Valentine Chocolates and Exotic Soups

Forrest Gump’s life may have been a box of chocolates. My box has included snails—and worse.

On February 12, 1993, I returned to Guatemala after three months Stateside, for what Latin Americans call el pedido, “the asking.” The thing I was going to ask for was the hand of my fiancee, Mely González, from her parents. I thought doing so on Valentine’s Day would show some class—all I had, probably.

I’d never met her parents, since nobody in her family and only one of her friends expected me to come back. I made liars of them by popping up at the airport where I was greeted by Mely, her eldest sister, Miriam, and Miriam’s crusty Mexican semi-hubby, Arturo. As we left the airport, Arturo offered to give me a trial pedido on the eve of the real one. Could I say no?

Accordingly, we went to their suburban farm the next day. I picked fruit with Mely and her nephew, including granadillas, or passion fruit (logically in season during February). We hiked and played with the dogs. I was thinking that their dogs had a good life, especially when I noticed Miriam stewing fishheads in an outside cauldron. I thought, “This family cares enough about their dogs to feed them delicacies!”

I need to mention that since high school I’d been a vegetarian. I still am, thanks to seeing a televised bullfight, circa 1973. I also avoid alcohol, but I’m not dogmatic about boozing or meat-eating. Most of my friends do both, and I don’t care.

The trial pedido—to return to what this is all about—began with Arturo and I sitting down to a cola in his kitchen. To my great chagrin, he added rum to his drink and then to mine, and ordered me to down it. I complied.

Soon afterward, Miriam brought out two steaming bowls of something that looked like it had been dredged from the bottom of Lake Erie, before the cleanup. And stuff was bobbing in it. Arturo started spooning it down and directed me to do the same. Willy-nilly, I did. Right away I knew that it was not Lake Erie vintage. It wasn’t good enough.

Arturo found a snail in his, whacked it with a hammer, and sucked out the contents. I followed suit but without chewing. The biggest floating object was, you guessed it—a stewed fishhead. Arturo retrieved his and vacuumed it clean with his mouth. I kind of picked at mine, hoping this would suffice (and hoping, too, that a dog was under the table). Clearly, I was getting the bootcamp version of the trial pedido. All for my own good, I supposed. But my stomach was not agreeing.

The next day, Arturo, Miriam, Mely and I rode out to the parents’ farm for the real pedido. I was still mildly sick from yesterday’s cola, rum, snail soup and fishhead. It didn’t help that Arturo was saying that Don Zenón, my presumable father-in-law, was bad-tempered, carried a revolver and disliked gringos. But I imagined that I would be spared another alimentary assault. Hope springing eternal, and all that.

Mely’s relations seemed nice enough. And, as before, we hiked and picked fruit. Mely was making me a green salad, and when we were seated for the feasting that would lead up to the pedido, this was the first course. It was followed by a pasta course and then— uh-oh —chicken soup. In Guatemala, chicken broth lacks the reputed medicinal powers that it has when consumed in my country. This is especially true when your system has forgotten how to digest it.

Still, I spooned it down. At the bottom was a pile of giblet, something that even your typical omnivore wouldn’t eat. I avoided doing so by covering it with tortilla crumbs and patting my churning gut. Eventually Mely’s sister, Elisabet, carried it off. But then Mely’s brother, Iginio, started passing out fried chicken. He dropped a drumstick on my plate and sat down next to me. Oh boy!

When you are the guest of honor at a banquet for a dozen people, someone is almost always looking your way. A moment came, though, when no one was; so with some fast sleight-of-hand, I schlepped the drumstick into my briefcase.

(Once inside, it soiled my passport. The grease stain remains to this day, overlapping the autograph Telly Savalas gave me when, one night at home in Las Vegas, I discovered him strolling through the Riviera Casino).

Iginio was the first to notice something “amiss.” I never asked him what he was thinking as he observed my plate with the fascination of a paleontologist discovering a missing link. Was it, “Wow! This dude was hungry!” Or was it, “Do gringos eat even the bones?” I’ll never know.

So to slake his curiosity, Iginio took the chicken wing from his plate and put it on mine. I had to feign fullness for 45 minutes, until Iginio excused himself; then the wing, too, magically vanished. Meanwhile, we finished the pedido, with the parents assenting.

Back in the city that night, I gave the chicken to my roommate, Franco, an elderly artist from Maine. He told me it was lousy. I told him it was my mother-in-law’s cooking.

The next day, February 15, I found overstocked Valentine chocolates on sale at a downtown confectioner. I bought a box with walnut nougat centers, thinking I deserved a “chaser” for what I had eaten over the previous 48 hours.

But maybe it was worth it. I got the girl, and she has yet to make me eat fishheads.

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