofs of animals, and finally blown away. There are no turkey-buzzards in Quito. I mention these points for it struck me that was a very remarkable state of affairs to find in a Capital City. [p 32]
     Not only that, there was only a single bath in the city, and it was open only during business hours. One day, the richest storeman in Quito asked Up de Graff to watch his employees while he himself took his first bath for weeks. It was not not that he liked being dirty; it was just the extraordinary level of dishonesty int he city, such that you could not leave anybody - anybody! - alone with your possessions if you wished to retain them.
     It was when he left the cities for the jungle and mingled with the Indians that he learned to eat monkey flesh, which he found to most tasty. So let us now describe the culinary customs of the Jívaros of Peru - the head-hunters who provided a name for his book - in their preparation of howler monkey.
I have omitted to mention what is always the tit-bit of such feasts. Before the singeing and cooking of the animals begins, they must, of course, be cleaned. (When meat is scarce, nothing is thrown away but the bones; even the guts are scraped and toasted.) The contents of the stomachs are extracted and mixed ... with water. Then without any further ado they are drunk. At first the very idea is repulsive; but after all the monkey lives on fresh wild fruits and his inside is as clean as ours. He has merely started the process of peptonization and digestion for us, which saves us trouble. I was expecting, when first I tasted the delicacy, to find a trace of bitter gastric juices, but was pleasantly surprised; the flavour of the fruit-pulp was full and unadulterated. [p 236]
     One day, driven mad by the screaming of the macaws, they went and shot a few.
I noticed that the first thing the Jívaros did was to extract the contents of the crop, pure fruit-pulp, and eat it, giving it the first place among the delicacies which the bird had to offer. I cannot lay too much stress on the excellence of this dainty morsel. The palm-fruits on which the birds lives are exceedingly hard and contain a number of seeds or kernels embedded in the meat. Thus, for a man it is more trouble than it is worth to eat this fruit, however delicious it may be. But all the spade-work is done by the parrot, whose sharp beak and dry tongue separate and reject the seeds, with no deleterious effect on the fruit itself. [pp 239-240]
     All of this goes to show that, when dealing with new foods, we should get over the "yuck factor" and be prepared to give it a go.

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