Andean Harvest Festival by a first-time participant

They call it Pachamanca.

The word, in Quechua, means earth-pot. It's a harvest festival, not unlike our Thanksgiving. It takes place in the Andes among indigenous people at the beginning of May.

And I was invited.

An artisan group called Tupac Yupanqui invited my fellow US colleagues and me to participate in their Pachamanca. It meant a steep hike up a mountain to a small farm complex nestled in the foliage of harvest.

The family, mostly Quechuan-speaking with a couple people able to translate into Spanish, greeted us native-English speakers to their courtyard. As the guests, we were beckoned to sit on the sheepskin covers on the handmade benches. We chatted about the weather, knitting, and swine flu, before my curiosity overcame me and I had to ask: Can we see the Pachamanca?

Macedonio led us around the back of the courtyard, where we hopped over a small wall to the dirt pile adjacent to the kitchen.

Pachamanca means the food is placed in a hole in the ground, layered with heated bricks, then covered with plastic and dirt, and left to cook for an hour.
The kids ran all around our earth-pot. They placed stick crosses in the top. They pestered Macedonio to open it.

It wasn't time yet.

I was getting anxious to unearth this food-treasure. Fortunately, I was distracted by my first course: a rich, hot soup served with a handmade wooden spoon.

"Caldo de cuy," Macedonio pronounced as he served us. I looked down, and sure enough, the hindquarters and claw of a guinea pig were sticking out of the broth. I felt very fraternal picking the meat off its tiny bones while holding its tiny hand. Cuy, while time-consuming and tedious to eat, is delicious. Ezequiel, the resident grandpa, repeatedly told us how delicious this soup was, and how we had to eat more.IMG_0650

"Es Pachamanca!" he declared, "You have to eat LOTS!"

The whole family had started to congregate around our earth-pot. Macedonio led the group in shoveling off the top layers of dirt. The kids got down on their hands and knees, scraping with their bare hands to unearth the treasure below.

Soon, the first layer was peeled back, and steam bellowed from the belly of the mound. It smelled like the whole world: food, family, harvest, roots, animal, labor, love.

Layer by layer the dirt came off. We found the treasures one by one: first, meat of alpaca with its bright Georgia O'Keefe bones. Then, beans, savory sweet within their furry pod. Three kinds of potatoes: fresh yellow potatoes, sweet potatoes, and oca, an Andean tuber deliciously soft and sweet. The last surprise were humitas, gifts of sweet corn tamales wrapped in their green husks, dripping with beads of sweat.

The family served us huge bowls with all of this steaming hot. We sat on hand-woven mantas, or blankets, in a large circle, surrounding the warm food. With our dirty hands we peeled the potato skins, unwrapped our tamales, opened our bean pods. We ate together for P5010445 over an hour straight.

The kids ran around picking from everyone's plates. We all made piles of scraps at our feet which were later fed to the cow, tethered just a few places from where we sat for our meal.

I didn't understand what was said during the majority of the meal as the family talked in Quechua and our request for translation was met with shy giggles from the women and confused stares from the children. In situations like this, however, the language doesn't matter. We all understand: we are so grateful for this food, for the work in harvesting it, for the community with which to eat it.

Pachamanca means eating and sharing the work of your labor with your loved ones. May we do this all the days of our lives.