Where am I? What day is it? I hardly know after the schlep to L.A., a flight to Toronto, hours in the airport sitting around drinking coffee and watching endless hours of hockey (which seems to be the only thing shown on Canadian television), then a red-eye to Santiago and a long (well, it seemed long) taxi ride to my hotel, the San Cristobal Tower. I mean, when I left it was dark and then it was light and then it was dark again then light again and now I think it’s starting to get dark. Again. I feel like Major Tom—floating in a most peculiar way/And the stars look very different today.
That’s what happens when you fly from one hemisphere to the other. That and early summer suddenly becomes early winter. It’s cold here! Well, not cold exactly, since Santiago has a Mediterranean climate, but definitely chil-e. On my way in from the airport it started to rain.
Christ, I spend a month in Italy waiting for the sun to come out and the wisteria to bloom and now I’m back to gloomy skies, short days, and a city where everyone is wearing ponchos and knit caps.
I am here on a mission to explore Chilean cuisine. Is there such a thing? I don’t know, but let me ask you a question: What’s the name of your favorite Chilean restaurant? Can’t name one, can you. Me neither. So, prodded by a conversation I had with my taxi driver on the way in from the airport, I go down to the hotel concierge.
“Excuse me,” I say to the woman behind the desk who looks to be maybe 20.
“Yes, Mr. Lansing?” (I secretly like it when the staff at nice hotels address me by my name. It makes me feel so grown up.)
“I am going to give you a sentence and then I want you to say it back to me filling in the missing words. Okay?”
(She smiles while giving me a quizzical look.)
“I want you to say to me, ‘Mr. Lansing, if you have been in Santiago but you haven’t had the—blank—you haven’t been to Santiago.’ Do you understand?”
The concierge, whose name, according to the little tag on her shirt, is Inés, is confused. “You mean you want me to tell you something you must eat in Santiago?”
“Exactly! But I want it to be a quintessential thing. Something that screams ‘Santiago!’ So try it.”
Inés clears her throat as if she were about to give an oral report in her history class at the Universidad de Chile. “Mr. Lansing, if you have been to Santiago but you haven’t had…(and here she rolls her eyes while she’s thinking very, very hard)…if you haven’t had…(her eyes light up and she claps her hands)…a terremoto! you haven’t been to Santiago.”
“Inés,” I say, leaning forward and putting my elbows on her waist-high concierge desk, “what the hell is a terremoto?”
“It’s a cocktail!” Inés says excitedly. “A famous Chilean cocktail! And if you have never had one, well then, Mr. Lansing, you haven’t been to Santiago!”
I thank Inés and take the elevator up to the bar at L’Etoile on the 21st floor. Two businesswomen in their 30s are sipping white wine and watching the last rays of the sun reflecting off the Andes. I sit a couple of stools over and when the bartender comes around, ask him to make me a terremoto.
He repeats the request. “A terremoto?”
The two businesswomen giggle.
“Yes, please,” I say. “A terremoto.”
The women cannot contain their laughter. The bartender, looking uncomfortable, gives them a quick glance.
“Sorry, sir,” he says, leaning in and lowering his voice. “We don’t make that drink here.”
“Ah,” I say. “And why is that?”
The two women are in stitches.
“No pineapple ice cream,” he whispers. The women are now laughing-crying.
“Of course,” I say. “Wrong season for pineapple ice cream. I forget it’s winter here.”
The bar man wipes his hands on his bar towel while looking down at a tub full of ice. “Perhaps a pisco sour?” he suggests.
“Perfect,” I say, “a pisco sour. And a round for the two ladies as well. On me.”
So now I’m curious. It seems, according to Inés, that one has not really been to Santiago unless one has had a terremoto cocktail. A drink these two Chilean businesswomen find hilarious. A drink I know nothing about. Except it seems to call for pineapple ice cream.
So begins my search for Chilean cuisine.