By: Liam Scott
“Remember, when you’re in El Salvador, don’t begin eating until the host says ‘buen provecho’, it’s a very important part of the culture,” I was told in the weeks before the my visit to this wonderful country.
There exists only a few things that are so innate and integral to humanity that they take shape in every single culture. The act of eating cloaks itself with different meanings, importances, sanctities, formalities, and practices in every nook and cranny of humanity. It is something that literally everyone does - something that everyone that has ever existed has done time and time again. The taking in of nutrients, the fueling of the body, is the definition of a universal practice.
I want to take a moment to focus on how the practice of eating humbly proceeds in what I think is the most objectively beautiful culture there is: that of El Salvador. Nestled neatly under Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador’s small size is inversely proportional to its huge heart. The country stands as a tried and true monument to human resilience; a land that faced the harshest adversity is home to the warmest and most welcoming people.
Before I visited El Salvador this past winter, I could not truly grasp the intense pain that the country has seen in its recent history. Throughout the 1980s, a gruesome Civil War defined the country. On one side fought the Salvadoran army, a heavily equipped national army which defended the interests of the rich and was bankrolled almost entirely by the U.S government. The army was infamous for horrific treatment of its citizens by means of indiscriminate bombings, massacres, and civilian-targeted death squads. On the other side fought a guerrilla army - a coalition of fighters taking a stand against the brutal national army and the systems of corruption that leave the vast majority of Salvadorans forgotten.
The atrocities that took place during the 12 year war scarred the country and its people. Specifically, the assassination of Blessed (soon to be Saint) Oscar Romero in 1989 remains a central source of pain for the citizens. As Archbishop of San Salvador, Romero defiantly took the side of the oppressed people and walked with them in their struggle, only to be shot by government fighters while raising the blood of Christ during a mass.
What - you may be asking - does all of this have to do with food?During my visit to El Salvador, I spent time in a tiny village in the north called Arcatao. Everyday my host-mom would wake up around 4:00am, move the chickens, collect the eggs, feed the dogs, and make an entire day’s worth of tortillas and pupusas. (Pupusas are a traditional Salvadoran dish consisting of a corn tortilla stuffed usually with cheese and beans and they are DELICIOUS.) When I woke, she was so excited to sit me down and give me my pupusas and just to talk with me and her family. This sitting down and eating was so central to the family’s day that everything revolved around it.
Every time my host-mom would hand me and her daughters our food, she would have such pride and such excitement to finally say to us “Buen Provecho” and let the meal begin. Three decades before today, a peaceful family meal such as this would not have occured. Salvadoran families could have been on the run, grieving the deaths of loved ones, the sons would have been out fighting, and the fear of an impending attack would have been constantly present. The idea that a government army commander would choose your village to target next would be on your mind. The memory of this time is alive in every facet Salvadoran culture, and for this reason every family meal is something which actually stirs up real gratitude. It was a moment where you could be with your family over food that was cooked with love, a moment that would not and could not have happened during the war.
For every meal in Arcatao for three days I ate eggs, beans, and pupusas. And they were some of the best meals I ever ate. Because as soon as my host-mom said “buen provecho,” the only thing that mattered was sitting around eating lovingly and being in community - remembering past hardships and living peacefully in the present. As the founders of What’s Cooking, Joe, Alex and I try to eat together a lot. And every time we do so, we begin by saying “buen provecho” as a nod to the people of El Salvador and the simple beauty of a meal shared lovingly among humans.