Pass the Empanadas

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a commercial pilot here in Louisville, a factor of UPS having built its hub here. They’re simply everywhere, maddeningly handsome in their uniforms (the women too), and brimming with tales of visits to exotic locales (which have a way of making you ruminate at length on how boring your life is). There’s one such fellow two houses down, who flies to Buenos Aires and Hong Kong regularly, owns a groovy motorcycle, and placed in the top third of the Iron Man competition that was held in town recently. Guys like that are hard to like, let’s face it. Fortunately he and his wife, an attractive and bubbly Argentine woman, are darn nice people.

Just last evening they extended a last-minute invitation to the whole Pastry family to take part in a pot-luck they were hosting for Mrs. Pilot’s ESL (English as a Second Language) class, the central feature of which — apart from all the Spanish speakers — was a giant platter of empanadas. Since I don’t speak Spanish and get tunnel vision in the presence of free food, I fell right on them, gulping down two in the first five minutes I was there. People seemed a bit surprised that I was making introductions with my mouth full, but heck I figured there was a language barrier there to being with…

The problem was the empanadas were so perfect: glossy, light and crispy, yet with a hint of tenderness to them. And the filling…a delectable mix of ground meat, onions, olives and spices. After my fourth I went over to congratulate the cook, determined to prize out her secrets. Oh, is easy for me, Mrs. Pilot said. Dough I can buy here in stores, also spices. I use the McCormick pizza seasoning. Er…huh? Pre-packaged trans fat-laden dough sheets and bottled Italian seasoning? Is how everybody make in Agentina she said.

At which point I flashed back nine or ten years, back to when the wife and I were first dating. She’d been in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic for a few years, you see, and had all sorts of interesting stories to tell, many about food and how people ate there. What surprised me the most was the extent to which even the most remote Dominicans consumed convenience foods…how people would season meat with Mexican taco mix and make soup with the cheese powder pouches from boxes of mac n’ cheese. Here we’d call that White Trash cooking. There…well, I wouldn’t know what to call it.

All of which suddenly made me realize how funny and absurd the American food scene really is. Here we snap up ethnic cookbooks by the truckload, scribble down tips on “authentic” cuisine from experts on TV, and spend small fortunes on exotic ingredients we order off the web. There they’re making pie out of heat-n’-eat biscuits and baking Totino’s pizza rolls in clay ovens — and loving every minute of it. But you won’t be seeing THAT on the Travel Channel now will you?

The reason for that, I think, is because we cherish our illusions about the world too much. We love to think of Africa as a place where bushmen still hunt wildebeest with iron spears, of Arabia as a giant sand dune where bedouin roast whole goats on spits, and of the Caribbean as an endless beach where laughing children clamber up trees for coconuts in the light of the setting sun. Is it because we’re dissatisfied, guilty, or just plain bored that we hold so tight to our ideas that somewhere out there is the real world, where people live authentic lives in the way that human beings were meant to live them? I can’t say I know, though for my part I am convinced that humans are pretty much the same everywhere, that we all love a convenience, and will dive on a pop tart whenever the opportunity presents itself.

So me, I’m making a mental note to have a good giggle the next time some TV chef or food journalist starts pounding the table about authentic cuisine. And at myself, when I spend months building a brick oven so I can eat “real” bread on a consistent basis. For in truth all these are nothing more than conceits that we concoct. Just like us, people in Africa, Arabia, the Caribbean or in Argentina are trying to get their families fed, most of the time in the easiest, most economical way possible (so they can get on to work or whatever else they have to do). The vast majority of the time the peoples of the Earth aren’t terribly worried about how “authentic” what they’re eating is. So really, why should I be? Pass the empanadas.

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