Learning to Eat in Patagonia

For a big sandwich, there's only one way to go about eating it

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By David Hammond

Around dinner time in Puerto Natales, Chilean Patagonia, I was not feeling too well (a throat cold exacerbated by hanging around a glacier that afternoon).

I was staying at the Hotel Costaustralis, which, fortunately, had room service, and I was oddly in the mood for a sandwich (I hardly ever eat sandwiches, mostly because I don't like the sound of the word, "sandwich").

I ordered a club sandwich, which the menu promised was "three layers of thin-sliced bread" with bacon and chicken

When the sandwich arrived, it was not as advertised. It was a large roll about the size of a curling stone filled with griddled ham and chicken, as well as avocado and tomato. 

Even were my big mouth twice as large as it already is, I could not have wedged this massive sandwich into my gapping yawp. I ended up disassembling it and eating it, with my fingers, in pieces. This technique seemed sloppy and not very satisfying, and it violated the fundamental concept of a sandwich, which is that you eat everything more or less together.

The next morning, I walked out of my hotel, and saw the snowcapped mountains. I asked the doorman, "Hace frio?," and he very adamantly replied, "No, no, fresco. Fresco!"

It was fresh, yes, but it was also pretty damn cold. I needed warmth. I went out to eat at a little workman's restaurant called La Picada del Mercadito. A lot of these little Patagonian places offer daily specials, and generally those seem to be good bets. On the chalk board out front, they advertised Caldillo de Congrio, a soup of conger eel. It's called Pablo Neruda's soup because he wrote a poem about it, which is pretty much a recipe:

In the storm-tossed / Chilean / sea / lives the rosy conger,/ giant eel / of snowy flesh./ And in Chilean / stewpots,/ along the coast,/ was born the chowder,/ thick and succulent,/ a boon to man./ You bring the Conger, skinned,/ to the kitchen / (its mottled skin slips off / like a glove,/ leaving the / grape of the sea / exposed to the world),/ naked,/ the tender eel / glistens,/ prepared / to serve our appetites./ Now / you take / garlic,/ first, caress / that precious / ivory,/ smell / its irate fragrance,/ then / blend the minced garlic / with onion / and tomato / until the onion / is the color of gold./ Meanwhile / steam/ our regal / ocean prawns,/ and when / they are / tender,/ when the savor is / set in a sauce / combining the liquors / of the ocean / and the clear water / released from the light of the onion,/ then / you add the eel / that it may be immersed in glory,/ that it may steep in the oils / of the pot,/ shrink and be saturated./ Now all that remains is to / drop a dollop of cream / into the concoction,/ a heavy rose,/ then slowly / deliver / the treasure to the flame,/ until in the chowder / are warmed / the essences of Chile,/ and to the table / come, newly wed / the savors / of land and sea,/ that in this dish / you may know heaven.

As I was slurping my soup, and trying (as usual) to know heaven, I saw two brawny construction worker types order sandwiches. When their sandwiches arrived, they looked pretty much as mind did the night before: maybe five inches tall, and the same in diameter. I watched as they guys proceeded to gingerly eat their meal with a knives and forks. I shot a stealth photo, which is kind of rude, but the guys were so involved in their lunches that they didn't notice, so I feel no social harm was done.

Of course, I realized, you have no choice but to eat these massive Chilean sandwiches with silverware.

My mom has always preferred to eat Italian beef sandwiches with a knife and fork. I acquired that habit, but for some reason, the Italian beef has been the only sandwich I habitually eat with a knife and fork.

Eating in Chile, however, I learned that one should not be hesitant to break out the silver for any sandwich. It's much more pleasant to nibble food from a fork rather to gnaw off big hunks, like a starving baboon, with one's teeth.

Now, for some smaller sandwiches, silverware would be pointless; but for big sandwiches, like the ones in Chile or in a New York deli, I'm opting for utensils.


La Picada del Mercadito

Esmeralda 70

Puerto Natales, Chile



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