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Mampy's Stew Chicken

I just returned from a vacation to Belize. How lucky am I?

It didn’t start off that well—American Airlines changed my gate at the Dallas airport, which is the size of a small city and as I was running around like OJ, I saw the departure boards were showing conflicting locations. I had to choose one.

And I chose wrong.

By the time I made it to the right gate, they had closed the doors. I had to book a room at the airport and lost a whole day of vacation.

Later, when I was picking up my rental car, I got "Seinfelded." Yes, Budget Rent-a Car managed to TAKE my reservation; they just didn’t feel obliged to HOLD my reservation.

Once we got all that worked out, I settled in to escaping sub-zero temperatures and snow in Boulder in my 8 year old Jeep Compass with 127,000 miles, crank windows, no back-up camera and (what!) no Bluetooth.

I dodged what was a cold spell for them in Belize: temperatures had plunged into the 60s the week before. But once I got there, it ranged from 80-90 degrees without a drop of rain until the last day, and even that was meager. It WAS humid. 80-90%. I sweated all the way through a couple of t-shirts, but even that felt good.

I was really excited about all the local lobster I was going to eat, until I realized it was spiny lobster, not the luscious, buttery, perfectly textured Maine lobster we are used to here in the states. No, it was tougher, more rubbery, not as succulent. Somehow I made my way through the Lobster Burrito I had been salivating over for months ahead of time. It was just OK.

As I was sitting there at the open-air Waruguma Café in San Pedro, waiting for my plate, I noticed the roasted chickens on display sitting under an enclosed glass case, being kept warm by the blazing hot sun. It struck me as being somewhat less than completely sanitary, but I watched as local after local came up and walked away with a whole chicken, a short stack of flour tortillas and a handful of napkins for about five bucks. It sure smelled good, but how long had they been sitting unhygienically under that glass in the hot sun? Being an uninitiated foreigner, I certainly wasn't going to risk it.

I ate at some of Belize’s best restaurants, but have to say, generally speaking, I wouldn’t consider the country a culinary destination (although the filet mignon at Three Senses was incredible and their French baguette may just be the perfect bread).

It was my first time in Belize and I didn’t know what to expect. Probably something a bit more Americanized, especially since their official language is English, which is because the country used to be British Honduras. They don’t speak with a British accent there, though, or an American one, for that matter. More Hispanic, which makes sense being surrounded by all of those Spanish-speaking countries.

It was a good vacation, with its share of wonderful surprises and the corresponding disappointments that come with moving about in a place one is unfamiliar with. I had hawks fly up to my gloved hand at the Belize Raptor Center. I saw the ruins of incredible Mayan civilizations at Xunantunich, Cahal Pech and Altun Ha. I ate spaghetti and meatballs at Francis Ford Coppola’s resort at Blananeaux Lodge.

I didn’t snorkel or dive, which is what Belize is famous for. I just didn’t want to enter that world; I was content to stay out of the water and just do whatever the hell I wanted to (or not) for two whole weeks.

On the last day, I had some time before my flight and visited the ruin at Altun Ha. There was a ramshackle restaurant near the parking lot and, realizing I hadn’t eaten, I ordered some chicken wings with rice and beans, the food staple for the locals. The wings were just OK, but the rice had a subtle coconut flavor to it, so on the way out, I asked the cook, Mampy, who was eating her lunch, how she got the flavor in the rice. “Is it coconut water, or actual coconut?”

“No,” she said in her Caribbean accent. “I use de coconut oil.”

Then, as if I were a member of her immediate family, she reached onto her plate and tore off a piece of the chicken she had been eating and handed it to me. “Try dis. Dis de Stew Chicken. I put lots o’ tings in my Stew Chicken.”

I didn’t hesitate for a second and accepted her offering.

It was mouth-wateringly delicious. Stew Chicken is commonly seen on local menus, but it didn’t seem all that appealing to me. Stew Chicken. It doesn’t sound especially gastronomic. Or foodie (although I don’t consider myself part of that group).

I looked at Mampy in her humble surroundings and thanked her for what seemed like a blessing of sorts. This was not the manicured, concrete-encrusted never-never-land of the 4 star resorts put in place for us First-Worlders with our American expectations.

No, this was everyday Belizean life.

I’m back home in Boulder now: back to my electric car, the local world-class restaurants where I can get Chilean Sea Bass at any time, my HOA that will make sure the streets are plowed of the snow I escaped and the comfort of my own pillow-top bed.

But when I think back to Mampy’s Kitchen, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure that next time I’m there, I’m gettin’ the Stew Chicken, with all the delicious "tings" Mampy puts in.


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