Sunday, July 29, 2007

Just Call Me The Onion Man

They call me the onion man. OK, well, not really, but it’s one of those titles I think I am deserving of. I think I even committed the cardinal sign of trying to nickname myself- that didn’t work.

First, you have to understand, nicknames can be weird down here in Chile. I mean, my name, Patricio, is often abbreviated to Pato, which translated to English is duck. So just imagine walking around and having people call out, “Hey duck, come and check this out?” or something of the sort.

But really, I could perhaps be called the onion man because one day a week while I have been in Chile I have worked in the kitchen of a modern day saint. I think first I hoped the nickname I might earn could be chef-boy-r-me or something of that nature, but it only took a couple weeks to realize one thing that stood in the way of that nickname: if Spanish is a foreign language, cooking (in that foreign language mind you) is even more foreign.

Every Wednesday when I show up to Hermano (Brother) Donald’s kitchen I have this weird mixture of excitement and fear. I carry a little pocket dictionary with me for moments like this:

My first week there, while making the desert, the instructions told me, in regards to the chocolate topping I was making for a pastry, to “hervir a fuego liento”. Confused, I turned to Hermano Donald, to ask what that meant. “Oh, simmer it, that’s all” he told me. I guess my poker face isn’t all I thought it was because two minutes later (I still hadn’t moved an inch) he asked me if I was ok. “Yeah, it’s just, well, uh, Hermano, what does simmer mean?” My first day went down in the books as a complete embarrassment.

And yet, I love it. For you see, in many ways, it is as though I work with a modern day saint, or as the women I work with often call him, un Santo de la tierra. Hermano Donald is a gourmet chef, training and all. Every Monday through Thursday, he comes to the kitchen that he personally built and with a small staff of volunteers, prepares food for 45 elderly people struggling to get by and has it delivered to their house. And again, we aren’t talking your ordinary soup kitchen like operation. I am talking about freshly made bread, delicious soups, fresh and seasoned fish, etc... Everyday Hermano is there, and everyday he puts up with a range of issues, from problems with the people receiving the food to lowly foreign volunteers like me whose conversation usually ranges from “what’s this mean?” to “oops, I really just messed this up.”

But perhaps you are wondering, why on earth would they call me the onion man, at least in my own twisted head? The other day like so many other days I found myself pealing and cutting the onions for the recipe. Again, we serve 45 people and so a typical onion count for a days order can easily turn out to be 30 or 40 large onions. Anyway, I pealed and chopped each one of the 34 onions I had that day and, drum roll please.... Not one tear was shed!

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