Jonathan’s birthday is Jan. 24, and as we chatted with neighbors on the beach, we found three others with birthdays on the same day, one the day before, one the week before, one the week after. We decided that a celebration was in order, and began our planning.
Our first issue was when to have the get together. The 24th itself seemed like a good date, but then we thought some people might not come out from Lima until the weekend. Would it be better to have the party on Saturday? We’d forgotten that the Peruvian special election of new congressmen is on Sunday, January 26. Voting is mandatory, and people must vote where they are registered. Most of our friends would be expected to go to Lima for voting. That might mean that friends from Lima wouldn’t bother coming out on the weekend of the 24th in order to be able to vote. We chatted with friends who said they weren’t planning to vote because the fine was so small, less than US $30. Another friend had quoted us a higher penalty, but that is for individuals who are scheduled to work in a voting station. Rather than make people choose our party or voting, we returned to the original plan of having a barbecue on the afternoon of Jan. 24.
We spread the word to friends and found that a quorum would be around and ready for festivities. Jonathan then got busy with his favorite part of party planning—the menu. He asked a fish vendor to save him a large flounder for ceviche and reserved a pig to barbecue. The flounder ended up weighing 5 kg! He swapped all our empty quart beer bottles for new cases of beer.
Peru has ancient customs that revolve around sharing drinks going back long before the Inca. Back when people brewed their own corn beer, or chicha, a gourd bowl of the brew was passed around friends sitting in a circle, perhaps around a fire. Anthropologists have written books about the use of drinking as a method of fostering, celebrating, and cementing relationships. There’s a scholarly article about how women influence politics by being the one handed the full bowl of chicha after the leader has taken the first drink. Protocol demands that the next most important person be handed the bowl, but the woman who takes the bowl from the leader and hands it to the next person has power to change the pecking order. It would be impossible to take the bowl away from someone who has it in their hands. Thus, it’s actually the leader’s wife who selects the next most important person. Lore associated with drinking chicha, sharing drinks, and sharing beer, is present everywhere.
In recent times, it has been customary to buy beer in quart bottles and share it among several glasses. Individual beer bottles have arrived but are still not as popular as the bigger bottles. I like the sharing implicit in the big bottles. We’ll make sure everyone has beer and raise a toast to all the birthday persons. There will probably be some pisco, too.
Friends will bring appetizers to share. They have a good name, “piqueos” something to pick at while you are sipping your beer. Many of our neighbor are creative in the kitchen, so there will be tasty snacks to try as the pig cooks. Maria-Luisa works for Iberia Airlines, and brings delicious Spanish chorizo.
Ceviche is one of the most important beach dishes, central to our family parties. Though Jonathan is adept at filleting fish and making ceviche, we had the chance to get our neighbor Teresa to make the ceviche, using her many, many years of experience… The freshest fish you can get is mixed with finely sliced arnaucho hot chili peppers, fresh lime juice and accompanied by pieces of Peruvian corn on the cob, or choclo. It’s not what Americans would recognize as corn on the cob, the kernels are large and white, and the flavor is not sweet. Ceviche also comes with pieces of sweet potato, boiled, then cooled. Lots of finely sliced raw onion (soaked in salted water) completes the dish.
Jonathan’s reserved pig didn’t come through, so he found someone who would sell him two baby pigs, butcher them on the spot and have them ready in time for the grill. He built up the fire and put both pigs on side-by-side for a few hours. This gave people time to arrive and enjoy a few appetizers, a drink, and a chat with friends. We all took a look at the grilling pigs from time to time. Back in the kitchen, work continued, as barbecued pork requires side dishes of potatoes, rice, or both, We have a friend who makes delicious beans, often with beans grown on the farm he manages. The middle of summer may not be the best moment for beans, but if they appeared, people would eat them. There could be a plate of sliced tomato, or avocado, but fresh vegetables aren’t a necessity. In the end, we stuck to eating the choclo and sweet potato left over from the ceviche.
There is no rush to sit down and eat, there doesn’t even have to be a specific moment when the meal is called to order. As food appears, people taste what they like and chat with friends, spending the afternoon together. A few people may go out to the beach for a swim. Teenagers may arrive and leave depending on who is on the beach of their friends. Someone must mind the front door or it will be left open and the dogs would both escape. We shut Orca in the back alley by the laundry. She was unhappy to be left out of the fun, but we have friends who are very uncomfortable around dogs, especially big ones. Rufo slunk in and out, but he is wily and unobtrusive. He was barely noticed, and he’s difficult to corner and put on a leash. His wiles won out.
The ceviche was cheered and eaten, then we remembered to bring out the causa, a Peruvian layered appetizer of mashed potato, fish salad and egg salad. The first pig appeared, then diminished. Teresa took over the serving of portions after Jonathan divided it into large pieces. Everyone was becoming content, the snacks and sides put to use, and when the second pig arrived there was just enough enthusiasm left to polish it off right down to the head. Many toasts were made, and lots of photos taken. Dining tapered off, and plates were taken to the kitchen.
The next group moment is the cutting of the cake. The birthday song is sung, there is much clapping and joke-telling, and the cake is cut and passed around. One year Jonathan was told to “kiss” the cake, and a friend added a little push.
This year the cake cutting was less raucous. The three birthday persons are on left, Mariana, Pedro, and Jonathan, singing birthday songs.
Slices of cake were small because by this point everyone has eaten as much as they want. The cake is particularly important because it is made by Dona Berta, the best cake-maker in all of Barranca. If you order the good chocolate cake at the Hotel Chavin when you’re driving through town, you may get a piece of Dona Berta’s work, if you are lucky. All the best parties commission her to make the cake, and we tried to do the same. She wouldn’t hear of it being a commission, but Jonathan’s birthday gift from her and her family. This is a very generous gift.
Once cake is handed around and enjoyed, the party is officially at an end. The young people can bail for the beach or the seawall, though many stayed to throw darts. The balloons around the dartboard were popped, and they all moved off, happy.
Everyone is free to stay and chat or go where their schedule and interests dictate. There was almost nothing left to clean up, some bones for the dogs, but little else. This simplified cleanup, and we didn’t have to press leftovers on departing guests. Eventually, people think about a late afternoon nap or a dip in the ocean, while others sit in clusters and chat and sip. Sometime late in the afternoon, the front door closes, we decide to put away the chairs tomorrow, and thank Dalmira and Jenny for doing the dishes. It was a well-celebrated birthday afternoon.