Welcome writer Joshua Berman to RealFoodTraveler.com. His debut article has a unique twist – a group of Global Dental Relief volunteers each being fueled by eating like a local in Guatamala.
The sight of the breakfast table at the Full Moon Cafe, on the first day of our dental clinic in San Martin Jilotepeque, instantly makes my mouth water. I stare at the bowl of soupy black beans, the pile of soft, white cheese, bowl of sour cream, and a basket of steaming hot-off-the-comal corn tortillas. There are also scrambled eggs and fried sweet plantains called maduro. This is what I used to eat nearly every day during my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua (20 years ago!), and also during my many travels throughout Central America since then, so I’m not surprised by the nostalgia-triggered anticipation moistening my mouth.
“I could eat this three meals a day,” says Katy Troyer, our trip leader with Global Dental Relief, echoing my exact thoughts. She and I try to take it slow and not inhale our breakfasts, while the rest of the group lines up and fills their plates to fuel up for the day’s work. We are participating in a week-long Global Dental Relief (GDR) clinic in the highlands of Guatemala, where a group of some 20 dentists, dental students, and general volunteers will provide oral health education, teeth cleanings, and dental care to some 600 schoolchildren before the week is out.
Global Dental Relief is a non-profit organization based in Denver, Colorado, which runs regular trips to Guatemala, Nepal, India, Cambodia, and Kenya. You don’t have to be a dentist to participate, and they are happy to take general volunteers who assist with patient flow, education, clinic management, and sometimes translation. I’m not dentist, but I can speak Spanish and entertain the children as they wait for treatment. But like the dentists, hygienists, and dental students also on the trip, all of us are hungry.
I nod in agreement with Katy as I slab another spoonful of beans into a thick, palm-sized tortilla, and top it off with a chunk of the queso fresco, a soft, white homemade cheese, which is called cuajada in Nicaragua. I dip the whole thing in the thick crema, or sour cream, then into the green hot sauce, then down it goes. I follow with a long swill of strong, local coffee and savor every second of the experience.
The Full Moon Cafe is a humble, clean little eatery in the center of San Martin Jilotepeque, in the highlands north of Antigua, Guatemala. The cafe is owned by Cristy Velasco, a local cook who was born and raised here in San Martin, who has also spent considerable time in the United States, where she earned a degree in Food Science Technology from Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon. Cristy has been serving Global Dental Relief volunteer groups since they first began coming to her village in 2007. Our group will eat all of our meals here this week, plus the fresh-baked treats, juice, and coffee that Cristy will send over to our makeshift clinic in the municipal building, just across the market square.
I asked Cristy what goes into feeding a group like this (she cooks for some twenty other groups of visiting internacionalistas during the year as well, not just GDR).
“My goal is to keep them full, happy, and healthy,” she said to me over coffee, “because they’re doing a great job and they need to be fed and full. I cook with love because these people inspire me, the work they’re doing. When I cook for them, it’s like I’m cooking for my own family, so I treat every meal like it’s a fiesta or a celebration, and I do my very best.”
Because of her training, Cristy is very conscious of using healthy ingredients, properly preparing her ingredients, and preventing cross contamination. Luckily, at more than a mile above sea level, fresh vegetables grow well in the surrounding farms.
“I have to be careful,” she said. “I wash everything that comes in fresh from the market.” When I asked her to describe some of the typical Guatemalan dishes she likes to cook, she emphasizes that they are heavy in sauces and spices. For lunch that day, she was making guisado de res, a heavy red stew of beef chunks simmering tomato, onion, chile, tomillo (thyme), laurel (bay leaf), canela (cinnamon) and the special ingredient, toasted bread, which dissolves in the sauce and adds thickness and texture.
“Suban-ic is another typical Guatemalan dish,” explained Cristy. “It is made from tamalitos of chicken, pork, and beef, with cheese, chile, and butter. I always serve them with horchata.” Horchata is a sweetened rice milk drink that is also popular in El Salvador and Honduras.
We finished breakfast by 8:00am and it was time to get to work. We’d be working 8:30am-5pm all week, treating over 100 children each day. On our walk to the clinic that first morning, one of my fellow general volunteers admitted, “I thought we’d be going hungry here, but man was I wrong!”
We walked through the narrow market lanes selling fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, clothes, boots, and traditional Maya skirts and blouses. Then we walked past the long line of smiling, slightly nervous children we’d soon be attending, already waiting to get into the clinic. But with full bellies, we were ready for the day.
–– Article and photos by Joshua Berman