The chickens hang in a row, a hook through each left leg, some legs with scaly yellow feet still attached, some ending at the drumstick. Some of the attached feet are only semi-attached, cut through the joint so that they dangle, fatty soles waving. Some chickens, split open along the belly, expose the ovaries’ bright sacs of yolks, the nascent eggs inside the birds waiting for whites and shells. Others remain mostly whole, bumpy skin buttery; fatty tails over cave-like holes leading to hollow bellies. Beneath these curtains of chickens, white tile counters covered in steel trays with more chickens and parts of chickens. Behind the chickens, women in aprons, selling chickens, their booths festooned with fuzzy green garland lingering from Christmas. One woman points to the orange cluster of yolks, tells me, “Pollo bonito. Con huevos.” I understand this. I can say “pollo.” But I can’t say much else. The words, las palabras, nestled and slippery in my brain.
I’m at the Mercado San Sebastián, near downtown, and I’d like to ask if I can buy some feet, only the feet, to make some stock. Los pies. I know this means feet, but is it the same word for chickens as it is for humans? I don’t know, so I, well, chicken out. I’ve been in Ecuador for five weeks and in Loja for a few days. When I’d mention to Ecuadorians elsewhere that I would be staying in Loja for a month, they’d tell me the Spanish that people speak here is “lengua muy pura,” very pure language, whatever that means. My Spanish is anything but pure, a garbled residue from classes I took over twenty years ago.
* * * * *
Later, I sit in my one-room apartment, staring at my propane cooktop, planning to head to my local market, where I’ll ask for feet. I practice saying, “Es possible que comprar solo unos pies?” which is probably not the correct way to ask if I can buy feet. I think the “que” is just something I’ve thrown in there, because I have a habit of throwing “que” into sentences, especially questions. The “pies” seems wrong, too. And then, after I ask my question, what? Another word I throw into conversations a lot is “quizás.” Perhaps. Perhaps she’ll understand me. And perhaps, when she answers me, I’ll understand her.
The next day, I head up the park path near my apartment to my neighborhood market. The path runs along Rio Malacatos and past a small sports court where some weekday mornings a young man in a track suit leads dozens of local women and men in bailoterapia, a bouncy, chest-thrusting, hip-torturing, dance-based exercise class funded by the government of Ecuador to get citizens in shape; I attended once, but I’ve been too embarrassed by my rhythm to return. The park path also passes by many loose dogs, who nap in the grass or trail alongside me as I walk. I hesitate to call them strays, because most seem to have homes they return to, where I notice them in the evening waiting outside the gates for their owners to let them in.
On Saturday mornings, the stretch of street along the park path fills with the feria libre, a farmers’ market where people from the countryside come in to Loja to sell their goods. On tarps on the street, piles of plantains and green bananas, known as guineos, used for making Loja’s signature soup, repe lojano. Old women hunker on overturned five-gallon buckets and shuck peas or corn. Cooks grill cuy—guinea pigs—and sell them hot and mahogany-skinned. Boys stand behind enormous bags of limons, the tiny green limes I can’t get resist, hawking them for one or two cents apiece; I usually buy at least fifty, then try to figure out what I should do with them. Women dip fresh milk from cans into plastic bags. Card tables flashy with fresh greens, bowls of potatoes, fat carrots, tomato del arbol or tree tomatoes, pineapples, yuca roots, and guaba pods—a fruit that looks like a giant green bean, with inedible dark seeds nestled in an edible sweet, cottony fuzz. All along, the vendors cry out their prices: “Un dólar, un dólar, un dólar!” or “Vienticinco, vienticinco!” which sounds, in their sales chant, like “Baintsing!”
As it turns out, my market, Mercado la Tebaida is a tiny building compared to San Sebastián and its row of chicken vendors. I’d imagined a lot of feet here to choose from, but my market has only one chicken vendor today, tucked in a corner, to the side of about a dozen booths selling produce. She, too, has some Christmas garland, but only a few chickens, and on her tray, a small pile of organs and feet. Another woman is placing an order, so I loom off to the side, waiting to recite my question. In order to look like a serious shopper, I’ve bought from one of the produce booths a bunch of chard for twenty-five cents, which dangles in a bag from my wrist. While my language comprehension is weak, I’m a fair guesser; when the chicken vendor glances at me and asks me a question, I’m pretty sure she wants to know what the heck I’m doing, looming, staring at her few yellow feet, which don’t look quite as tidy as some of the feet I saw yesterday—skin peeling off, nails intact, brown calluses on the soles, blood at the bare joints. But they don’t look that bad, either, so I ask my question, pointing towards the feet.
A pause. Both women frowning at me. “Para sopa,” I explain. Or try to. Then the customer says, “Ah…” and some word I can’t catch. The vendor nods, grabs a few feet and a handful of organs. Though I love chicken liver, I haven’t added it into my equation. So I say again, “Solo pies.” Pies is clearly the wrong word, but she puts down the organs and grabs a few more feet. The other customer smiles, with what I’d like to think is approval, and says, “Caldo muy rico.” I use my third over-used phrase, “Me gusta,” because soup is indeed pleasing to me, as many things are.
“Ochenta,” the vendor says, packing the feet into a palm-sized transparent bag. I dig eighty cents out of my wallet. She says something else, gesturing at a stack of black plastic bags with handles. I hear “negra” and guess that she’s asking me if I want another bag, which I do, because I feel a little odd carrying down the park path a visible bunch of feet.
I think the word the customer used might have been patas, which does, in fact, mean animal feet or paws, but I could swear it had an “-ita,” the diminutive, at the end, as in “little feet.” When I look up patitas de pollo, however, it seems often to mean chicken fingers or nuggets, as in breaded hunks of anonymous chicken meat meant for people under five years old, though sometimes it does seem also to mean very un-anonymous feet.
In my apartment, I wash my patas and cut off their toenail joints, pressing hard with the knife, until they snap, nails in the stainless steel sink, a nightmare pedicure. I add each of the eight feet to my pot with some water and onions and garlic. My apartment has two windows—one near the sink—which look out onto the courtyard shared by my neighbors: my landlady; her daughter; her sister and nephew; an American couple; and a renter who lives above me, of whom I’ve only seen two glimpses in the days I’ve been here, a man I think of as “the professor” because that’s what I believe he is. The windows do little to keep in or out sound, so I hear pretty much everyone’s business if it takes place in the courtyard. That is to say, I hear their business, but understand only what I can translate. It’s a gray afternoon, a little cool in the low 60s, and, circling the neighborhood, the garbage truck plays its own particular musical tune to let folks know it’s picking up garbage; it sounds a bit like the beginning of a sonata. In the background, the crowing of roosters, confused by the dark skies.
* * * * *
The feet are my doorway. The next week, I head to Mercado Centro, the big market downtown. This market has vendors selling vegetables on both the far north and the far south ends, with stands selling beef and pork and fish in the middle. The two ends have different personalities. The south is poorly lit with the mostly-female vendors yelling “Qué busca?” at me as I pass by their stalls. They don’t seem to smile. The aisles—busy with people, with children and the occasional dog knocking into my knees. On the north end, the lights are brighter, and the vendors all wear cheerful red aprons. They may ask what I’m looking for, but gently. And they smile. After I buy a bag of shelled peas, one points at my hand and says what I hear as “plata.” I look at my silver wedding ring. “No,” she says, pointing still. I frown. She mimics someone pulling a small zipper. She’s concerned that my wallet, which closes with a zipper, is still open. She smiles, maternally. I’m a niña, tonta enough to walk around with a wallet full of coins and the zipper undone. And I probably am.
Another vendor gets excited when I tell her I’m looking for a specific kind of hot pepper, small and red with black seeds inside. I’ve only seen them once at a street market. She raises her eyebrows when I explain, “Ají rojo con negro en el centro”; I don’t know the word for seeds, but she understands, because she digs a few out from behind her piles of chard and potatoes and tomatoes and onions, as though from a secret cache, nodding. Despite this special attention, this soft sell, the north end doesn’t seem to have nearly as many customers.
I see that there are three chicken vendors in one corner of the north side vegetable stands, each with their chickens hanging up, their trays of parts. I see a few feet in a tray, and ask the lady for “patas para caldo. Una libra y media.” She has tidy feet, whacked off below the joint, sliced through at various points, making them easier to come apart, like the perforated line in a notebook. She piles them into a sack, weighs them on her scale until there’s a pound and a half. It seems like a lot more feet, in part because it’s just the feet, and not the whole lower leg section. She slides the sack into a black plastic bag.
This time, I’ve bought a pair of scissors at a paper shop for seventy-five cents. Instead of whacking off the toenails, I snip them with the scissors, sometimes extracting a thin white tendon that looks a lot like dental floss. I peel off any loose skin, trim the brown calluses on the pads of the feet. The feet float around the broth, simmering for hours and hours as I add more water now and then. The windows steam up. Late at night, I put the broth in my little refrigerator, and the next day, it’s a solid mass of protein, with a circles of fat on top that I scoop off with the spoon.
The next afternoon, I reheat the broth and strain it. The cooked feet have fallen apart into joints and skin and soft flesh, but the flavor is mostly boiled out. I gnaw on a few watery toes, toss the rest. To my broth I add fresh-shelled green peas and beans, chard, and the little pink and white roots known in Ecuador as mellocos. My landlady’s daughter makes fun of me because at first I thought mellocos were potatoes, and I told her I put them in soup; she says they are traditionally cooked then served cold, with lime, as a salad. My soups are a mishmash of ingredients, because everything looks so good at the markets that I want to throw it all in, even if the vegetables don’t make sense together. During my stay in Loja, when it’s too rainy to wander, I make variations of feet soup, with corn, with beans, with yuca, with cilantro and hot red pepper and lime and tomato salsa. With mellocos.
* * * * *
I’ve been wondering about those yolks inside the chickens, developing globes in different sizes. Would you cook them separately or inside the bird? Weeks later, on my last day in Ecuador, at the Mercado Santa Clara in Quito, as I eat lunch at the counter of a small stand, I find them in front of me. In a glass baking dish, piled on top of a whole roasted chicken, sit several golden backs, each with a clutch of cooked yolks, like yellow stones. I scan the posted menu, trying to figure out what their name might be. I’m curious, and would like to try them, whatever they’re called. But I already have an enormous plate of rice, potatoes, diced tomatoes, sauce, and a slab of lengua—thick, but tender, tongue.