April 19, 2008

Trapped in a gastronomic purgatory

Wow... we're headed to Chile!

One of the reasons I love traveling is the promise of new and amazing food experiences. And we've had some real epiphanies in our most recent trips... delicious lamb and jaw-dropping Pinot Noir in New Zealand, simple and soul satisfying noodles, curries, and seafood from hawker stands in Malaysia (not to mention the durian), and crazy good food in Greece, from gyros and loukoumades (insane madness) to spectacularly pristine seafood and Michelin-starred restaurants. So I'm ecstatic that the trip to Chile has finally begun. The plan is to go nuts on great free-range grass-fed beef, organic lamb, uber-fresh seafood and spectacular Chilean wines!
Ironically, as much as I'll anticipate the food on our international trips, they necessarily always start and finish at the opposite end of the food spectrum: airplane food. There is a particularly appropriate passage out of Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour that I was reading at the outset of our trip:

Is there anything so expensive and yet so demeaning as tourist class on a long flight? Look at us! Stacked ten across, staring bleary-eyed straight ahead, legs and knees contorted, necks at unnatural angles, eagerly -- yes, eagerly -- waiting for the slop gurney finally to make its way down to us. That all-too-familiar brackish waft of burned coffee, the little plastic trays of steamed food, which would cause a riot in a federal penitentiary...
So true! But I had no idea how that passage would haunt us. With the craziness of our flight situation occupying my mind, I didn't think to anticipate the onslaught of airplane meals ahead of us.

But before we get to that, the gustatory portion of our trip had already taken a significant detour. After a 90 minute holding pattern over Dallas (random spontaneous thunderstorm that shut down the whole airport for 2 hours), we had to land at a different airport to refuel, then return to DFW only to miss our connection to Santiago by a mere 27 minutes. For compensation, we were given a one night stay at a local motel and a $20 voucher for dinner at any of the fine participating establishments at the airport. Absolutely ravenous -- it had been about 10 hours since lunch -- we scoured the food courts for options, but McDonald's was the only place open after midnight. No matter; we weren't picky at this point. We gladly wolfed down those moisture-injected, breaded and fried patties of "chicken" in a heartbeat. The next morning, a breakfast of a disturbingly unnatural blueberry-esque scone from Starbucks. Okay, not exactly how I imagined my latest food adventure starting, but the hardest part was yet to come.

Have you ever had McDonald's for all three meals in one day? I've done it on a couple of road trips, and its brutal. You just feel terrible, like you're sweating deep fryer oil and a cocktail of aromas designed by McD's biochemists... all you want to do is take a shower or wash your face -- repeatedly. The worst part is, you're not hungry, but you're not full either. Your appetite ends up trapped in some twilight zone of unfulfillment.

Airplane food is much the same. After our transfer to LAX (that's right... Los Angeles!) the next morning, we were finally on a flight to Chile. The first leg of the flight, however, was to Lima, an 8-hour flight featuring the ubiquitous "meat" and rice or chicken and potatoes with some brackish table wine (though the scotch afterwards was nice)... later, a breakfast omelette (ok, official opinion here: all egg-products should be immediately disallowed on any flights). From Lima to Santiago, a ham and cheese breakfast sandwich. Since we missed a day of our trip, right when we landed it was time to fly to Puerto Montt (chicken and vegetable "spread" on a bun... disturbing) and immediately connected to Punta Arenas (a hyper-sweet platter of desserts). Five airplane meals over an 18-hour period. Ouch.

So we find ourselves on our spontaneous shopping spree for clothing / shoes / jackets in Punta Arenas, not confident at all that our bags will ever join us on this trip, and things are going great. La Verne and I are strutting about town in our latest Chile-fabulous outfits... and hey, WE'RE IN CHILE! The one thing that is bugging me, though, as we wait for our evening bus to Puerta Natales is my stomach. It's completely confused by the wall of airplane food consumed, not knowing whether to be hungry or full, happy or sad... yearning for Chilean treats or ready for hari kari. The absence of hunger is a tragic thing -- it's what makes our tendency to eat beyond our appetite so appalling. When you're stuck just wanting to want something, you're in a bad place.

But then, redemptive gastronomic salvation. We decided to spend our final hour in Punta Arenas relaxing with a couple of beers at Cafe 1900. On the menu, two magical words hooked my eyes: torta and empanaditas.

Tortas hold a special place in my heart... whether a torta lengua at upscale Tacubaya or a down home torta al pastor at any of the favorite taco trucks, a great sandwich just makes things right. Ok, so here's my first Chilean hot sandwich: sliced roasted beef, ham, tomato, onion, creamy avocado, mayo and cheese, all on a just crispy bun. A burst of savory-juicy-rich delectability at first bite.

Then, a platter of mini empanadas, filled with either cheese alone or beef, cheese and olives. Glorious. Warm, flavorful fried food made of real ingredients has never been so needed... a lingering perfume of olives washed away by another swig of cerveza. Una mas, por favor.

The culinary fog has lifted and the sun is coming out. We head out to Puerta Natales, no luggage, some new threads, and a renewed optimism for the trip ahead. After settling in to our hostel, we sit around the fireplace with a glass of simple Chilean cabernet sauvignon... a 2007 Cono Sur... familiar from back at home, but nice to enjoy on its native soil.

I'm restored. And I can't wait for tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Dude, those french fries look REALLY good to me right now... is that bad?