"Argentina 2002-03" story # 22

Valencia, Venezuela           May 19, 2003

Hey, guys. How's everybody doing?
     You should be here. First off, because Venezuela's a pretty fun place. I've got salsa music in my ears, cachapas in my stomach, the beach in my eyes, merengue dancing in my toes, and a beer in my mouth.
     And secondly, you should be here because I'm cooking. Cooking up a storm, I should say. Put Mrs. Cleaver to bed! Throw out the old recipes. Put the baby in its bib! Tell the dog to lay down. Pass me the tea-spoon and spatula. We're eating what Justin's cooking.
     I was staying with my good friend, Fedora, here, the other day. I was probably babbling on, as I often do, about this theory I have: All foods round are good. Pure culinary brilliance, this theory of mine. I mean, think about it a sec, will you? You've probably never thought about it, have you? You see. That's what separates you from me. That's why I've been able to learn to make the world's greatest arepas in only two days, and you probably couldn't even cook a hole in the ground. When are you gonna learn?
     Let's see here. Let's test out this theory of mine. You've got your pizza. That's round, that's good. You've got your ... um ... baseballs. No. wait. Those aren't food. You've got your ... eggplant. Well, I guess that's not really round. You've got your melons. Donuts. Bagels. Onions. Scoops of ice cream.
     Eww, onions. Those aren't that good. Oh, crap, I guess that theory's ruined. I'm gonna have to change it, ... to: All foods flat and round are good. You've got your pizza, your ... um ... pancakes, your frisbees, hamburgers, donuts, and cookies. And, of course, the Venezuelan arepa and cachapa.
     The Venezuelan cachapa is like a corn pancake. It's aten with gooey, white cheese, though, not syrup. It's delicious.
     The Venezuelan arepa is a smushed ball of cooked flour and agua. It's buttered, hammed, and cheesed to make a sandwich. It's delectable. I could eat arepas every day, and so I was taught to make them while visiting at Fedora's house.
     Fedora was one of many Venezuelan friends I met while I was working on the near island of Trinidad while they were studying english. We'd had a good time there. My buddy Fedora is a short "morena" (brown-skinned girl) with a tall fore-head, widely-protruding cheeks when she smiles, and a sarcastic bite to her humor.
     Early on in the night that I would learn to make arepas, I was actually walking about with Fedora's sister, Patricia. Patricia is like a younger, tiny, vacuum-thin version of Fedora. She fences for the Venezuelan National Team (she DOESN'T build fences really quick; she sword-fights) and once was sub-champion of Latin America in her weapon. Patricia, along with Jane Tucker from Kentucky, possesses an unexplainable force that just makes you funnier than hell when you're around her.
     Descending a stairway, I dashed upon the railing and did some fancy footing as I dueled an imaginary sword-fight. I leapt off and pretended to stab Patricia right in her gut. "Tu piensas que yo podria ganar contra ti en esgrima?" I asked her happily. (Do you think I could beat you in fencing?)
     "Yo creo dificil que me ganas," she said. (It would be very unlikely.)
     So, I suggested some imaginary situations. Like, if she had only her sword and I had a cannon. Or, if we were in water and I had my flippers and snorkel mask and she had a heavy weight tied to her.
     But, you know, why kill someone with a weapon when you can just poison them with your awful cooking? In Fedora's house, I got to work on those arepas, following Fedora's family's directions/instructions. The word, "destruction," actually better describes my cooking.
     In a big bowl, I put "harina" (flour), water, and some salt and oil. I worked the dough like a Medieval baker's wife. The dough got pretty hard at the end, as it was supposed to, and it became quite difficult to move my hand. I yelled out to Fedora's family, "Ayuda-me! Mis manos estan atrapados en la massa, y yo no puedo sacarlos!" (Help me! My hands are trapped in the dough, and I can't get them out!)
     Ha. Patricia came to help me finish the arepas. She speed-rolled the dough in her hands to make a perfect ball, then smushed it and put it on the stove. My hands weren't so quick, though, and my arepas came out rather - as they say in Venezuela - "quadrangular."
     Nevertheless, when we finished eating our arepa sandwiches with cheese and ham or eggs, I declared, "Yo tengo manos de oro!" (I've got hands of gold!)
     "Muy modesto," Patricia commented. (You're real modest.)
     My hands had never felt so alive! My hands, finally, had a dream of their own. The dream ... to make the perfect arepa! Hundreds of billions of arepas had been made before, but I was going to be the first to make one absolutely PERFECT! The most round, the perfect flatness, the most delectable. I was going to make the world's single-most greatest arepa ever of all time. The blessed one. People were going to come from miles around just to see my arepa.
     In addition to this dream, I also began tinkering with the whole basic principal arepa concept. I began looking at arepas in a way no man had looked at them before. And ... I came up with this other brilliant culinary theory. The ... "Barepanana."
     Arepas and bananas ... together at last. You see. The theories don't stop comin'!
     The following night at Fedora's house, the Latin American fencing subchampion and I were hungering for arepas again. We went into the kitchen. Patricia had the gall to act like she was going to be the one to make the arepas. Wait a minute. I explained something to her.
     "Yo tengo manos de oro! Estes manos eran HECHOS para hacer arepas." (I've got hands of gold! These hands were MADE for making arepas.)
     I pointed out Patricia's small hands. "Mira estas manitos. Estas manitos son manos para botar agua en los vacios. Estas manitos son manos para lavar los platos." (Look at these tiny things. These tiny hands are hands for pouring water. These tiny hands are hands for washing the dishes.)
     Patricia agreed to let me make the arepas. For some reason. Unfortunately, however, everyone else in the family was pretty disgusted by the idea of mixing bananas with the arepas. And most of them kept pronouncing barepanana as "bananarepa" or "arepabanana" or something else absurd. So, I reluctantly made regular arepas.
     Once again, the dream of the modest hands of gold came unrealized. Again, I had problems rolling the arepa into circles, and my arepas were even more "quadrangular" than the day before. People began discrediting the whole "hands of gold" declaration.
     And so, the following night, Patricia held her sword to my throat and made me agree to let her make the arepas. Not really. She sneakily made them while I was sleeping.
     But, THEN! I sneakily snuck off, found Patricia's dough, and put a banana inside. I made two more arepas - barepananas - and chowed down.
     They were pretty tasty - quite like banana bread you would find in the States - but I learned something on the day. I learned that arepas - even the world's worst arepas, as some of mine have certainly been - are a beautiful thing. Flat and round and good they are, and the basic concept needs no tinkering.
     Aftering cooking and catching up a bit, I left Fedora's city, Valencia, and returned to stay with David in Caracas. David had rented a room beside me in two separate houses in Trinidad, and we've hung out in Venezuela before too. He and I dance salsa in our seats as we road-trip together, and we enjoy telling and hearing a good story with friends. He's round-bodied, and when he laughs he looks like an onion.
     David's a good "pana" (slang here for "friend").
     Say, if David's good, and he looks like an onion, I suppose that makes onions good. All right, we're back on! "All foods round ARE good." Again! See, I told yaŽ!
     Another good "pana" here from Trinidad is a real funny guy, Gerardo. He and I went out for beers one night. I was surprised when he reminded me of the last time I'd seen him, saying good-bye when I left Trinidad.
     "I can still remember your eyes," he said. Apparently, I'd been a little sad to say good-bye to the Venezuelans there. "I could tell that Trinidad had been a very good time for you."
     And you know something? Although I really didn't like the Trinidadian environment or the people's often-cruel values, it had been a good time still. Our inner Venezuelan/gringo community had made the difference.
     In other words: Even if the arepa's outside is "quadrangular" or falling apart shoddily, the delectable inside of the arepas can still make it good.
     Do you see the correlation there? I was trying to make one.
     Yeah. The world's first perfect arepa, then, isn't really necessary. I'm not so sure I could pull it off, anyway.

Later, "Panas" - Chef Modern O.

Much thanks to Fedora and family; and Gerardo's girlfriend, Claudia; for the nice visits!

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