It was my custom, as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in a small Peruvian town in the mid-1960s, to take breakfast at the pension up the cobblestoned main street. My compatriot Bob also usually ate at the pension in the morning.
But on a particular morning, as I stepped out of my room in the family compound where I lived, I heard his laugh burbling out from just across the grassless courtyard. He must have come visiting.
Thinking we could walk up the street together for fresh avocado slathered on a still-warm roll, I followed the laughing and the gaggle of Spanish-speaking voices to the farthest of the unfinished adobe-brick buildings.
I stepped into the cooking and eating area of our Peruvian friend Shena. A well-worn wooden table and miscellaneous chairs nearly filled the front room. A few hens scratching for whatever they might find on the compacted dirt floor clucked quietly.
Shena's husband, Miguel, tended a carafe on the dining table that dripped syrup brewing from fresh coffee beans he had just roasted over an outdoor fire.
Bob was telling Shena silly jokes he made up, mostly about her. As she steadily whipped an egg white in a bowl with a table fork, her 10-year-old daughter, María, flounced around like a sprite in her faded blue hand-me-down school uniform.
Lanky teenager Tulio, wearing his khaki school uniform with a dark belt, lounged off to the side in his usual quiet way. A slight smile played at the corner of his mouth as he watched the gringos. When Bob's jokes got too outrageous, Tulio doubled up laughing while hardly making a sound.
Shena put down the bowl containing the egg white, which she had beaten into a big airy froth, and picked up a second bowl. She started stirring and beating an egg yolk just as she had the white.
Miguel set bowls of steamy milk on the bare table in front of Bob and me, stirring in heaps of sugar and a streak of nutty syrup.
Bob and I understood that it would be a breach of Peruvian hospitality to refuse to stay for the breakfast that Shena and Miguel were so obviously preparing for us, their unexpected guests.
"María!" Shena called out during one of her daughter's whirls through the rooms. "Run, get me some whatchamacallit!"
"What's....?" María started to ask, but her mother interrupted, "Go get it!"
María gave an exasperated sigh and stamped her foot. "What's whatchamacallit?"
Shena, realizing her omission, replied, "Lemon verbena." María ran off, returning shortly with two freshly plucked handfuls of the fragrant herb.
Shena beat the egg yolk into a froth as big and light as that of the egg white. Slowly she poured from one bowl into the other, gently mixing white and yolk together. She tore some of the lemon verbena into small pieces and sprinkled it into the egg mixture.
The tang of olive oil heating up rose from a frying pan on the tabletop kerosene stove. Now oblivious of those around her, Shena poured out enough of the frothy mix into the oil to make a very thin pancake the size of a dinner plate.
When the edges were a lacy light brown, she removed the pancake to a plate, and then made another, and another, until she had one for each of us. Talking subsided as she placed a pancake on a plate in front of each of us. She then brought one for herself and joined us.
Conversation resumed, but I only half heard it. I forgot about my usual breakfast avocado on warm bread. I was savoring for posterity every bite of Shena's elegant pancake, mixed from one-sixth of an egg.
Only in a culture of deep hospitality could a homemaker stretch an egg to serve six people, rather than serve nothing to the two guests who happened into her kitchen at breakfast time.