I must have asked for directions fifty times. Most people haven't even heard of Anapia – a small island archipelago that straddles the Bolivia-Peru border on Lake Titikaka. To get there from La Paz you make five dizzying connections, traveling the last spectacular leg across the lake by sailboat. All the kids on the boat knew 'La Profesora,' and one of them led me through the town and across harvested fields to the home of Jose and Eugenia where my college mentor and now good friend, Heather, was living for the summer.
I have never received a warmer welcome from a complete stranger. Heather told Jose I knew how to make pizza and he was practically bouncing with excitement. He had tasted pizza for the first time a few weeks before and still beamed when he described the meal. He even had a new woodburning stove – a ´smokeless´ design donated by a local NGO - to bake it in. As we made dough the next day, he regaled me with stories of lazy Sunday afternoons spent slow-cooking a whole lamb underground. The new oven didn't heat enough to cook pizza, and the family pigs got the raw dough in their gruel the next morning. We did not make the lamb either, but in the birthplace of ´la papa´, lamb is just a sideshow.
Jose worked his way up the field in front of his house, loosening the dry soil with a pickaxe as he went. Behind him Eugenia gathered armloads of baseball-sized dirt clods. They made a small ring two feet in diameter and in a few minutes had balanced one clod on top of another to form a small dome. After carefully removing a few clods near the base, they built a fire at the opening. They fed the fire constantly from a waist high pile of dried crop detritus from the July harvest. Flames spouted out through the walls and the baking earth sweetened the smoke. Heather and Eugenia disappeared to the dry cellar, returning with blanket that sagged with 20 pounds of potatoes.
Family and friends began to arrive, and half an hour later the pile of dried potato plants had been reduced to a few cups of smoldering ashes. The walls were black with soot and the dome seemed to quiver as the heat bent the light around it.
The oven was ready. Jose tossed some fresh soil over the ashes, and pitched the potatoes one by one through the opening. When the oven could swallow no more, he collapsed the roof of the dome and nestled the remaining potatoes between clods. With the pickaxe he smacked each clod so that they disintegrated and spilled hot soil into the voids between the little round spuds. He covered the mound with more soil to seal in the heat, and sent me across town to Señor Felix for a wheel of fresh cowmilk cheese.
I got back as they were digging up the mound. You gingerly unearth a potato, brush off the dirt and bite through the crisp smoky skin, it is no leap of the imagination to think that by some magic alchemy the fire transformed the gritty soil into nourishing gold nuggets.
Gold nuggets indeed. All the plundered treasure of Peru could not equal the value of this gift to the world. The potato nourished agricultural civilization in the Andean highlands for over 8000 years - from the earliest settlements along the banks of Lake Titikaka all the way to the Inca who built their fantastic empire sustained by the starchy staple. This engine of civilization-building was unknown outside the Andes until Spanish conquistadors brought it back to Europe as a ´botanical curiosity´ in the late 16th century. In two hundred years the potato spread throughout Europe to become one of the principle foodstuffs for workers of the industrial revolution. Today farmers across the globe harvest over 300 million tons of potatoes, making it the fourth most important food crop in the world. http://www.cipotato.org/potato/potato.htm
Jose and Eugenia plant a dozen varieties to ensure a bountiful harvest. There’s the crazy guy a few houses away who only plants one variety that grows fast and big, and they wonder out loud if he's really a gringo and when the next dry year will put him back into line. On the blanket spread out in front of us we counted six varieties - it had been a good year. Some were faintly purple. Others deep gold. Some were cloying and starchy. Others buttery smooth.
Baked potatoes without butter? It is Peruvian custom not to serve drinks until after the meal, and I struggled to swallow first few until they brought out the dipping sauce. At the center of the pile Eugenia nestled a bowl of opaque gray liquid: water mixed with a little salt, lime juice, and powdery clay. Why go through all the trouble to peel the potato only to dip it in dirt? The special clay has been mined since Inca times and is valued both as condiment and digestive aid. It’s an acquired taste.
Though they eat them at every meal, this harvest-time lunch is a true celebration of the potato. The oven is fired with the potato plant, and the potatoes themselves are cooked in the same soil from which they were pulled. Prepared this way, they are the closest thing you get to tasting the earth.
The meal is also an affirmation of their way of life. In this day and age it is hard not to be conscious of alternatives - even on a remote island - but respect for tradition and the economics of small farming keeps farmers on Anapia to a strict set of farming practices that has sustained their ancestors for generations. Crop rotation, diverse planting, and a deep caring respect for their animals ensure healthy soil and bountiful harvests.
I lingered by the blanket after lunch, peeling a small mound of potatoes. I wanted to make it up to the family for the pizza disappointment. Gnocchi, a potato-based pasta from Italy, seemed appropriate. The kids, Jesus and Mamuchi, got a kick out of rolling and shaping the pasta. The meal was a hit, but I doubt if they will ever make gnocchi again. Learning to make pizza is one thing, but it's clear they are not looking for 'new and interesting' ways to cook a potato.
Have your own potato celebration. Invite as many friends as you can, and buy a pound or two of potatoes per person. (It's a lot, but think of all the ways you can prepare a leftover potato: hashbrowned, homefried, mashed, etc.) Get as many different kinds as you can find. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Cut the big ones in half and put them all together in a tray. Sprinkle a little water overtop and cover snugly with aluminum foil. Bake the potatoes until you can pierce them without resistance with a knife. First check after 40 minutes.
Alternatively, find the nearest construction site or low-key park and build yourself a dirt-clod oven.
Serve the potatoes in a pile at the center of a blanket - you eat this sitting on the ground! - with a small dipping bowl of water mixed with lime and salt. Feel free to substitute melted butter for clay in the mix. Mexican ´queso fresco´is a decent approximation of Señor Felix's salty fresh cheese and is available in most supermarkets. We also ate tuna salad - tuna, chopped onions, salt, pepper, little bit of mayo and lime juice - and it was a perfect accompaniment.