On hot days after strong rains, almost every able-bodied man and boy from my village takes to the winding cow paths that meander carelessly through the surrounding marshy lowlands. They are seeking any one of a number of calm, muddy pools, and they are willing to brave hordes of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, intense heat, and life-sapping humidity to reach them. The prize at the end of this typically Paraguayan ordeal is a heap of minuscule fish, in the end all bloodied and tethered by the gills to a strong reed, which is then slung over their shoulders to carry home. If they are lucky, they might catch a few marsh eels.
Several days ago, on a dusty walk home under a peak noonday sun, I passed a group of neighborhood youngsters intently engaged at one of the ponds that line the wetlands. From the look of things, they wouldn’t have much to eat for dinner that night—a small catfish-like thing, a few half-palm-sized sunfish, and various other assorted pond treasures, each one seemingly smaller than the one before. Perhaps my arrival brought some good luck, or maybe it was just the heat of midday that drew better prospects for the boys. Either way, soon we were no longer dodging empty hooks as they orbited our heads, but instead foot-long marsh eels that wriggled madly at the sudden shock of being mercilessly ejected from their aquatic home.
One boy, the unusually small and high-pitched Willy, was the expert eel-smasher. The moment an eel would exit the muddy shallows, he went into action, grabbing the line and unhooking the poor creature in a matter of seconds, then quickly ending its life by bringing its head down onto a large stone. Once several eels had been dispatched in this manner, the boys seemed satisfied with their haul and triumphantly invited me to dinner.
I spent that evening hunched over a few small bowls of eel stew with the 12 members of Willy’s family, making quick work of that day’s catch. For those who have never eaten eel, it has all the flavor and texture of fish without the infinite little spines that typically irritate efforts at eating other aquatic animals. Once one has cut the flaps of ligaments around the head, the rest of the eel’s slimy skin slides off easily like a coat. Sometimes, to loosen up the outer layer so that it can be more easily stripped from the body, the whole eel is placed on the ground and rolled like a rolling pin, which not only helps to release the skin from the flesh but also to tenderize the meat.
Once the skin is peeled and the organs removed and tossed aside (unless of course, the eel is full of eggs, which can be eaten as well—Paraguayan caviar), the whole eel can simply be sliced into segments and cooked as is. The final product, a thin and salty fish soup, is a prized favorite of rural Paraguayans who live far from the riparian borders of the country. The soft eel flesh can be effortlessly slurped off the bone—a single continuous spinal column that runs the length of the creature but without the additional eating hazards of tiny ribs. In my humble opinion, and speaking with the authority of my extensive experience with other Paraguayan rarities, I must say that eel stew is quite delicious. —Mario Machado
It wasn’t an apple that tempted Eve, it was a mango. I can just see it now: that immense fruit, in all of its sun-kissed glory, sitting in her hands, barely fitting between her two palms. All the while, a calm serpent, whispering from its perch, coiled around bunches of leaves and plump fruits. Who could resist those yellow-and-red hues painted on firm, purple-green skin? The tremendous fruits, so easily plucked from low-hanging branches, as attractive in their accessibility as in their shear abundance, each one seductively voluptuous and tender. Each bite gashing open new veins that bleed with sweet, warm juice. Descended from heaven, surely—wrapped up and offered under the deliciously cool shade of heavy, twisted trees. It was a mango for sure, and she never stood a chance.
Paraguay in the summer seems to ferment in mango juice. The air is thick with the sickly smell of it as the locals collect and consume as many as possible, discarding the skins and pits like bread crumbs along windswept roads as they walk to and from the fields. Still, untold numbers of the succulent fruits are missed, picked apart by bees and insects on the ground. Hundreds are left to rot, to fertilize the soil and sow another generation of the world’s finest shade tree. For every person in Paraguay, there must be a million mangos or more each season. Money might not grow on trees, but mangos do, and on the hottest of summer days, nothing could be better.
There two kinds of mangos in Paraguay. Fruits of the more common variety are small and yellow and have a tough, fibrous flesh. These typically can’t be chewed easily—instead, one simply sucks out the juices and masticates the insides of the fruit to a mushy pulp before spitting out the rest, bit by fibrous bit. Delicious as they may be, they are undoubtedly quite a menace for people in a country that doesn’t seem to floss, although that doesn’t appear to stop anyone in the slightest.
Then there are the Brazilian mangos: brilliantly colored and radiant, textured yet smooth, their flesh like soft orange butter with only enough fiber to remind you that nothing is quite perfect. Everything that these mangos boast in taste and beauty they match in size—they are enormous, some barely fitting between two hands. Watching a little barefoot Paraguayan child with a full mango is like watching a mouse trying to swallow a soccer ball. Try as they might, they still struggle, giddy with all of their big-eyed, childish delight as rivers of juice run down their chins and onto their bare, protruding bellies.
As if to add to the bounty, there are enough passion fruits, peaches, pineapples, and bananas in Paraguay to feed armies, to cure the scurvy of a million wayward sailors, to drown the entire world in sweet, juicy surrender. Such plenty is one massively redeeming quality in a country that is otherwise suffocating in unbearable summer heat. That’s the trade-off, I guess—torrents of delicious tropical fruit, the product of incredible photosynthetic production, for mind-numbing afternoons. I’ll take it. I don’t really have a choice anyway. Here’s to summertime in South America. —Mario Machado