Latin Food Refusal Guide
Latin Food Refusal Guide
By Wes J. Pimentel
If you don’t know by now, I’m Hispanic. My mother was born and raised in Colombia. My father is Puerto Rican and Irish. I consider myself Colombian (American) because I’ve been around Colombians my whole life; danced to our music, eaten our food, spoken our dialect of Spanish - I think you get the point. I didn’t have much interaction with the purely Irish side, and even less with the Puerto Ricans. Although my father is half Hispanic, he is a disenfranchised spic in that he speaks limited Spanish, and is culturally very American. So, now you know why I’m qualified to write this next piece.
In all my dealings straddling the fence between American and Latin culture, I’ve noticed a symbiotic relationship between us (second generation Hispanics), and our American pals. Basically, all our non-Latin friends like to come to our houses to eat. If you’re acquainted with a Hispanic household, especially one with a matriarch (grandma) at the top of the ranks, you’ve probably had at least one meal in this home. If this is true, you’ve noticed that food is a big deal to us. There are no chips, no candy. Breakfast cereal is a sin, but you will certainly never go hungry. Every meal is prepared fresh, or is a combination of fresh preparation and delicious leftovers (what we call “calentado”, which means “heated up”). Pretty much, if you walk through the door, you are committing yourself to ingesting something prepared by the caring hands of that woman. This brings me to the reason I’m writing this.
If you care about your relationship with anyone in that family, you know by now that the longevity of your dealings with them relies heavily on Granny’s opinion of you. We are very dissimilar to many Americans, in that we would NEVER say something like, “I hate you,” or “Fuck you, mom!” and storm out of the house. In fact, I can clearly remember the trauma I felt, the first time I witnessed one of my white buddies say, “Fuck you,” to his mom. It was as if the world froze around me. The thought simply did not compute. After I was done bracing myself for the attack on my friend, that never came, I made an important discovery; sometimes white people curse at their parents. Anyway, the point is, we don’t get down like that. Our respect for our elders is beaten into us before we’re able to comprehend the abstraction called “respect,” then it’s cultivated by an unimaginable love for us, that can only be expressed in terms of anguish. When my mother wants to express how much she loves us, she says, “ustedes me duelen en el alma,” which means, “you hurt in my soul.” Pretty heavy, right? Well, that is why if “Mamita” or “Abuelita” or whatever they call her doesn’t like you, you’re through.
So, how do you keep up relations with the old lady? It’s pretty easy, for the most part. If you have a good head on your shoulders and you’re at least moderately respectful, you’ll be fine. You have to be careful in one area, in particular, though. I mentioned before how food is a big deal to us. If you took this to mean that we like to eat a lot, you’ve completely missed the point. See, it’s not just food. This is all the love and affection that this old lady has for the generations of people she has nurtured, manifest as not only a tangible, but an edible bounty; poured out onto the table, just to sustain your undeserving life. Taking this into consideration, it’s easy to see why our grandmothers feel insulted when you refuse their food. If you’re Hispanic or intimately connected with Hispanics, you know what I’m talking about. I think my grandmother would rather have you slap her across the face and eat a bunch of her food, than refuse a meal she cooked.
That, my friends, is exactly why I’m writing this. I want to help non-Hispanics eat, drink and be merry in the homes of all my “peoples” out there. The key is what to say to grandmas and moms in order to receive the exact amount of food you want. Recall, if you will, that simply entering the household is a commitment to ingest something. If you’re there to pick someone up and expect to be there less than one minute, you will receive coffee and/or water in the very least, so just know that. If you literally want nothing to enter your digestive tract from inside this home, simply refrain from entering it. This is the only way. Having “nothing” is not an option after you’re inside, so that’s that. Besides those two situations, I have come up with a Latin Food Refusal Guide that covers what you need to know when you’re actually inside and will stay a while. Before we get to the guide, though, there’s something every Latin food “refuser” must know, and that is the term “Que pena.” Literally translated it means “What shame.” It is the term we use to introduce the excuse for refusing food, or anything else in which we’re invited to participate. Placing this term before a refusal to share in something ends up sounding like, “Oh, what shame I feel to have to say this, but I’m full.” That’s how it is with us. Turning someone down who has invited you to share in something is shameful and you’d better express it. If you’re not able to consume massive quantities of food on command and you have an interest in maintaining a relationship with this Latin family, “Que pena” might possibly be the most indispensable foreign term you can learn.
The titles of the following sections refer to how much you actually want to eat. The content of each section deals with what you say to receive this and what you’ll actually be served.
I already told you “none” is not an option. However, some catastrophic set of circumstances has led to you being inside of this home and desiring no food. Although I can’t promise no food, I think I can help you get as close as possible. In this situation you’re going to have to do a bit of acting. So, channel your favorite celebrity, put one hand on your stomach, produce a pained expression, DO NOT look at the food, and very politely say, “Que pena, I would love to eat, but I’ve been very sick for a couple of days.” Try to ignore the gasps and exaggerated concern following this comment. We all know what’s happening, we’ll just play along to help you not insult granny. At this point you will either be served a medicinal soup or some sort of Santeria concoction or potion.
Make no mistake; this “remedy” is a punishment. You have committed a cardinal sin and obviously need to be disciplined. The emotional scars left by this elixir will haunt you for years to come. It is little more than a thinly-veiled attempt at behavior modification – and it will work. You see, the intent of giving you this barbaric brew is not to cure your fictional illness. It is meant to cure the unacceptable situation of people refusing food for no good reason.
If you really want to get in good with the old bat, take what they give you and act like it really helped. If not, you can simply have a little and act like it’s not helping, then cease all consumption. Granny’s going to get just slightly insulted (not enough to black ball you forever), but I guarantee she won’t serve you anything else that day. You can make up for it later by showing up starved and eating a ton of food.
Try It (just a bite!)
For some reason you can’t eat a lot at the moment. Either you’re not a big eater, don’t feel like it, or you’re an evil, non-gorging non-Hispanic. Either way, a full meal is not what you want, but the food just looks and smells so good, you have to try it. This one’s pretty simple. With one hand on your stomach, and one hand extended defensively, say, “Oh no, que pena, I can’t. I had an enormous meal right before I came and I’m stuffed full. I couldn’t possibly eat another bite, but it looks very good!” That’s it. About five minutes after you sit down, you will be served a small sampling of each dish, probably on a small saucer. Score. Not so fast, though. If this is all you want, it is crucial that you NOT finish what’s on that plate. Remember that you’re full and just topping off, so as not to insult Granny. Keep acting full and appear to struggle through the small plate, then finally give up about a bite short. If you finish this plate, you WILL be served another. Don’t believe me? Try it.
A Small Meal
I’m calling this section “small meal.” This applies to our perspective. In most places this serving size would be considered a standard meal. If you’re in the mood for a small meal, simply say, “No thanks. I’m fine.” Without an adamant refusal, an illness, or some other extenuating condition, Grandma has the green light. Although you politely related that you’re “fine,” it was interpreted as “not bursting with fullness,” a state that is simply not tolerated by us. You will be served conservative portions of each dish and a full serving of whatever bread is being served. In a Mexican home, this would be a couple of tortillas. In a Colombian home, an arepa, which is a flat, round, corn cake. Anywhere else, I don’t know.
A Full-Sized Meal
When you want to treat yourself to a nice, hearty meal, there are few places to eat more satisfying than a Latin home. If you brought your appetite and you’re ready to throw down just say, “OK, but just a little,” then brace yourself. Realize that you have just consented to being fed. You will notice that immediately after issuing this consent, the activity level of the resident women will spike. There might be a small flurry of movement in the kitchen area, where your first course is being prepared. The female underlings of the matriarch understand how much this moment means to her and will act accordingly. They know that your request for food was interpreted by “Mamita” to mean that whomever is supposed to be taking care of you has left you in such an emaciated state, that you would actually ask for food somewhere outside your home. This is an urgent matter and you’ll notice the women will spring into action like a team of medical professionals in an emergency room. While one of the ladies is clearing the spot in front of you, another will be delivering your first beverage, while yet another will be plating your first course. Your first course will be whatever is immediately available from the meal at that time; it could be an arepa, or some soup, or a sampling of finger foods. This will all be happening while Grandma serves your main course. Unlike the medical team, these ladies don’t need to communicate with each other about how to serve you. You’ll notice all these tasks will be performed in an effortlessly beautiful collaboration, like a ballet, only instead of orchestral music, the soundtrack consists of laughter, gossip, storytelling, and chatter. Before you know what hit you, you will have been served 3-4 courses of delicious Latin food and will be bursting at the seams, a service which requires only one thing in return; the expression of satisfaction. If you’re smiling, rubbing your stomach in a pleasantly pained way and refusing the rest of what they’re trying to shove down your throat, they’ve done their jobs. If you go up to the old lady and give her a kiss on the cheek, you’re in. You are now in possession of a VIP Eaters’ card. Way to go.
This is the easiest, by far. In order to receive seconds in a Latin home, don’t say anything at all. Seconds are automatic. You’d probably be better off if I could explain how to avoid being served seconds. Well, as soon as I figure that out, I’ll let you know. I think the key is not to finish the plate with which you’d like your meal to end. This is frequently interpreted as a readiness for dessert or coffee, however. So, seconds: automatic. No seconds: I don’t know.
A Big Meal
So you think you’re ready, do you? First, let me caution you. I know there are a lot of guys out there who believe they can eat, and for all intents and purposes, they can be considered hearty eaters. I must warn you, however, that when deciding to “eat a lot” in a Latin home, there are a couple of factors that will greatly influence the endeavor you are taking on. First, you must realize that our grandmothers “know” that they’re in fierce competition with big American buffet chains and fast-food restaurants that promise to “fill you up.” Second, medical research and Surgeon Generals’ warnings have no influence on how we eat. Yes, we know cholesterol and heart diseases exist, we just don’t give a shit. The only things that control how we eat are what I call the two F’s; Flavor and Fullness. That’s it. Does it taste good? Does it make you full? These are the only two questions we ask. So, now you know you’re being fed by a woman who a) is trying to outdo every other effort that’s ever been made to sustain you, and b) has no regard for your long-term cardiovascular health. Finally, and perhaps most important is our literal interpretation of the word “full.” We, as Americans, say we’re full all the time. You have a combo meal, “I’m full.” You have a little dessert after dinner, “I’m full.” You grab a big smoothie, “I’m full.” That’s the kind of full people use to describe a glass of juice or a gas tank. You know how when people serve you a “full” glass of something they leave about an inch at the top so it doesn’t spill? Yeah, that’s not the full we’re talkin’ about. Full is when swallowing is absolutely futile because that little lever at the back of your throat keeps knocking against a potato. Full is when your stomach is developing stretch marks while every inch of your esophagus is packed with food like a fat sausage. Full hurts.
So, all disclaimers in place, allow me to share the method by which one secures more food than is safe for any three people to eat. Simply say, “Yes, I’m very hungry.” You will immediately have the attention of every member of the household. After an instant of expressing surprised delight, the ladies will launch into “auto-feed.” The men will look at you like they would look at a scrawny high-school freshman who just pointed at Mike Tyson in his face and yelled, “I’ll kick your ass!” It’s a look of amusement and warning that seems to say, “Alright, buddy, you asked for it.” The children will look up in wide-eyed wonder, due to how rarely they hear this. The kids are much more used to hearing the delicate refusals we use described in the rest of this piece.
The amount of food you will receive in this circumstance is as unique as a fingerprint. There is an exact amount of matter that will fit inside your intestines at any given time. That is the exact amount of food you will receive. It’s Grandma’s mission to find out how much food this is and deliver. It’s not like identifying how many bags will fit in a car. There are air pockets distributed between luggage in every vehicle packing situation. This would be more like filling a car with cement. Heavy, delicious, irresistible cement. When you finally get that look on your face, like you’re wondering if you’re going to throw up and you seem to be planning the quickest route to the bathroom; then and only then is the feast over… maybe. When your fullness affects your ability to pick up flatware, there’s really no point in feeding you anymore. Physical disability is one of the only perfectly acceptable reasons to stop eating or feeding.
So, there you are, at a clinically diagnosable level of fullness. Grandma’s happy, the uncles are amused and everything is right with the world.
Now you have all the information you need to conduct yourself properly in a Hispanic household, when it comes to food. I will offer one more bit of advice for people who have a real need to get in good with this Latin family. The one sure-fire way to make it to the top of the invited guests list is to pretend that this is the only place in the world in which you can eat. Treat it like your very own, free, Latin restaurant. I know that sounds weird to all my “gringos” out there, but just trust me. Don’t mention restaurants, fast-food joints, or anyone else’s cooking. Act like you starve the whole time you travel. Only unforeseen, extenuating circumstances should keep you from eating there. Don’t be shy about showing up for breakfast, either. Let me spell it out – JUST GO THERE AND EAT all the time. It’s that easy. This behavior will actually move your name from the guest list to the family list. You’ll notice there will always be a place set for you. Shopping and meal planning will be done with you in mind and you will always be included in their family activities. Unfortunately, this means laborious tasks as often as it means recreation. If you’re a woman, cut vegetables. If you see any of the family women cutting stuff up for a meal, jump in there and help. If you’re a guy, get ready for some work. You might have to do a little roofing, a little cement work, a little wood-work, or anything else the older guys can come up with.
Do these things and I guarantee you’ll thank me. While other cultures may consider you a mooch, we see you as a welcome convert. Your membership to our culture comes complete with a lifetime supply of food, merriment, free Spanish lessons, and an unflattering nickname. What more could you ask for?