What Chile taught me about food, and life

I went to Chile hungry. I was 20 years old, alone, on a plane wearing khaki shorts and a Belmont hoodie, sobbing all the way through Bridget Jones because I was so terrified that my plane would crash not because the movie makes me weep (though I'm sure that's what the man next to me thought was going on).

Chile is on my heart and mind tonight, naturally, as that country with incredible spirit pulled off a modern-day miracle today, rescuing 33 miners who have been trapped underground for 9+ weeks. Unbelievable. But my heart and lips formed the "CHI! CHI! CHI! LE! LE! LE!" along with millions across the globe tonight, as we gathered together for a little country whose national conscience is more often than not dominated by the idea that "we are so far away, no one else cares about us" ... a phrase I heard more than once in my conversations there.

And so I went to Chile hungry ... hungry for the world, for "experience" ... for culture and change and something dramatically extravagant to shake up my little Southern-bubble of a life.

I learned so much there, though the most important lesson I learned was that I was indeed madly in love with a certain redhead that I had left in Tennessee, and that all my dreams of international grandeur were nowhere near as grand as a life spent with him.

But while I was there, I lived in between these mountains:

And this sea:

I learned to love wine. I mean, really love wine.

Also I learned to adore pisco, the national drink of both Chile and Peru (it's oft-disputed): a delightful concoction of pisco (a type of brandy), lemon juice, and powdered sugar:

Here we are enjoying pisco at my welcome home party.

So that's 2 drinks I learned to love in Chile. But what about the food?

My unfortunate little secret is that Chilean food is pretty bland. It's not dramatic, or exciting, or particularly flavorful. It's very salty. (But what they lack in food, they make up for in wine!) The seafood was fabulous and I learned to love ceviche (a latin twist on sushi ... raw fish is "cooked" in citrus juice until the flesh is opaque). But honestly, I don't really remember many of my meals there. The food just wasn't spectacular. I did eat lamb for the first time at an Argentine steakhouse and it was unbelievable ... I was told over and over again that if I wanted to eat well in Santiago, to eat at an Argentine or Peruvian restaurant. Oh well.

But what I did learn to love about food in Chile was the tradition around a meal. Dinner usually started at 9 PM and went into the wee hours (on the weekends). It was the only activity ... there were no movies after, or events to distract from the simple joys of sharing a meal. My neighbors would grill until all hours of the night ... so many nights, I would fall asleep to the sounds of laughter and glasses clinking. Families lived together and ate together. One of my sweetest memories was going to an asado at my Spanish teacher's house. Susana was her name, and she was a fiery ball of South American sass ... oh my word, she was amazing. Upper-class, her family had been affiliated with the dictatorship (I'd heard she went to Pinochet's funeral). But boy they could throw a party. We ate for hours that afternoon (an "asado" is the Chilean version of a cookout). I'm not sure I've ever consumed that much food. Her whole family was there - generations that gathered around the table every Sunday to break bread and serve each other food. It was utterly magical.

I came home with a new appreciation for meal time, for sharing food. I just think we get is so wrong here. It's fast and convenient and so often not celebrated the way it should be. So Chile didn't teach me to cook, but it certainly taught me to savor. And to drink.

Also, I got to see penguins. And any country that has penguins automatically wins.