Sharing Food and Faith

Author: Ginny Varraveto ’11

This is a story about potatoes and the pope. As an Irish-American and as a Catholic, both have featured in my identity for longer than my memory can reach. Time and talk and travel have taught me that sometimes what I think I know, what is as apparent to me as my own face in the mirror, will surface in my understanding as a different truth entirely. 

In Spanish, the words for potato and the pope are the same word, save the definite article: papa and el papa. Change just a few letters and a humble tuber becomes the leader of one of the world’s most predominant religions. This is a story about potatoes and the pope. This is also a story about words. I started paying attention to words as a young person and they have been my teachers and sustenance ever since. When I began to listen closely, I perceived that words possess power to shape and reveal. A certain phrase can elucidate a cultural value or express a worldview. A single word can divulge a whole history or show me a truth about myself.  

My high school Spanish teacher, Señora Godoy, sparked my interest in language when she taught us that a slew of words, beginning with the letter a, originated in Arabic. Words like azúcar, alfombra, ajedrez, and algoritmo or sugar, carpet, chess, and algorithm all came to Spanish by way of the Arabic-speaking Moors, who grew in power and influence in the Iberian Peninsula from the start of the 8th century to the middle of the 15th. It is no coincidence that, in addition to beginning with the letter a, these words all denote items related to prosperity and technology because when the Moors migrated from northern Africa to southern Spain, they brought along highly sophisticated culture, arts, architecture, music and science.

Though the Moors are no longer a geopolitical power in the region, they left an indelible mark in Spain, especially in the realm of building and design. Nowhere is this influence truer than in Granada, home of the architectural masterpiece the Alhambra. This stunning palace with its open-air courtyards, ornately weaving gardens and symphonious water features exemplifies the Moors precise use of space, light and nature in construction. The Alhambra is notable for glazed ceramic tilework, keyhole archways and red tiled rooftops. While these are considered Spanish architectural elements, they are Spanish because of the Moors. The word adobe for example, which denotes clay bricks dried in the sun, came to the Spanish language from Arabic. English later adopted the word from Spanish. In North America, we associate this reddish-brown building material with typical Spanish style. I am enchanted by the notion that a single object or set of syllables, like adobe, contains a history as layered as the walls constructed of it. Sitting in Señora Godoy’s class, I had only scratched the surface of a passion that continues to mesmerize me.

I can distinctly recall the dog-eared pages in my textbook that described the Alhambra. I would turn to those pages and stare, with excitement and anticipation, at the photo of the iconic fountain in the Patio de los Leones, with its 12 carved lions encircling a large marble basin. I would gaze at the clear water whooshing smoothly from their stone lion mouths and marvel that such wonders awaited me in the world.

The Alhambra remained the last Moorish stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula until it fell to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. That seminal year initiated an epoch of unprecedented movement of people and goods across the globe, a phenomenon referred to by historian Alfred W. Crosby as the Columbian Exchange. Perspectives on this fraught period have grown more inclusive. Still, I am most familiar with the Age of Discovery from the vantage of Europeans coming to the Americas. Until traveling to South America shifted my mindset, I had thought less often about the subsequent flow of people and materials in the opposite direction, from the Americas to Europe and the rest of the world.

In the fall of 2009, as a junior at Notre Dame, I left the United States for the first time to study abroad in Santiago, Chile. I anticipated the semester as a grand and often-dreamed-of adventure. I remember packing and repacking my bags, counting out socks and arranging clothes and shoes in neat stacks on the floor of my bedroom. Upon landing in Santiago, I glimpsed the majesty of the Andes Mountains and became immersed in the Spanish language in a new way.

During October break, the lure of Machu Picchu led me to Chile’s northern neighbor Peru. Like Chile, Peru is embraced from north to south by a stretch of the Andes Mountains. It was here that I stumbled upon a surprising result of the Columbian Exchange. The potato, which in my mind is almost synonymous with Ireland, actually originated in the Americas. As Charles C. Mann explains in 1493, the first potatoes consumed by humans came from the Andes’ craggy landscape. In fact, potatoes were consumed throughout the Andean region for thousands of years before they ever arrived on the Emerald Isle.

My family emigrated from Ireland to the United States during the Irish Potato Famine that ravaged the population in the mid 1800s. I had never considered that only a few hundred years prior there weren’t potatoes in Ireland at all. Even more thrilling perhaps was the revelation that the large Russet baked potatoes topped with cheese and sour cream, that I scarfed down as a child, and the smaller red potatoes that my mom boiled with cabbage and corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, were only a tiny taste of the potato varietals in existence. The International Potato Center in Lima, Peru has cataloged over 4,000 different kinds of potatoes!

With my appetite sufficiently piqued, I returned to Peru the following summer to study Quechua, one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Andes. On a visit to the rocky island of Amantaní in Lake Titicaca, I savored an assortment of indigenous potatoes and glimpsed the worldview of the Quechua speakers who lived there. I participated in something called ayni, in which the community works together to complete a task. That day a group of neighbors was making adobe bricks to build a house for one family. I joined the women carrying large yellow canisters full of water used to soften the earth. Men worked in teams of two or three lifting fresh clay into rectangular wooden molds that formed the bricks. An elderly man sat chopping dried straw, added to the clay mixture for strength and durability.

At midday several women arrived toting food and supplies for lunch. They spread a long white sheet on the ground and opened brightly embroidered shawls revealing an array of multicolored potatoes. The 20 or so people working that day sat on the ground facing the sheet like a picnic table. With our hands, we scooped lamb stew from shared bowls, and I savored the delicate and sweet pink potatoes called oca and the chewy black ones, prepared by freeze drying in the ground, called chuñu. In Quechua the word ayni means, “today for you, tomorrow for me.” Partaking of the work and the meal that day, I imbibed the importance of social reciprocity in Andean culture and I pondered stories about my Irish ancestors, part of another culture rooted in a rocky island, and two peoples who had little and shared much.

After graduation, I returned to Peru once more to teach English in Puno. This proved more challenging and more revelatory than my prior sojourns. Previously accompanied by fellow Notre Dame students, I now found myself the only native English speaker in an unfamiliar landscape, obliged to stretch my Spanish abilities in order to rent an apartment and find the bus to the language center. Ecstatic about my quickly improving skills, I also yearned for the familiar. I found it in the Mass. In Puno’s high-ceilinged cathedral the priest’s words absorbed into the stone walls too quickly to comprehend. Though I could scarcely understand the words, I knew the rhythm of the Mass. The changes in posture and responses assured me that this was the same ritual I had participated in all my life. In middle school, I learned that the word catholic means universal. Sitting in that church, feeling sanctuary in the familiarity of the Mass, I finally understood what that meant. 

Now when I think about potatoes and the pope I think about resilience and hope, and the words resonate with me more deeply. The Spanish word for hope, ojalá, comes from an Arabic word meaning “God willing.” Contemplating my encounters in Peru I think what I found there is something stronger and deeper than hope. And that is faith. Hope is wanting, but faith is knowing. Through life’s journeys, discoveries, joys and challenges, I try to keep the faith.

Ginny Varraveto’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2019 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Since her last trip to Peru, she has enjoyed volunteering as an interpreter and ESL instructor in Kansas City where she lives and works as an IT program manager. She continues to seek opportunities to engage with language and culture and explore new perspectives.