picnic paradise, the Quarantine Tales, The Great Chili Pepper Competition, Marina and Joanna, the transforming power of story, Chile, Fiestas Patrias, food, Maine, Bangor State Fair, ethnic food, fruit tart, potted hot pepper plant, red peppers, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, fast food, clams, Italian, German, Legacy of the Linnebrink Light, Coni Belmar, Desert Island Diary, Swan Dive, Serving up stories, Salad Days, salad nation, potatoes, tomatoes, all about the food

Picnic Paradise

It’s official. For one of the few times in 210 years, Fiestas Patrias, Chile’s patriotic celebration beginning on September 18th, is canceled in our city. What only the military coup of 1973 could accomplish before, the Covid-19 pandemic has now put into effect. We won’t miss the 3-day Booze Bash, but we’ll long for the Picnic Paradise while we eat our lonesome barbecue at home.

Don’t break your heart for us, though. Sure, maybe we’ll wish for the seafood ceviche, churrascas (flatbread baked on a grill), 5 kinds of meat, and dozen salad works-of-art. But I can still fry empanadas (meat or cheese turnovers) and grill kabobs and choripanes–a sausage-in-a-bun typically eaten while waiting for everything else to cook!

“People who love to eat are always the best people.” –Julia Child

“I love a story with food in it,” sighs a character from one of my kids’ old animated videos. Me too, I always agreed. I may be more interested in what story people eat than what they wear :). So, unsurprisingly, the theme of FOOD pops up in most of my books.

From Day 1 in Destiny at Dolphin Bay, Melissa Travis describes in her Desert Island Diary the foods–strange, wonderful, and/or revolting–that she encounters in the Archipelago of Chiloé. She discovers the picnic paradise of a Chilote beachside clambake as well as that charming and not-only-Chilean custom of afternoon high tea. And then the earthquake happens, and she learns 101 ways to serve potatoes!

Serving Up Stories

 In The Quarantine Tales, cousins Marina and Joanna each want to share on their own in the storytelling round-robin but decide to take the stage together for this one. Even though six of the teens spent the past summer together with their great-aunt in Maine, not everybody’s heard of “The Great Chili Pepper Competition.”

The girls choose as story prompts a set of beach toys, among them a leftover fruit tart nestled into a sand mold. Their Downeast adventures lead them from sampling at the Blue Hill blueberry barrens to drooling at a Southwest Harbor corn boil to stuffing themselves at the Bangor State Fair.  

“And this is supposed to connect to Chile how?” Esteban Jarpa asks.

“By way of the food,” Joanna explains.

All About the Food

Which is very little like Chile’s. Their aunt Diana’s idea of picnic paradise is taking a basket of fried clams and a jar of dill pickles over to Thompson Island. Other than the garden explosions (with ensuing cucumber-sandwich spreads and zombie-zucchini takeovers), nothing in Chile in was ever so easy (remember, too simple = against the law, haha).

However, a local boy challenges them to cultivate a bigger, hotter chili pepper than his family’s. “We took the bait, but the sneak knew all along we didn’t have nearly enough time to beat him,” Marina laments. “But then we had an idea…”

The cousins turn their pepper patch produce into merquén, a traditional Mapuche condiment made of smoked “goat’s horn” chilies, toasted coriander seed, and salt. They enter it into the ethnic foods division at the fair–and win a blue ribbon!

Not a bad picnic paradise when you add the lobster rolls, fried chicken, and whoopie pies…

“Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everyone around the world, people eat together.” –Guy Fieri

Criollo Menus 

Meanwhile back in Chile… Historically, the Chilean upper classes dined on a lot of classic French and international food. But truth be told, everyone from top to bottom of society prefers the rustic dishes invented by robust peasants from ingredients of farm and field:

Cazuela and carbonada (chunky soups). Hearty lentil stew and beans “with reins” (spaghetti noodles) or flavored with basil, my personal favorite. Corn pie, which contains a lot more than corn. Humitas, “little smokes”–don’t ask me why they’re called that, but think Mexican tamales.

Always served with perfectly-molded rice. Plus bread…bread…and for variety, bread! Each shape has its own name. Very few Chileans can’t make some sort of bread dough, even if it’s just rainy-day sopaipillas (fried biscuits) and empanadas for Fiestas Patrias. The picnic-paradise venue will surely offer tortillas al rescoldo (crisped in the ashes) and churrascas.

“You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.” –Paul Prudhomme

You’ll find the bread basket centered on the table (always with a tablecloth, even on a picnic), along with a clay bowl of pebre (a Chilean-style salsa) and probably another of salt for seasoning the meal with your fingers. Some folks don’t even know what to do with a salt shaker.  

In the Chiloé Islands, we ate criollo-meets-indigenous. Some animal organs best remain unmentioned, but pork cracklings mixed with shredded potatoes fry up into a luscious golden patty called milcao. Most of the fish is fresh and succulent, whether or not conger eel strikes you at first mention.

Fast Food

Even the remnants of old religious restrictions provide their benefit in the abundant catch-of-the-day deals on Good Friday and Easter weekend.

Coquimbo, where we live now, specializes in a killer fish sandwich and every kind of seafood empanada man can imagine. That’s basically the port city’s reinvention of ‘healthy’ fast food.

“Good food is the foundation of happiness.” –Auguste Escoffier

Most sandwiches-to-go are based on a dinner-plate-sized round bun stacked with meat and an imaginative selection of vegetables (green beans, anyone?) plus guacamole and homemade mayonnaise.

And you’ve never had a hot dog until you’ve tried the Chilean version. It’s not called a completo for nothing. In fact, often the wiener in the copihue roll (shaped like the national wildflower) is topped with so much sauerkraut and avocado–plus tomatoes and condiments–that it requires a special dish just to prop it up.  

Roam-antic Foods

Of course, anything with avocado, tomatoes, and mayo goes by the label ‘Italian’ in Chile. The settlers’ ethnic background in the different regions has resulted in pockets of Patagonia where spit-barbecued lamb is everyday fare. Gnocchis (or ñoquis) and ravioli in Neapolitan sauce crossed the border along with Argentina’s Italian immigrants generations ago. Maybe the stuffed potatoes came from their delectable cuisine too.

“Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.” –Sophia Loren

In Swan Dive, Coni Belmar cobbles together at a moment’s notice a Taste of Italy dinner that includes spaghetti, milanesas (breaded cutlets), and chocolate-dipped biscotti. The rave reviews of the dozen unexpected guests reverberate down in history. And Cristina in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light teaches her students to turn crumb crust, custard, and wild apples and plums into the German fruit tart called kuchen.

A substantial German community in south-central Chile has made kuchen a household word. Their cheese, sausage, and other cured meats garner top marks throughout the country. Good news to hear that “The German Soda Fountain,” one of downtown Santiago’s best-known and -loved restaurants, just reopened.

However, I think our favorite Sahne Nuss chocolate bars originated in Switzerland. God only knows, though, how we acquired the bizarre taste for juicy (er, soggy?) pineapple cake at every party. And pineapple ice cream at every picnic paradise.

Salad Days

The fetish for fruit-flavored ice creams–chirimoya, lúcuma, papaya, blackberry, chestnut, cinnamon–is probably part of what makes Chile the salad nation of South America. We ate organic before ‘organic’ existed.

With all the bread, rice, pasta, and fried treats, you might suppose we’d all be tubs. But you’d be wrong, much of the time. For one thing, people walk. A lot. And they consume more fruits and veggies than anyone else on the continent.

“Good food binds us together.” –Unknown

Who else recognizes the palm hearts at the salad bar? Who but a Chilean keeps specific plates for artichokes, serves watermelon by the quarter (not the slice), and learns their lettuce, melons, and chili peppers with their ABC’s?

Though we consider tomatoes a complete meal, they’re even better dressed with ‘feathered’ onions and cilantro. We nibble on strawberries and cream practically year round, and it’s no splurge. Street vendors sell more avellanas (hazelnuts) than peanuts. And while children may snack on potato chips, the adults prefer olives. My husband and I love the purple-black Azapa Valley variety, also stuffed into empanadas.

“One cannot think well, love well, or sleep well, if one has not dined well.” –Virginia Woolf

In lieu of our picnic paradise this year, we’ll have to comfort ourselves not with comfort food, but with the Chilean proverb: “Closed mouths don’t collect flies.” Maybe good advice in some contexts! But God in His mercy says, “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (Ps. 81:10).

Lord, give us a thankful heart for “food which God has created to be gratefully shared…” for He “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (I Tim. 4:3; 6:17).

What am I dreaming of right now? Seafood ‘chowdah’ and a maple walnut ice cream cone. But since a trip to Maine isn’t on the agenda, I guess the neighborhood sushi shop will compensate.

What’s your idea of a Picnic Paradise?

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