A Usual Salvadorian Dinner
The sun was setting and the sky turned into a vague pinkish color. The sounds of the cattle’s moo and the horse’s neigh were far along and the vivacious conversation that Papi was having with his brother-in-law, Tio Teo, always ended with laughter. It was the third day into my spring break in El Salvador and there wasn’t much to do for a sixteen-year-old girl who usually had the luxury of the Internet everywhere she went. I was lying in a hammock outside my Tio Teo’s home in a small El Salvador village called La Flores, which was a thirty-minute drive from San Juanopico, the city where my family was staying. My little primo, Marcito, who was eleven, asked to borrow my iPod Touch for the fifth time that day and because I was content with lying on the hammock, I gave in.
I heard my Tia Carmela call for Marcito to help her with something in the kitchen, so he gave back my iPod while reminding me that he only had it for ten minutes and I needed to give it back to him when he wasn’t busy. I promised I would, knowing my mood might change into being selfish while he went off to help my tia. As I swayed lightly back and forth, I stared at the sky, listening to the conversation Tio Teo and Papi were having. They were talking about one of my primo’s wishes of moving to America, but because I only knew about 60% of Spanish, some of the details got away from me. Marcito came back just before I could open an app and told me to follow him.
Marcito led me to the back of the house where I saw their chicken coop. There were around eight chickens there and Marcito jumped right in the middle of it and started to chase one around.
“Qué estás haciendo?” I asked, generally curious about what he was doing.
“Espera!” he yelled, almost catching one before it jumped away. I did was I was told and waited, laughing as he failed at every attempt to catch one. Finally, after so many tries, he held onto a chicken and did a small victory dance.
I asked him why he wanted to play with a chicken but he only snickered and went back to the front of the house. He told Tia Carmela that he caught it and my other primo, Oscar, who was 24, came outside with a knife. He pointed to the chicken with a smile, like I was supposed to know what that meant. I followed them to a tree that had a laundry rope that went across, and as I was staring at the remaining sun that leaked through the tree, I heard Marcito make a “bleh” sound in disgust. When I looked back, I gasped and froze, covering my mouth with my hands.
Oscar made a quick movement. Marcito held the chicken by its feet, making it hang while a clean slit was across its throat. A deep red line traveled from the neck, to its beak and dripped onto the dirt floor. Oscar looked at me, studied my expression, and chuckled. I turned to Papi who looked at me with an amused smile.
“Oh, my god,” I finally said, stepping closer to the chicken. “And here I thought I was going to play with it…”
“Que?” Marcito asked. I tried to save face and told him him what Oscar did was cool, even when it so was not.
“Is that dinner, Papi?” I asked. Papi was the only one I could speak English to and not sound like a complete fool searching for the easiest Spanish words.
“Of course! Why would they spend money on a chicken at the market when they have delicious ones here? It’s the same thing. Maybe even better.”
Better? Back home in Laredo, the closest I got to a chicken was the whole cut up ones in the yellow foam plates I would get in the local grocery store.
Oscar told me that it would take a while for the blood to be fully drained from the body and told me to hang around before we got to the good part. I sat down on the table watching the drops of blood slow down. Marcito was playing with my iPod on the hammock, Oscar went to help his mother with the prepping, Papi and Tio were still talking, and I was the only one staring at the chicken.
All of them were so used to this. Oscar, Marcito, Tia, and Tio probably did this on a daily basis. Even Papi didn’t give the chicken a second glance, probably because this was all very familiar to him. All of them were so used to it but me.
After the hundredth drop of blood, I saw Oscar make a gesture with his hands to have me follow him. He led me to the kitchen where a huge pot was on the stove with boiling water. Marcito showed up with the chicken who looked lighter than ever and gave it to Oscar. He dunked the chicken into the boiling water. I stood back. After a while of letting it boil, Oscar took the chicken out and let it cool.
Tia Carmela came into the kitchen and, without any warning, grabbed a handful of feathers and ripped them off of the poultry. I gasped and Marcito laughed at me. Her hand motions were effortless, as if she wasn’t using a lot of strength to pluck it. She called me and showed me how to do it.
“Oh, my god,” I mumbled.
“Oh, my god,” Marcito copied me, his accent getting the best of him.
I held onto four feathers and took a deep breath. When I exhaled, I pulled up from the feathers like Tia told me and it sounded like quick knocking on a hollow wooden cube.
“Oh, my god!” I looked at Tia and showed her the feathers in my firmly gripped fist.
“Muy bien!” Tia praised. She asked if I wanted to do it again and I told her that I’d just watch. This time, she laughed.
When she finished stripping the chicken naked, she began to feel around the body, seeing where she could cut it. When she felt around the bottom of the chicken, the cloaca, she reached for my hand and I shook my head. She insisted by pulling my hand, guiding my fingers to the chicken. I looked away but I felt my fingers touch something inside that was round, hard, and smooth.
“Un huevo?” I shrieked. “Oh, my god.”
She let my hand go and I ran to Papi to tell him what I did.
“Papi, I touched an egg! There was an egg inside of the chicken.” My voice was fast and I was moving all over the place, not sure what to do.
“Cool! We get a side dish.”
I sat down next to Papi and looked at him. I tried to find words but all I could do was looked at him with wide eyes.
“I used to do this all the time when I was Marcito’s age. I know you’re used to just going to the market and buying the chicken but this is how it is here.”
He said I didn’t have to do it anymore and that I could stay with them as Marcito, Oscar, and Tia got the chicken ready. It took them another hour. I was so glad I didn’t have to see them gut it, but Marcito did an excellent job explaining what each felt like and what it looked like. That was the only time I was thankful for my 60% knowledge of the Spanish language.
Dinner was finally served: Pollo Encebollado, directly translated to “chicken smothered in onion.” There was a small serving of scrambled eggs on my plate. My family dug in but I just stared at it. The smell of the onions filled my nose, and my mouth got watery, making me smack my lips. A couple of hours ago, I saw Marcito chase around a chicken that I thought he was going to play with. And now it was on my plate. With scrambled eggs.
“No tienes hambre, Michelle?” Tia asked, looking a bit disappointed I hadn’t even taken a bite.
Before I could answer, Papi told his sister that it was the first time I’ve ever seen something like that. Tia chuckled and said I was very brave. She told me if she had the choice to go to the market and easily take off half of the work, she would but because it was much cheaper, she had to endure it. Besides, she told me, the experience is quite fun.
“Qué suerte,” Tio said, taking a big bite.
Lucky me. I took a bite of the tortilla and slowly put some of the chicken in my mouth. The horror of killing my meat slowly faded away as I chewed on my food. The saltiness of the chicken and the fried mixed together so well that I scooped up another spoonful. Tio raised his beer and made a small toast about how grateful he was that he could share a meal with us. I raised my orange juice and cheered, “Salud!” with the rest of my family. And, that meal was one of the best chicken dinners I’ve ever had.