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Penca, an edible thistle

Sometimes you will be walking around in the feria, and you will see bags of pale green something in a bag. it will be double-knotted on top, and flattened into a squared-off brick inside its bag, as though you were going to make sandbags out of it to stem an approaching tide (except there’s some air in it, so it might float, so actually, it’s nothing like that at all).

You can ask (the first time) what it is, and be told “penca.”

And then, if you are me, you will remember that one time, when you took one of the windiest bike rides of your life, from Llo Lleo (say: yo-YE-o, which sounds a bit like “I bring,” depending on the accent of the person who’s saying it) Chile, to Matanzas, which, by the way is the kitesurfing capital of Chile, and oh, that might explain the wind, and the name of the hamlet means killings, and that should not worry you at all, but the wind maybe should. Somewhere along the way, near Chile’s route 66, which doesn’t have much to compare it to the United States’ route 66, you will throw down your bike along the side of the road, and the person you are with (who now lives in the north and takes to the sky as often as possible, also enjoying the wind up there), will point to an unfriendly-looking, very spiky plant, some sort of thistle, and say, “hey, look! Penca!”

And you will think, huh, this does not square with what I know about the word penca, at all.

Up until this point, you, knew two meanings of this word. The first, learned when a nine-year-old boy was asked by his mother “How was the party at school,” and he said, “Penca.” In a word, sucky, lame. The other meaning is, as all Chilean slang eventually demonstrates itself to be, a term for male genitalia. Go Chile, phallic-references-a-million.

But here you are, looking at a spiky thistle that looks neither lame nor, well, the other thing.

And then your friend (remember her?) will break off some of the angry-looking thistle, and whittle it down into friendly-enough looking sticks, and hand you one, telling you, it’s better as salad. Which in Chile means “with lemon juice and olive oil,” which I must heartily agree makes nearly anything better. This is also, by the way, what I was told in the south of Chile when a different friend harvested styrofoam-looking diweñes (a type of mushroom) off a tree and handed it to me to eat. What, am I friends with the Chilean bush-tucker experts, or what? And if everything tastes better with lemon juice and olive oil, why don’t we carry them around always?

And so, there on route 66 you will crunch into this whittled stick, and find it crisp like celery, but milder, refreshing, slightly grassy-tasting with a hint of artichoke (which makes sense, since artichokes are also thistles).

And so then, when you go to the feria, and you see these flattened bags of harvested, de-spiked, whittled and diced penca, you will buy it, and bring it home, and put it in a bowl and take a picture of it, before sprinkling it with salt, dressing it with lemon juice and olive oil (and in my case, mixing in avocado), and pronouncing it good, and feeling compelled to write about language, food, culture, travel, bush-tucker, the feria and friends all at once. Because really, what else is there?

In other news, it just occurred to me that the word for a person from Concepción is Penquista, which makes me wonder if people from that city are consumed (ha!) with a desire to harvest, prepare or eat this edible thistle, and which thought brought me to find out more information, as well as pics of the actual plant, here, in Spanish (4th photo down). In this post we also learn that there’s some kind of implement of torture called a penca as well, which seems to mean alternatively, mace, flail, morning star or maybe a short leather whip, and really, this is just beyond my area of expertise, but the post makes for good reading if you like to leer en español.