The Night Chef

Overnight, the hospital halls are quiet; all the administrative areas are closed. There seems to be endless dark ends of corridors where no one is. There is the constant beeping of heart monitors and other hospital machines. The night shift’s laugher periodically fills the space – the nurses and others making sure patients get what they need overnight. Of course, if you’re a patient and trying to sleep it seems loud and it’s annoying because you’re woken frequently for vital signs checks and other things.

Some folks chose night shift. Some folks like the autonomy that a less full hospital affords. Some do nights so they can be with their kids during the day. Some do it for the higher pay. Others are just night owls. I do night shift out of necessity – either when the budget requires it or there’s no way out of it. And that is how I found myself in the hospital when I met the night chef. I was on a rotation that had a week of night shifts.

The night chef is the man who runs the grill of the only cafeteria open overnight at the hospital where I train. When your shift is overnight there’s not much to be done but have lunch at midnight. If you’re like me and prefer to be asleep well before midnight, midnight lunch is daunting. On my first night of nights, one of the residents I was working with reassured me that the night chef was one of the best things about night shift. I was curious what she meant.

The night chef can make anything. He’s gregarious and happy despite working at odd hours of the morning. When I met him, I could not understand why he was working in the cafeteria. He is one of those people who could sell anything. You know, one of those lively talkers who connects with anyone. Why had he chosen to be a hospital chef at night?

He welcomed me and the resident I was with when we entered the cafeteria. He listed the delicacies he had imagined that evening. And despite the terrible hour of day, I found myself smiling and feeling only a little guilty for turning down the pizza with gobs of meat he gloated about for a different option.

During my first week of nights, it became routine to visit the night chef at some point. I never bought his most creative dishes, but I did enjoy his cheer.

Eventually my stretch of nights ended. On my last night, I stopped by the cafeteria on my way home. “Will I see you again tomorrow?” the night chef asked.

“No, I’m going back to days.”

“Ugh, too bad,” he said. “But… I understand.”

I went on my merry way wondering if I’d see him again. And, of course, I did soon thereafter because I started my day shift before his night shift ended. He was jolly as ever, even at 6 in the morning after having cooked all night. “Where have you been?” he said the first time I saw him again. “Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you again too!” I said. I meant it. It doesn’t take much to make someone’s day and his happy greeting made mine that day. The night chef is a master at brightening his customers’ shifts. Perhaps that is why he had chosen to be the hospital night chef. Night shift at the hospital needs him most.


Home Lab: Kombucha

This winter I started brewing kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented, non-alcoholic drink that (like yogurt) has probiotics that are helpful for your gut. It’s made from tea, sugar, and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). There are many ways to flavor kombucha, but I use herbal teas—mostly fruity ones.

Kombucha is a little tangy, a little sweet, and a little bitter. When all goes well it’s wonderfully fizzy. The fun part about making kombucha is every batch is a little science experiment. The goal is to produce a drink with a nice flavor combination and delightful carbonation—but it all depends on how happy the SCOBY is. The teas you use, the temperature, the amount of sugar, and the time you wait all influence the kombucha outcome. If you wait too long, the batch turns out very much like vinegar. If you’re too impatient, the kombucha is too sweet (because the microbes haven’t had time to eat it) and flat.

I’m just getting used to brewing in the summer, where the temperature is much warmer and the process goes way faster. Today when I checked my bottles, I had to put each one I opened in the sink because they had so much fizz they overflowed like a shaken soda bottle!

The kombucha process changes the flavor of the tea you use—sometimes for the best, sometimes for the bitter. For example, I DON’T like peach tea, but when I turn it into kombucha it’s quite yummy and not as painfully sweet as I find straight peach tea.

There’s something highly satisfying about cultivating microbes to produce something healthy. Many of us only think of bacteria when we get sick or when we want to kill germs—which makes us forget how many microbes are working for us each and every day. I like the meditation of thinking about microbes as my teammates.

Brewing kombucha has made me think more about the good microbes in my life, and it’s also made me feel better. A glass of kombucha a day, seems to keep the stomach aches away. I noticed this when I traveled in Spain for 2 weeks on vacation recently—many days my stomach hurt even though I was eating healthfully. I think it was a combination of my gut missing kombucha and my digestive system wanting to know where the yerba mate was (mate also changes how you digest food and I drink a lot of mate too). Not entirely by accidentally, the beverages I enjoy daily (mate and kombucha) both help with digestion. When I was younger I used to have a stomach ache almost every time I ate. I almost never do now. It could be growing up. It could be the microbes. Regardless, I enjoy the challenge of making my SCOBY happy so it works for me—I figure one more symbiotic relationship in my life can only be good.

Happy Holidays

Spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year in another country and without your family for a few years and you’ll return with a whole new perspective about the holidays. I promise. I know. I did it.

You end up seeing clearly all the things you love about your holiday traditions. You also realize that the stress that often comes with the holidays is not required. The tension is something you add to the mix for a host of reasons, but is not inherent to the holidays.

Leaving the stress at the door is great, and I was only able to do it because I took a sabbatical. During my break, I had plenty of time to ponder all the things I love about the holidays, but especially Christmas with my family.

Top of the list was seeing everyone. This Christmas was special because I met my baby niece for the first time. She’s little and cute and the first of her generation in our family—needlessly to say she was the star. I also saw my brothers after over two years. Two years is a long time. The last time I saw them, one was in high school and the other was in college. They both graduated those occupations in May 2014. I left January 2014. Wow. Crazy, right? They both are taller than I remembered, and the younger is a giant. GIANT.

A close second is the food. I do Christmas Eve at my mom’s and Christmas Day as my dad’s. Both of my parents are fantastic cooks. We dine like the three kings. This year, my mom pulled out all the stops with the desserts—two types of pie, German chocolate cake, and chocolate mousse. On Christmas morning, we ate fruit cake and Christmas stollen. My dad served king crab, but this year I’m trying the vegetarian thing so I stuck to my favorite on the rainbow, orange. Specifically, squash orange. Some people get excited over steak and potatoes. I’ve always been a fan of squash and potatoes.

Next are the decorations. My family is full of artists—basically if you aren’t an artist you’re in the minority. What this means is that we have awesome Christmas trees and house décor. We aren’t one of those families that drapes their house in lights. But we have some great Christmas tree ornaments and we know how to place them just right on the tree. On Christmas Eve, my job is to decorate the table. I went for elegant this year—a garland and candles.

Christmas Eve we do fireworks and a bonfire. You should be jealous. It’s a perk of living in the middle of nowhere with snow all over—we can enjoy fires of all shapes and sizes with almost no risk of harm…this year one of the fireworks we set off did explode on the ground in many directions however.

Stockings. I love Christmas stockings, maybe more than presents. Why? Who knows, but it’s so fun to see all the little, silly things one can fit in a decorated sock. Tooth brushes, toothpaste, candy, tree ornaments, nail files…you never know what “Santa” will leave.

The morning. I’m a morning person. I usually get up early. On Christmas, I’m always the first up. I’ve overcome my childhood ways…meaning I don’t get up at 4 o’clock in the morning any more. This year I got up at 5ish. I love the quiet when everyone is sleeping and it’s just me, the Christmas tree, and the stockings. This year I finished embroidering a stocking that needed some love before anyone else got up. Victory.

My sister has changed and is now a morning person. Because she and I travel from our mom’s to our dad’s and split Christmas between them, the 26th is also part of Christmas at my dad’s house. This year, she and I finished making a pie before the parents got up. The crust had been in the fridge overnight and was rock-like. Luckily, my sister is buff—you should see her shoulder and arm muscles. She’s a professional fitness trainer—so she rolled out the crust like it was warm butter. I gave advice like, “If dirty dishes are in your way (when making pie) move them.”

It was nice to be home for Christmas. And, seeing as I was in Paraguay just before (and traveled 32 hours to get back in time for the 24th), it was even sweeter.

*Photo credit: Matisse, my brother.

You’re not fat, so why do you exercise?

Paraguayans in my site love to comment on my weight periodically…you know just in case I’m not aware of the current state of my own body. And as much as they like to say I’ve gained or lost weight, I’ve stayed about the same since I got here. Well, until recently. I turn 26 this I year and I decided that because I’m now closer to 30 than 20 I should stop putting off my body goals. In July, I started to take steps to lose weight by my birthday in October. At the same time, a friend asked me to run a 10 km race with her for fun. The race brought back my running bug, which I lost sometime in 2012. The point being two fold. First, I’ve started controlling what I eat and how much. Second, rather than just exercising in my house—which I did consistently for most of my service—I started running. Now, everyone in my community can see me exercising.

I think most people know the basic math of weight: if you eat fewer calories than you burn you lose weight, if you eat the number of calories you burn you maintain your weight, and if you eat more calories than you burn you gain weight. Depending on what you are doing weight gain can be muscle or fat. That said, I think many people in Paraguay and the US overestimate the power of exercise in this equation. If you want to lose weight the most effective way to do it is to watch what you eat. Why? Because it is hard to do enough exercise to burn more calories than you consume if you are eating many high-calorie foods.

We are now in late August. I am a little skinner, and Paraguayans like to tell me so, and they attribute it to my exercise. Well, actually, first they say it is because I am in love. A common Paraguayan wives’ tale is that you lose weight when you’re in love (I always thought it was the opposite…). But, after I assure them that I am still single they turn to the exercise excuse. While I was visiting a señora the other day she asked, “You’re not fat, so why do you exercise?” The question struck me. I do link exercise and body image, but for me the connection is muscle tone rather than jiggle or skin-and-bones not exactly weight. And, I exercise more because I feel like crap if I don’t, not because I’m worried about muscle tone. The señora’s question made me think about exercise theoretically, and why so many people don’t do it.

Obviously, it takes effort and time to exercise, but after considering those things I think there is a greater force preventing people from being motivated to exercise. And I think that force relates to how society talks about exercise. Many people, in Paraguay and the US, regulate physical activity to the castigation of the overweight and the amusement of a special elite class of “fit” people. Just as my señora friend’s question suggested, exercise is considered by many to have the single purpose of helping one lose weight. I see this belief as dangerous.

If I had been quicker on my feet I would have explained the following to my señora friend: You don’t have to be fat to exercise. You don’t have to be special. Nor do you have to do a specific type of exercise; all exercise is not equal but most ways of exercising are better than not exercising. Exercising helps your heart, your bones, your brain…everything.

I can’t remember what I told that señora, but I see a greater opportunity, based on her question, for public health wonks. Maybe we should focus less on telling people to exercise and focus more on changing how people talk about physical activity. After all, exercise is for everyone not as a punishment or as a chore but because our bodies need to move to work correctly. Exercise should not be thought of as extra. It should be lumped in with things like vitamins, necessary and required.

Chipa Time: Semana Santa

Semana Santa is what Paraguayans call the week leading up to Easter. School stops on Tuesday, and most people get off work before mid-day on Wednesday. Families share a last supper on Thursday and every night there is a religious celebration of some kind—not everyone goes. The TV is filled with depictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gory details are not spared.

After the last super, you aren’t supposed to eat anything but chipa until Easter Sunday, or at the least, you aren’t supposed to eat meat. Chipa is a kind of cheesy biscuit, that promptly gets stale.

The chipa tradition is neat because it is unique to Paraguay. The idea is that every family makes their own chipa, and as families visit each other on Friday and Saturday they exchange chipa. As I got ready for Semana Santa, my friends explained that people take chipa less seriously than they once did. Many people buy chipa these days, and most people eat other things (though they do avoid meat).

I made around 500 hundred chipa on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Semana Santa. Several of the señoras I visit most are part of a baking cooperative. I helped them make chipa for their clients, and also helped various community members who used the cooperative oven make their chipa.

Making chipa is a strenuous process. First, you whip raw animal fat, vegetable fat, or maybe butter with your hands until it is smooth, then you mix in all the other ingredients. You mix everything with your hands, and by the end the dough is crumbly. From that point, you knead the dough until it is the consistency of putty. From there, you shape each individual chipa.

I like chipa making, especially for Semana Santa, because it brings the women of the community together.


Soda is a bubbly drink that comes in many flavors and contains a pile of sugar. Sugar-free sodas replace the mountain of sugar with synthetic sweetener (even if you can stand the flavor of fake sugar, I suggest looking up the latest research on the effects of that before switching to zero-calorie drinks). Some sodas taste pretty darn good. Many people like carbonated drinks.

In Paraguay, soda with sugar is common (sugar-free sodas are less common here, so I’m not going to talk about them). Bus venders sell soda by the bottle and by the glass. A neat thing about soda here is you can by 2-liter glass bottles, which you then return to the place where you bought them. Actually, soda in glass bottles is very common in Paraguay…the only part of soda culture that I adore.

I’d be lying if I said that soda is drunk in moderation in my community. People guzzle down glass after glass of Coke, Niko, Piri, Fanta, Pepsi…I didn’t know there were so many brands of soda. It’s common for a family to down a 2-liter bottle after lunch (the biggest meal of the day). Like in the US, soda is served at parties and is a common “refresher” to go along with a snack or to drink while sitting with friends and family. The only thing that slows people down is that soda is usually drank with a common glass—so either one glass (or several glasses) is passed around to everyone or people take turns drinking a full glass, but only use one or two glasses for everyone.

The complaints about the health effects of soda are the same no matter where you are. Summary: Soda has too much sugar. The sugar rots your teeth, is generally bad for your body, and can make you gain weight in an unhealthy way. But, I find the knowledge of that to be lagging in Paraguay. I hear frequently from mothers and other caretakers of children that kids should not eat candy because it’s bad for their teeth. I hear people note often that sweets and carbohydrates make you gain weight. Very few people say anything about soda. Kids are infrequently denied a second, or third, glass of soda while they might be denied another cookie.

How did soda escape scrutiny?

Yes, I Can Cook

I think my community lives in fear that I will starve. Part of it is cultural, it’s part of Paraguayan culture to give your guest food and share everything you eat with the people sitting around you. But, the food I’m given goes above and beyond. People ask me what I eat regularly and are often surprised to hear I cooked my own lunch.

I don’t know why they’re surprised. If I was a good Paraguayan woman I’d already know how to cook. I guess it goes to show where I fall on the scale of Paraguayan women. Sometimes I think it’s because I live alone—one can’t simply cook for one can they?

I’m not complaining about Paraguayan generosity. It’s one of the things I love about living in here. Besides, recently I’ve been almost short on money—something about a Peace Corps salary and a run of bad luck. If I’m hard-working and visit people, I almost don’t need to cook or eat at home. I don’t go hungry, that’s for sure.

But, the free food comes with a small cost: I eat the food that my Paraguayan friends and contacts are eating. Which is to say, a lot of meat and bread and yucca and rice. Don’t get me wrong I like barque and yucca as much as the next girl, but even I have limits.

In Paraguay, food isn’t a meal unless it involves chunks of meat. This might be another reason why people don’t think I can cook. I don’t cook meat in my house. When I describe what I eat, they kind of give me this blank expression as though they are waiting to hear what I ate after my rice and vegetable stir fry. Nothing?

I was never a picky eater, and my time in Paraguay has made me less so. I’m an expert at eating things I don’t like, and not showing it. My community members bubble with enthusiasm every time we eat hot dogs or sausages. I just enjoy their happiness and I’m thankful for being invited to share a meal with them. But, I can’t help but think about the diet and what it’s doing to my body. My hair is thinner and duller. I’m sure could do enough exercise to burn all the calories. Is my face breaking out because I’m stressed or because of what I’m eating? No way to know.

I know what I cook is healthier than the standard Paraguayan menu, but I also don’t want to be cut off from something as important as eating with families. It’s a balance between eating what makes me feel good and tastes good and spending time with my Paraguayan friends. My Paraguayan friends always win.

Mate: Highly Satisfying

MateMate is the hot version of terere. It is yerba mate, which is mix of leaves from a South American shrub. The yerba comes in a coarse powder that you put in a cup and drink through a medal straw that has a filter on the end. It’s very bitter, a lot like green tea, and is caffeinated. To drink terere you use cold water and to drink mate you use scolding hot water. I have burned my mouth many times.

Many Paraguayans, at least in the more rural areas, start their days well before six, and mate is a common starter. During the winter mate is drunk at almost any time, but never with food and usually not directly before eating or after eating, to stay warm.

You usually heat up about a liter of water and cup by cup drink all of that using the same yerba—like if you were to use the same tea bag to drink a whole teapot by pouring the hot water into your mug every time you finished one cup.

Like terere, there are a ton of medicinal herbs people put in their mate for every ailment from a sore throat to high blood pressure. Most herbs do something for the stomach, mouth, or throat. You can drink mate alone, like what I’m doing as I write this post, or it can be a social thing. Just like with terere, mate cups are communal and one person pours the water into the cup and passes it around the mate circle, each person takes their turn in order.


Chipa waiting to go in the oven.

Chipa waiting to go in the oven.

Chipa is a kind of cheesy biscuit. Its ingredients include cheese, cassava flour, corn flour, animal fat, milk, anise, and eggs. It’s a common snack. People sell it on the bus, at soccer games, along the highways, and on street corners. People serve it at memorial services (which in Paraguay are nine days long and can also occur on the anniversary of people’s deaths).

Chipa is crumbly and cheesy—and amazingly yummy when it is hot. If it sits around for much more than a day, it can get rock hard. During Semana Santa, which is the week leading up to Easter, it is traditional to make a ton of chipa or only eat chipa. During that week, my jaw hurt after eating so much hard chipa.

Chipa comes in a variety of shapes but the most common are circles and sticks. It is one of the traditional foods of Paraguay, in fact, in a number of traditional Paraguayan dances the dancers hold a basket of chipa.

Getting Excited About the Same Food

general storeThere are somewhere between 7 and 12 foods that make up the bulk of the Paraguayan diet. Most of those foods are made of the same things. Most of them are carbohydrates with some oil or fat added. A lot of them involve meat.

What amazes me is how excited Paraguayans are to eat these traditional foods. Despite the repetition, Paraguayans I’ve eaten with talk about sopa paraguaya like it’s a rare delicacy and chipa like it’s the “be all, end all” of foods. Chipa sells like wildfire at the soccer games and on the commuter buses.

Terere and mate is the same way. The Paraguayans I’ve drunk mate or terere with have probably drunk it almost a million times, but they still comment on how good it is every single time.

I wish I could enjoy the same food over and over again. It would make dieting a lot easier. I can’t even eat my favorite foods with the frequency that Paraguayans eat their traditional foods. How does one develop such an appreciation for life?