Daily Bread

By Emily Milner

AN ENORMOUS PLATE OF RICE sat in front of me, a mountain of rice, rice mixed with peas, an unidentifiable meat, and . . . ants? Yes, ants, the ants that marched many by many in Guayaquil, Ecuador. My food had already been blessed, but I blessed it again, fervently: ”Heavenly Father, I’m a missionary here and if I get sick from the food I won’t be able to work as well. It will be bad for the work, Father, please don’t let me get sick from these ants, and whatever this meat is, and the germs that are in that kitchen. I promise I will work hard as long as I’m not sick from this food.” I took a spoonful of carefully selected, ant-free rice, and was about to wash it down with lemonade when I noticed ants floating in that too. I was proud of myself; I didn’t flinch. Instead I turned to my trainer, Hermana Tanner*, to ask her about it. Then I noticed her lemonade was half gone already.

”Hermana,” I said quietly, in English, ”did you know there are ants in the lemonade?”

She didn’t laugh at me. ”There always are,” she said. ”Just drink what you can, eat what you can. You don’t have to finish all the rice and you can fish out the ants from the lemonade if they bug you.”

If they bugged me! But I decided to eat what I could, in spite of the ants. I picked through the rice. There weren’t all that many ants, but I had to be sure I didn’t eat any. I was full when I had eaten only a third of it.

Hermana Ana Ortiz had cooked for us that day, and when she saw my still-full plate her face fell. ”¿No está bien el arroz, hermana?” she asked me.

What was I supposed to answer? I couldn’t hurt her feelings, so I fudged the truth a little. ”Oh no, hermana,” I said, ”está muy rico pero tengo el estómago bien pequeño.” It’s delicious but my stomach is very small. I did not add, ”My stomach will always, always be small when there are ants in my food.”

After I had been in the field four months, Hermana Gutierrez, my first Ecuadorean companion, arrived. Our first week together we ate with the Torres family, parents with five children, who had been baptized a month before I came to the branch. They still had a new convert glow. They were always the first to volunteer to feed the missionaries.

That day the Torres family served us chicken, boiled with tomatoes and peppers, with the skin left on, accompanied by the inevitable rice. While all the children ate up the meat, the skin, and the marrow, I pulled off the meat and left the skin and bones untouched. I had finished my rice, for which I patted myself on the back, but the chicken skin was too much for my nauseated stomach that day.

On the way to our next appointment Hermana Gutierrez and I talked. ”You know, in the Colombian MTC cafeteria they make us eat everything,” she began.

”What if you take too much because it looks good, but it ends up tasting gross?”

”It doesn’t matter. It’s practice for the field.”

”In the Provo MTC they don’t make you eat if you’re full,” I replied.

”Still, it’s important to practice here.”

”Why? When I was a greenie my trainer said it would be okay if I didn’t eat it all, that people would understand.”

”Maybe when you were a greenie they would. But now you have some time in the mission, and these people are poor. When they feed you chicken they may have to eat rice, without anything else, the whole week long, just to pay for it. And then to see you leave the skin and bones, and some of the meat, as though their sacrifice was nothing—”

I interrupted. ”Hermana Gutierrez, I’m always nauseated from the bugs I picked up here and the thought of eating chicken skin makes me ill. Besides, in the States we don’t eat boiled chicken skin, and I don’t even eat dark meat.”

”Hermana,” she answered, ”you aren’t in the States. You’re in Ecuador.”

I didn’t answer. Why should I have to eat gross food when I didn’t feel well enough to eat food I liked? I had finished all my rice at the Torres house, and that should have been enough.

We arrived at our appointment and didn’t talk about food anymore. But her words kept coming back to me. You’re in Ecuador now. When they feed you chicken they may have to eat rice, with nothing else, for the entire week.

In my next letter home I wrote, ”Please fast and pray for me that I will be able to eat all their food.” I also fasted and prayed. I did not want to hurt the Torres family. I had never thought about the sacrifice of feeding two extra people. I had only thought about the sacrifice of eating unfamiliar, unsanitary food on a nauseated stomach. I had blessed all my meals since I was old enough to talk, thanking Heavenly Father for the food with innocent ingratitude. How could I be truly grateful? Whenever I was hungry I ate. My fasting always ended. Starvation was never a possibility for me. It was hard to be grateful for chicken skin and mountains of rice when I had never been truly grateful for food at all.

A month after our meal with the Torres family we were scheduled to eat with a less-active sister, Hermana Alvarez. As we walked up to her door I could smell something strange and foul. She let us in, smiling, and then suddenly panicked, ”¡Ay, hermanas, se me olvidó por completo que venà an hoy dia!”

Hermana Gutierrez and I looked at each other. She had forgotten we were coming. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want to eat whatever I was smelling just then.

”No se preocupe, hermana, podemos venir otro dia,” I told her, hoping to leave quickly.

”Ay, no, hermana, por favor, espérense unos minutos y ya les sirvo lo que tengo.”

I sighed. She was determined to feed us, no matter what.

She bustled into the kitchen and we waited. The smell of whatever it was grew stronger. ”She said she would serve us what she had,” I reminded myself. ”Are you going to tell her that what she has isn’t good enough for you?”

Finally she brought us into the kitchen and set down our plates. At first I thought the pale tubes were pasta, but as I chewed one I realized they were intestines, poorly cleaned. The rice looked inviting after that. Even though we had already blessed the food, I said another silent prayer: ”Heavenly Father, Hermana Alvarez forgot we were coming and she’s serving us intestines, the only thing she has. Please, please, please, help us to be able to eat them, because it’s all she has, and I would not shame her or reject her food.”

I began to eat, washing down whole pieces of intestine with large gulps of lemonade. I didn’t chew, and I didn’t think about what I was eating. I thought about how my family was fasting that I would be able to eat, and I thought about how Hermana Alvarez loved us, and how we loved her. And I ate it all.

I was sick after lunch, and it looked like Hermana Gutierrez was too. ”What did you think of the food?” I asked. I didn’t want to be the first to express an opinion.

”Disgusting! Are you as sick as I am? That was not very well-cleaned meat.”

”I’m glad it wasn’t just me,” I said. ”I have never eaten intestines before, and I don’t plan to eat them again.”

”But you ate all of it,” she answered.

”I had to,” I said.

”Hermana, it was good of you,” she told me. ”You did the right thing.”

”I know,” I said. ”I never thought I could, but I prayed and prayed, and I did it.” I felt grateful to God, who had given me strength to eat the impossible. My gratitude continued over the next few days, though I could still sense the cow’s intestines working their way through my own. I had not offended Hermana Alvarez, and I had been blessed with an odd but necessary spiritual gift: the gift of eating.

Four months later I was training a new missionary, Hermana Wilson. Her second day in Ecuador I coached her about eating the food.

”You have to eat everything they give you,” I said, ”because they feed you from love, and if you reject it you hurt their feelings.”

”What if I can’t?” she asked. ”What if I’m full, or sick? Or what if I don’t like it? Eating bananas makes me throw up, and Ecuador is the banana capital of the world.”

What if she couldn’t? ”Then I’ll eat it for you, as much as I can.” During the four months that had passed, I had developed a technique for eating. It takes twenty minutes for your brain to realize your stomach is full. I ate as fast as I could in that twenty minutes, before my brain could catch up with my stomach. If I had plenty of juice to wash it down with I did fine.

”I’ll do my best,” she said, ”but I may need you to bail me out.”

The next day our investigator, Sabina, surprised us with lunch. I smiled as she placed the fish in front of me, complete with scales. There were no ants in this rice, but the scales had caught even me off guard. What would Hermana Wilson think?

I glanced at her plate, which held a scaly fish head and a sausage-shaped fish ovary full of tiny yellow eggs. She looked at me, almost crying. ”I think I’m gonna be sick,” she whispered.

”Don’t worry,” I told her. I ate my food as fast as I could, and whenever Sabina left the room to get juice I ate Hermana Wilson’s too. I knew what Hermana Wilson was feeling, the injustice of having to eat strange and unsanitary food. I also knew that Sabina loved us enough to cook for us, and we needed to receive her gift.

When my parents came to pick me up at the end of my mission, we visited my favorite people: Hermana Ana, who told us she would have made us cuy (guinea pig) had she known we were coming; Eduardo and Narcisa, who fed us chicken soup with feet and innards; Hermana Alvarado, who fed us crackers and Ecuadorean cheese, which is an acquired taste; and the members of the Miraflores Branch, who made a lavish going-away party feast. At every home they offered us their best, though some food went down more easily than others.

We ate it all: the chicken feet and the rice, the butter crackers and the smelly cheese. I was impressed with my parents’ strong stomachs. They were better at eating unfamiliar food than I had been when I first started. But they had read my letters, and knew how important it was to me, and to these good people, that we eat their food. I felt humbled by the way my dear friends honored me and my parents with their love, and with their carefully prepared meals.

And so we ate. We ate, and were filled.

* Names have been changed.

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

1 thought on “Daily Bread”

Leave a Comment