Food & Fieldwork: Bolivian Amazon

My kitchen in the Tsimane' village of Cosincho, Bolivia

by Alan on December 3, 2012

After the novelty of what I do (medical anthropology) and where I do it (the Bolivian Amazon) wears off, people frequently ask me about the challenges.  And one of the foremost topics in these discussions is what I eat. “Whoa. But what are you going to eat there?” is a direct quote from a well-meaning friend.  I think the implication was that he or she thought I was likely to suffer and starve without a restaurant nearby or someone to cook for me.

I know I’m not the only researcher in a far-flung place who has heard these comments of concern from family and friends—whatever their impetus may be. And considering the remote nature of my field sites, it’s not so far-fetched to think that I’m out there suffering all-the-while. In reality, though, I eat quite well and I’ve even received a few compliments on my nascent culinary skills.  But it did take a lot of planning to make happen and much of what I use for ingredients would never get included in your local co-op crowd’s idea of haute cuisine. Still, it’s better than most of what you can find in Bolivian frontier restaurants (and many of the cities for that matter) and critical for me, it’s safe to eat.

Doing good ethnography frequently calls for considering your food and that which is offered to you with much more care than you otherwise might at other times in your life. And while a mixture of poverty, unspoken shame and custom keep me from being offered food by most of my Tsimane’ friends, my enthusiasm for cooking in the field has flipped that paradigm around.  I offer whatever I can to my neighbors and friends and we break, well, pancakes together. So consider this post commiseration with all my fellow fieldworkers in the far-flung reaches of our planet. I might even have some novel advice to aid those of you looking to live and eat well in the field—not just eat to live. Read on for my tips on eating well in the field.

Planning, Planning, Planning

 

As I’ve done with most of the bigger challenges in my fieldwork, I prepared for the necessity of doing all my own cooking in the middle of nowhere by planning ahead as much as possible—starting over a year in advance of my arrival. I can’t overstate the importance of doing this—well, at least if you intend to enjoy your meals. I knew, for example, that the group I work among, the Tsimane, present a particular challenge in that it is not typical to host outsiders in their kitchens.  Furthermore, hiring out the best cook in the village to prepare all of your meals is a virtual impossibility (believe me, I tried to find someone willing!).  And even if it was possible, it would likely be a bad idea since food preparation standards and an increasingly dense population frequently lead to the kind of food contamination from which a non-native can suffer gravely (including, but not limited to, fecal-to-oral transmission of viral and bacterial diseases, numerous parasites, insect and larvae contamination, and even cross-contamination from bacteria such as salmonella).

Sharing

 

Beyond maintaining my health, I think eating well has a very important role to play in helping me to be a better ethnographer. As I mentioned, I use food as one more opportunity to share with my neighbors and the community in a way that doesn’t feel as contrived as some of my other attempts (e.g. taking and printing free photos for families, giving out candy to children, soccer balls to the village team, or your standard thank you gifts/incentives for completing interviews).  So even though I don’t love cooking, my love of eating good food and the chance to breach the social divide is impetus enough to get me to cook well.

An Example Meal

 

With this post, I considered methodically going through a list of food, cooking and other items that have made the most difference for me but in place of that boring exercise, I’d instead like to describe prep of one of my favorite meals: Baked Three-cheese Macaroni and Bacon with a Tomato Compote (also a great vegetarian dish when made without bacon). And remember, life in the field will have you burning more calories than at almost any other time in your academic life…so enjoy the fatty goodness!

A standard recipe for this dish would call for some ingredients that are completely impractical where there is no electricity, refrigeration, potable (or running) water, nor many fresh vegetables.  And that’s where the planning comes in.  Some of the best advice I received from a colleague when I first headed to the field was this: takes spices (and anything else that will keep in the jungle). Along those lines, for this recipe you will need to buy and bring with you (sometimes from out-of-country) several items you likely would never use at home.  Whenever possible, get these as close to you site as you can but be ready to bring in things that are not likely available.  It will cost time and money to transport them but it’s worth it.  The worst-case scenario in the field is working like a dog all day long only to come back to the same bland hard-boiled eggs and rice as you have had for the last few days.  A useful tip is to buy thing in single-serving/use sizes since very little can be saved once it has been opened.  Example items for this recipe include:

  • Powdered or canned milk
  • Real bacon bits in 4oz packages
  • Powdered cheddar cheese
  • Dry grated cheese, like parmesan (parmigiano-reggiano)

Some fresh but more durable foods:

  • Tomatos
  • Hard bread/bagged bread crumbs
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Queso fresco (and Tupperware to keep it fresh)

Other sundry ingredients:

  • Flour
  • Salt
  • Pasta
  • Bay leaves
  • Whole black pepper & salt in grinder
  • Sugar
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Dried thyme
  • Dried basil
  • Dried garlic salt

And some helpful items and equipment:

  • Purified water or cooled boiled water stored in empty two-liter bottles for mixing dry ingredients without clumps and adjusting liquid levels without having to re-boil everything
  • A fully sealable mug or thermos for better mixing milk
  • A couple large non-stick skillets with at least one tight-fitting (glass) lid to use as a Dutch oven
  • A propane range and tank

I won’t take you through the entire recipe but just the modifications. Check out Mark Bittman’s iPhone or iPad app (or the e-book), How to Cook Everything for all the recipes you’ll ever want in the field—provided you’re comfortable with the necessity for an occasional (frequent?) wild modification.

First, the tomato and onion compote.  The point of this ingredient is for the acidity in the tomatos to cut some of the heaviness of the three cheeses, rue and boiled milk.  This use is convenient for our purposes because it would waste far too many resources to oven dry your tomatos for four hours as done in a typical compote because I think the tomatos do their job better in this dish when less-cooked.  So instead of baking them I skin and de-snot them, chop them up and then slow-cook them with my caramelizing onions. When things are nice and dry after 20 or so minutes in my covered skillet , I add in the olive oil, basil, thyme, sugar, salt and pepper and cook them another five minutes. This should be done while you start the mac and cheese part of the recipe in another skillet.

Next, my prep of the mac and cheese is pretty standard but just takes a little more planning.  You need to have the right amount of milk mixed up and ready and this has to be done with cool water so that the dry milk doesn’t clump and then stick.  The Bittman recipe calls for butter so I instead use more milk powder to create a cream rather than milk.  I use a thermos sealable mug that I can shake to mix up my milk. Then, while the milk is heating on the stove with the bay leaves, I mix up the dried cheddar cheese in a separate dish.  This should be done with potable cool water as the cheese will not be vigorously boiled. I then boil my noodles and continue tending the compote. I cook a rue (not actually rue since I don’t have butter and use cream instead).   And when the noodles are done I drain them and set them aside. Then I prep my cheddar cheese, and once it’s ready I also add queso fresco since it’s cheap, locally available and usually keeps for 3-4 weeks in Tupperware without refrigeration (believe it!). You can then mix everything (save for the compote which goes on top of it all once cooked) in the pasta pot, transfer it into a greased skillet (again), and cover it in bread crumbs before cooking it covered on low heat for 10-15 minutes.

The end result is, well, baked macaroni and cheese and it’s delicious.  A momentary escape from the rigors, monotony and suffering of the field.

 

Final Notes

 

Some people can eat just about anything and be happy.  But most people cannot.  And one of the most common ways I see people suffer in the field is from bad food (and there’s been a constant parade of researchers and other foreigners over the past year and a half cycling through my field sites that I base this observation on).  I’m not talking about culture shock due to new and different flavors—only time and an open mind can address that—but genuinely terrible food.  Even if you are in charge of things, and you don’t care what you yourself eat, consider that those who work with, or for, you likely do not share this unique disposition.  I certainly do not.

My Tsimane’ colleagues have been much happier (and more productive!) ever since I stepped up my cooking.  I think that’s reason enough to spend time on this aspect of your work.  As Levi-Strauss observed in Tristes Tropiques, “Anthropology is, with music and mathematics, one of the few true vocations.” Don’t let this calling and passion for your work blind you to the practical things in life—like making sure you and your colleagues live and eat well in the field.

 

Other Helpful Equipment and Tips

 

  • Lifesaver 20 liter jerrycan water purifier (these are on sale right now for $100 off!). Great for quickly providing great tasting potable water (and even the occasional/decadent 10L for a clean bag-shower…) for use in recipes without needing to boil everything before it’s eaten.
  • Empty and clean 2L bottles to store purified water.  Keeping  5-10 of these full and at hand allows you to save on the use of gas (or firewood) because you no longer need to boil everything before consuming it (think hot water for coffee, oatmeal, etc.). Also, don’t let people drink directly from these as it will contaminate your water supply. You mouth is an incubator for bacteria as is a hot and wet jungle environment. Combine the two and it will get you sick.
  • Take extra sugar, money, or milk to trade for fresh food items like yucca/manioc, eggs, fresh fish and whatever else might be available at your site
  • A covered skillet can be used as an oven for things like pizza if you take dry yeast with you
  • When you make your list of supplies for the field consider how many different dishes that ingredient can be used in and cut out ingredients only good for one recipe (the search utility in many food apps are great for giving you an idea of how useful any particular item might be)

What do YOU suggest?

 

We’d love to hear about your own experience and tips in the comments!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Erica December 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm

I had a 2-burner gas cook-top like the one pictured for my time in Mexico and I became an expert at cooking oven-baked dishes on the stove-top. Skillet cheese enchiladas, skillet lasagna, etc. I never did figure out how to make cookies or cakes so I made a lot of brigadeiro and no-bake cookies for sweets.

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DebtFree February 16, 2013 at 8:02 am

Great post! I like watching Les Stroud and seeing how he does it in the wild. I won't even mention the other guy, he's such a phony :)

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armanxx March 29, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Wow man,

The challenges you face… truly incredible – you have such a calm temperament that comes through in your writing – I'm sure that also shows up when you're in the moment, too – I bet that's why you're doing what you're doing in this lifetime – very inspiring, brother!

Arman

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outside catering ni April 17, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Skillet lasagna sounds good :)

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