Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Iping, mandioca, manioc, and cyanide

I was recently reminded that it was 26 years ago (+2 days now) that I began my LDS mission, so I thought I'd interrupt my other posts with a quick memory.  Mormon missionaries typically eat dinner with the local church members. It not only helps to support the missionaries – who aren't paid for their service – but it also gives the members a chance to get to know them and be involved in the missionary work.

I served my mission in the southernmost state in Brazil: Rio Grande do Sul. The people are called "gauchos" and are a kind of Brazilian cowboy or rancher. There are a lot of immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Northern Italy so even though my hair is blonde I fit in well enough. But anyway, we ate lunch instead of dinner with them. It was more in keeping with the local custom of eating the bigger meal at mid-day, plus it freed us up to teach people when they were home after work in the evening. And living in another country for two years and mixing so much with the people exposes you to a very different culture.

Brazil is not "Southern Mexico." They do not eat tacos or tortillas or refried beans or chips and salsa. Instead, black beans and white rice is the foundation of nearly every meal and meat is served often (if you've ever eaten at a Brazilian BBQ – "churrasco" – that's what they eat in southern Brazil, or at least an Americanized version of it). They also had pastas and other dishes but there were other – different! – foods I'd never seen. One I remember was a long root called "mandioca" (mon-JOE-kuh), although the Brazilians from São Paulo ("Paulistas") called it "iping" (I don't know if that spelling is right, but it was pronounced: i-PING). It was starchy and similar to potatoes but more fibrous and had a thick "string" that ran down the center of the root. But it had an interesting flavor and I actually liked it – once I realized you weren't supposed to eat the string.

I've sometimes wondered about "mandioca" since then – what it was and why I'd never seen it here.  That was the Brazilian name for it, but if it was sold or eaten locally I didn't know what it might be called.  But I recently came across it while reading the latest Flavia de Luce novel (which is what started this train of thought).  It also goes by the name manioc or cassava, and it's widespread around the world.  Most surprisingly, it's what cyanide comes from and unless cooked properly can kill you!  (Which is why Flavia was interested in it.)

Obviously I survived, but I ate quite a few other things that might have made me wonder.  I remember one time dipping a serving spoon into a bowl of soup and seeing a scaly chicken foot surface briefly as my appetite left me.  A few times we ate liver, which tastes like gritty dirt to me.  But perhaps the most difficult thing I ever ate was "mondongo" which is tripe (cow stomach).  The smell was so overpowering that you could smell it even before you reached the house.

Nevertheless, eating with the members was sometimes an eye-opening experience.  I didn't grow up on the "rich side of town," but in Brazil I saw a lot of people who had very little in the way of worldly goods.  And it often made me feel bad when they asked to feed us because it was obvious that the meal they put on the table for us was better (and far more expensive) than anything they would ever make for themselves.  And yet they were so happy to have the missionaries in their humble homes!  We would try to eat sparingly, knowing what a sacrifice it was for them, but they still encouraged "come mais, Elder, come mais" ("eat more"), and they felt they would be blessed by feeding us.  I know I uttered many a silent prayer in their behalf.

And I still count those experiences as among the most treasured in my life.

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