From the beginning and all the way to the end of this post, I’m not sure if I wanted to write about the color blue or dishes of comfort food. But hear me out. What I’m trying to share, I think, is that this final day of our trip to the Chiloé Islands has been extra special. So let’s call it the Day of the Blue Plate Special.
According to online sources, a “blue plate special” is a low-priced meal, usually rotating daily, at diners and cafés in the United States and Canada. I’ve read different versions of the origin of the “blue plate special” idea. Though it dates to the late 1800’s, the concept of classic but cheap food came to popularity during the 1920’s through the 1950’s. Today, the tradition is vanishing.
Sadly, because it’s the ultimate combo of simple and simply yummy. The common made fit for a queen. The blue plate special takes the ordinary and surprises and delights with its awesome “extra” factor.
So let me move through our Blue Plate Special Day…
Into the Blue
The dawn’s early light glows misty blue over the water outside our little hostal balcony. The village of Cucao across the narrow river lays in a pearlescent bath of blue so ethereal it hurts the eyes to look. And look we’d better, for the scudding indigo clouds promise the clear weather won’t hold out long today.
“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.” –Helen Keller
So my husband and I breakfast quickly and get on the road. We have to catch a mid-afternoon plane out of Puerto Montt, at least four hours away counting the drive and ferry crossing to the mainland. The road to Castro, the island’s capital, skims along the edge of the Danube-blue Twin Lakes, through patches of velvet shadow and pools of silvery sunlight. Compared to our dreary drive out the day before yesterday, this trip is a once-in-a-blue-moon special.
The treat lasts only until we reach Castro. There, out of the blue, rain begins to splash down heavy enough to confine us to the car while we make another swing by the waterfront. The streets smell as fresh as wet laundry. We pass the Blue Unicorn, an emblematic hotel we’ve always wanted to stay at but haven’t got to yet. Ironically, it’s painted Pepto-Bismol pink.
We hit the road north toward the ferry in time to make a few stops along the way. First, Chilolac Dairy, another island icon. We pause to buy a kilo brick of nutty Gouda cheese. Oh, that stuff is delicious. I’m obsessed with it! At least, it isn’t blue cheese.
Next, we detour into Ancud for a second breakfast at the Blue Galleon, which is neither blue nor a galleon, but rather a hotel/restaurant near the regional museum that my characters Melissa and Nicolás visit on one of their few dates. The Blue Galleon’s whimsical architecture sports canary yellow shingles, Pacific blue rooflines, and a high round tower.
Inside, we sip our café con leche, enjoying the stone-flagged floors, buffed wood, and arched windows framing a scenic view of the city’s stunning harbor. A blue plate special, for sure.
And what is it with blue today, we ask ourselves. What’s so special about blue?
“Blue is the only color which maintains its own character in all its tones.” –Raoul Dufy, French artist
With such tried-and-true, calm-and-cool character, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that the color blue has the most universal appeal. It’s the world’s favorite color. Perhaps not everyone’s, but I confess it’s mine. What’s not to love about the heavenly hues of sky and sea?
Blue is associated with serenity, sincerity, and creativity. And though it can symbolize depression and loneliness—you’ve heard of blue moods and baby blues—it also speaks to our intuition, inspiration, and imagination.
What would’ve become of Pinocchio without the Blue Fairy? Or Cinderella without her Príncipe Azul, the Spanish language’s version of Prince Charming? The Blue Prince of the fairy tales presumably carries the “blue blood” of nobility. (Their skin was so fair, people said, that you could see their blue veins.) Or…he might literally wear blue, since blue pigment was scarce and expensive in the past. Only the wealthiest could afford it.
What a blessing these days when we can all manage a pair of blue jeans, that timeless fashion classic. In western cultures, blue is the color of faithfulness and trust, seen in the “something blue” of wedding traditions. And of responsibility and authority—think the blue power suit of corporate America.
Then you have blue eyes, blue hair (seen regularly on the Santiago subway), blue language (heard on the metro, too), blue streaks, blueprints, and Bluenoses (those lucky enough to be born in Nova Scotia, like my oldest daughter). And we all can rejoice in our heritage on God’s special and beautiful blue planet.
Blue pottery and porcelain, such as the type popularized by the Spode and Wedgwood china companies, feature among the most cherished in the world. During the Depression, inexpensive plates divided into separate sections like a TV tray were manufactured in bulk. One historian mentions these plates were only available in blue and often decorated with the famous “blue willow” pattern. Therefore…the blue plate special.
Before McDonald’s and KFC, mid-century USA used to serve up a square meal with the fixin’s for less than a dollar. Whatever was cheap and delicious turned up on the blackboard: Hot roast beef sandwiches, fried chicken, fish and chips, turkey dinner with the works.
In my home area of Maine, you’d see meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and chowder on the list. One summer during college, I worked at such a locally beloved watering hole and tucked into a BLT and a chocolate milkshake every day for lunch. Then there were…the pies! Nothing makes me drool like one of our graham-cracker pies. (Maybe it’s a Maine thing?)
“There is no need to have it all. Just make the best of what you have.” –Anonymous
The blue plate special offered quintessential American comfort food. It evoked memories of happy, simpler times—home, Mom, and apple pie (or whatever kind you hanker for). Those wholesome, country-style dishes combined old-fashioned flavor with serious substance.
Nothing gourmet, but it was good. Never intended to wow, just quietly wonderful.
Here in Chile, before Telepizza and the food court at the mall, we were blessed with the marvelous menú del día at restaurants. The day’s special would always include bread with pebre salsa, soup or salad—or maybe both—and then… Bean-and-sausage casserole, cazuela stew, steak-and-eggs, flawless rice with fried fish… Desert would follow: custard flan, pineapple ice cream, or poached pears, perhaps.
As the American diners discovered the novelty of salad bars and ethnic fare, times they were a-changing. Doggy bags morphed into Styrofoam boxes. In Chile, we never did have those blue dishes, but the advent of bring-your-own-containers also meant flimsy paper straws and balsa-wood cutlery in the interests of going green. Oh, give me that blue plate special!
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
At home, I collect real plates (along with my legendary tins 😊). Many are blue plates, gathered from travels near and far: Blue Willow from a delve into a New Brunswick thrift shop, Delft from Germany, Mexican ceramics from Chiapas, and a lozenge-shaped tile from the souk in Old City Jerusalem.
Some are truly special, such as my grandmother’s town sesquicentennial souvenir plate featuring the red-brick library clocktower, and the engraved copper plate set with lapis lazuli stones—a 25th wedding anniversary gift.
Still others are as ordinary and lovely as daily bread and butter: The set assembled piece-by-piece from a Chilean supermarket. The green-tinted rooster plates and the hand-carved wooden fruit platter. The square plates with powder-blue hydrangeas, that cheered me each morning after a miserable move. Hopeful flowers for a blue lady.
And of course, I hang the plate collection on the wall. How could I appreciate them stacked away in a cupboard?
After coffee at the Blue Galleon, we make yet another food detour, last stop before the ferry dock. Die Raucherkate (The Smokeshack) sells smoked salmon from behind the red-and-gray herringbone door of a rustic black barn. I assume the German farmers keep their own little fishery along the shore below the meadow. That salmon turned into superb homemade sushi later.
To our (disappointed) surprise, in mainland Puerto Montt the traffic snarls so thick in the downpour that we don’t have time to drive out to the iconic fish market at Angelmo. Lunch there—classic paila (seafood in broth) or even a humungous pulmay (clambake-in-a-pot)–-comes served in a clay bowl instead of a blue plate. I’ll take it anyway! And I’d settle for plain steamed mussels with lemon, sigh…
But I realize it’s not going to be today. At the airport, we stuff down something forgettable and overpriced on a plastic plate while we wait for our flight. Then… the unforgettable happens, a triple special.
“Into all our lives, in many simple, familiar, homely ways, God infuses this element of joy from the surprises of life, which unexpectedly brighten our days, and fill our eyes with light.” –Samuel Longfellow
Out the window, our Latam Airbus sits on the wet tarmac. Not a blue plate, but it’s a blue plane, and sudden sunshine glitters off the red stripe and white star on the tail. Above, only the odd patch of cloud blemishes a now blazing blue sky. And into the blue juts the snow-cone peak of Volcán Calbuco with the clarity of crystal. Though it’s many kilometers away, it looks like it’s right outside.
Later I learn that Calbuco means “blue water” in Mapudungún. Naturally.
So like the blue plate special of the good old days, the final hours of our Return-to-Chiloé trip feature the perfectly ordinary turned oh-so-extraordinary.
When we arrive home in Santiago…
Vendors crowd the sidewalks and subway stations, hawking street food like sopaipillas (flat fried biscuits) and empanadas (savory turnovers) from handheld baskets and cardboard boxes. I think there might be a soccer game scheduled because carts and TV trays choke the access to the stadium. Get your ham-and-cheese sandwiches! Or hot dogs heaped with avocado and sauerkraut.
These days in Chile, maybe it’s deep-fried sushi handrolls. Whatever, it’s their blue plate special.
Watch for the signs. They may turn up anywhere. Like Chiloé itself—and most of our lives—the best things aren’t the expensive, gilded, spectacular moments but the amazing taste and beauty of every day.