Unearthing The Gift Of The Gods

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When Margarita and John Flagg were deciding on where to purchase a home, Westbury was their choice. Living near water was a must for the Peruvian woman. Until she was a year old, she literally lived over water in a house built on stilts along the northern coast of Peru and then the family moved to the capitol city of Lima.

“Westbury was perfect,” she said. “It’s in the middle and 15 miles to the ocean.” Their daughter was a toddler and their son several months old when they moved here in 1977 (two more daughters came later).

Margarita prepares the ajdlksfadjflkajd;fj
Margarita prepares the papa a la huancaina

Margarita, who is a physical therapist, came to the U.S. to study English for one month. She wasn’t sure if she was going to stay and gave herself the task of finding a job in one day. “Otherwise I would go back,” she said. She met John through a personal ad he had placed in the paper. He told her he was going to Africa and Margarita thought, “Is this gringo trying to dump me?” Never shy with words, whether in Spanish or English, she asked him if they were serious or going to split. They married in 1974.

In Peru, lunch was the major meal. Margarita’s father came home from work at 1 p.m. and everyone had to sit at the table. “We took off our school uniform,” she said, “and everyone had to eat with a fork and knife—no hands.” After a little rest she returned to school for two more hours.

Two of her favorite dishes are tripe Italian-style and pig’s feet. Here in the U.S., her children rebelled against pig’s feet, saying it tastes like chewing gum. “You don’t like it?,” she would respond. “There’s bread and peanut butter in the fridge.” At mealtime in Peru there was always soup and always rice. “Even if you had spaghetti, you had rice.”

Papa a la huancaina
Papa a la huancaina

And, of course, there were potatoes. Depending upon what history book you read, there are between 3,000 to 10,000 varieties of potato, either cultivated or growing wild, in Peru. The earliest remains of potatoes have been discovered at archaeological sites, dating as far back as 400 B.C. The potato originated in the highlands of Peru around Lake Titicaca. Ancient Incas believed it was gift from the gods, one of the crops that the supreme-being Viracocha bestowed upon his believers.

In Peru, potatoes are primarily grown by small-holder farmers in relatively isolated Andean plots. Here, potato biodiversity is visibly apparent, as locals pull from the ground potatoes of all shapes, sizes, and colors, such as papa blanca, a firm, pale white-fleshed potato; soft and grainy papa amarilla (yellow), great for mashed potatoes; pink thin-skinned papa canchan, the most common potato used in papas rellenas (fried stuffed potatoes); and the beautiful purple papa pupura that was once reserved for Incan kings. Purple foods owe their coloration to their high content of anthocyanin—a naturally occurring water-soluble flavonoid with antioxidant benefits. Purple potatoes have a higher anthocyanin content than fresh blueberries. Purple corn loses its vibrant color when grown in other countries.
Our meal consisted of papa a la huancaina—a colorful cold appetizer of potatoes with a sauce; potato and beef stew (in Peru, llama is sometimes the protein of choice); and another purple Peruvian specialty, chichi morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn and pineapple.

Papa a la Huancaina
(potatoes in cheese sauce)

3 medium potatoes
½ medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
8 ounces cottage cheese
1 tsp turmeric
Hard-boiled egg, peeled and cut
into wedges
Peruvian black olives
Romaine or Boston lettuce

1. Boil, peel and slice the potatoes into rounds.
2. Fry the onion and garlic until lightly brown and then mix with cottage cheese and turmeric.
3. To assemble: place a lettuce leaf on a salad plate and layer three slices of potato on top. Pour sauce over potatoes and then garnish with a wedge of hard-boiled egg and a few slices of Peruvian olives.
This can be spiced up with some hot pepper.

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