When you start putting the words “gas station” near the word “taco” the mind begins to wander in a less-than-culinary direction. Let me assure you, however, that the mind is wrong. As unimpeachable evidence, I present to you: El Serranito. I stubbed my toe on this diamond in the rough while my family was in the midst of a very stressful move across the country. We sold our home, we purged most of our worldly possessions, and we flung ourselves across this pandemic-stricken land with our hands clenched into fists and our cheeks streaked with tears. When we finally slid to a stop here in Georgia, we had been through the ringer. Two or three tornado warnings in Kansas City, some biblical flooding in Little Rock, a Taco Bell… it was rough. We needed comfort. We needed familiarity. We needed El Serranito.
“MELISSA!” My eyes are all run through with wild, glued to the face of my phone with a fanatical focus. I’ve got goosebumps. My heart stammers in my chest.
“Did he leave?!” She says. Her voice is the flash of blue light between two conductors. Pure, live, energy.
I take my eyes off the screen long enough to nod once, slowly.
“He just left,” I say.
There is some dancing. Nothing shameful. Little action in the hips, mostly hands. Still though, dancing.
“where is he?” she says, her voice still throwing arc flashes.
“26th and Pine,” I say. ” App says he’ll be here in 17 minutes.”
Her brow furrows and she goes to her computer like an ensign on the bridge, fingers flying at the keys.
“17 minutes? From 26th and Pine?!” Shaking her head now. She spins the screen to face me, shows me the Google Maps readout. “This says 8 minutes. Tops.” she pauses dramatically before she says ‘Tops” and it’s super badass.
I turn to stand at the kitchen window. Outside, the sun falls behind the Olympics, shining brilliantly through our Rhododendrons, casting shadows across my face as I fold my hands behind my back. It is a very General Patton move. I say, “Godspeed, Kevin. Godspeed” and it is super badass.
5 minutes of drama and stoicism pass.
“Melissa,” I say, “There are officially zero traffic lights between Kevin and our house.”
A wicked grin knifes across her face and she says, “17 minutes my ass!” and I do a very Robert Redford chuckle as we move to prep the airlock for receiving, by which I mean laying out old paper bags near the door, priming the Lysol. While we’re doing that, the muffled whump of a car door shutting, a rustling on the stoop. Dear God, it’s here.
I yell a frantic thank you through the window at the back of Kevin’s head as he’s sliding back into his Passat and my voice sounds unhinged even to me. During different times, with different stakes, I might have been embarrassed. But this a global pandemic and I’ve got a bag full of burritos on my doorstep. Shame is a luxury that (much like delivery burritos every day leading up to this) I simply cannot afford.
In the airlock, we carefully remove the food, plate it and nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave. We wrap the containers in old paper bags and toss them in the outside trash and then we sit down to the first meal that I did not personally prepare in weeks.
And there is some dancing. And it is shameful. Then we eat. The food is as good as it ever was, but the moments leading up to it, the ordering, the waiting, the receiving, are positively transformative. It is a view of a time when things were simpler and safer through eyes better suited to appreciate it. When I was in basic training, we would sit around in tents in freezing weather, clutching frozen rifles to our chests and we would talk about all the trivial things we took for granted before this. We would stand guard, staring off into the woods with nothing to do but pontificate on how crazy it was that we used to have cellphones in our pockets full of all the entertainment that man had ever conceived of, and that we would complain about being bored. And later, much later, when we were back with the world, our appreciation for those things would fade and we would forget how stolidly we had promised to never take them for granted again. But there was a sweet spot. A time right between the nostalgia and the undervaluing. In that sweet spot, we are really, truly, present. Really, mostly, happy. Wrapped in the warmth of that moment like beans in a weekday burrito.
This was a week for making things. Without venturing down that twisty rabbit hole of “This virus is a blessing in disguise” (because that’s an easy thing to say if you’re not actively dying) I will at least admit that my creative juices are flowing in the midst of all this awfulness. I got out my wife’s sewing kit and I hacked up a bunch of my T-shirts and Monday night found me hunched under the warm glow of a single bulb sewing ‘end of the word’ masks. Its funny, I always imagined that my Mad Max face accessories would look more like this:
And less like this:
But here we are. And it didn’t stop at sewing, either. I found a job posting on LinkedIn for a TikTok content creator, (a sentence that would have meant jack shit 10 years ago) and I slapped together a couple quick videos for a portfolio, only to find that the job had ceased to exist in the interim, leaving me with a weird profile full of pseudo hip videos like that old guy who puts his hat on sideways and tries to “talk Jive” with the “young go-hards”.
But most importantly (as far as this food blog is concerned) I have been cooking like it’s the only way to cure Corona, which, if it was, we could all finally go back to licking handrails and shotgunning stranger sneezes. In the last 7 days I have made this:
But the real show-stopper this week was this vegan queso dip recipe that I stole from a Pinterest post. I know what you’re thinking. You’re like vegan queso?! That’s like non-alcoholic beer! well that exists too. But open your mind. This is a brave new world. Adapt or die.
This is a preposterously easy recipe. You’re going to take a medium potato and you’re going to cube it up and boil the ever-living out of it. When it’s nice and soft, dump it in a food processor with some almond milk, olive oil, nutritional yeast, apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, garlic, and salsa (the quantities are in the recipe link.) Fire that shit up and in about 20 seconds you’ll have vegan cheese sauce to dip chips in or roll up in a burrito or smear all over your naked body (no judgement.)
As I draw this to a close, I would like to make what I think is an important point. This is a crisis. This is a fucking disaster. This is not a high stakes creativity incubator meant to weed out the go-getters from the do-nothings. I was out walking with my wife the other day and the sun was out and the lawn mowers were running and people were balls deep in their gardens, pulling weeds and planting things. My wife sighed and she said, ” Look at all these people using this time to get things done around the house,” and I waited while the sigh inducer found its way to the surface. ” I feel so lazy for not doing more right now.”
That is not your job right now.
Yeah, I’m feeling creative, but if we’re being honest that’s probably more of a coping mechanism than anything else. One of those neurotic things that everyone applauds because (purely by luck) it ends in something pseudo-productive. But in actuality, it’s really no more voluntary than making a funny face when something goes bang. So, if all you’ve got in you right now is lying in bed and waiting this out you’re fucking killing it. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Surviving.
Try to imagine that you’re driving a school bus. Can some of the other bus drivers text while they’re driving and still get to school safely? I guess. Maybe Jerry can sing songs with the kids while he’s on his route. Good for Jerry. But if all you can do is get the bus there safely and it takes all of your concentration to make that happen, then guess what? You’re employee of the goddamn month!
So take it easy on yourself. Just get through this. Maybe make some cheese dip if you’re feeling it. But just remember what your job is: to get there in one piece. And maybe make a dope shirt while you’re sewing masks…
Bored? Hungry? A little scared?
This carousel is still spinning and the calliope music is getting a bit grating and I think we’d all like to hop off and pound a beer, but, you know: death, shame, logic and whatnot.
I don’ t know what it’s like where you are, but the shelves are still looking a little barren in my neck of the woods. The canned goods are picked over and the flour aisle is looking toothless. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking and I’m finding it harder and harder to come by the basic ingredients necessary to make all the sparkly, extravagant dishes that I’m finding on Pinterest.
1 stick of butter?
A cup of all purpose flour?
I wiped my ass with my neighbor’s cat yesterday. You think I’ve got cup of flour laying around?
Anyway, so I stumbled on “recipe” for margaritas and it didn’t really have ingredients so much as flavors and ratios of them and it BLEW MY FUCKIN MIND. I made a couple of out of control adult beverages (more on that later) and I thought to myself, I wonder if this applies to cooking?
the long and short of it is: yeah, kinda.
So I banged out this recipe and I’m going to encourage you to add some twists of your own and see what happens.
- First, reach over right shoulder and give yourself a pat on the back, because you’re Gordon Goddamn Ramsey and you’re about to dominate this episode of Iron Chef. Do a preemptive victory dance, give your mailman the fingerguns.
- Okay, now dump some sauce ingredients into a bowl and stir them together. Pop them in the fridge while you’re doing the rest of this. They don’t have to be refrigerated but it will make for a more exciting sensory experience when you’re dipping hot, crispy fritter into cold, spicy sauce. I’m sweatin’, just thinking about it.
- Drain a can of chickpeas, mash them into meal in a bowl with the back end of a fork.
- Next, take a grater to some root vegetables. I used russet potatoes and carrots, but I’ve seen recipes for sweet potatoes and turnips. (beets might be too wet and would prevent everything from binding)
- Shred up some kale or parsley or cabbage. (Lettuce might be too wet also)
- Mince up some onion and garlic
- Dump all that in the bowl with your chickpeas. (Remember that your chickpeas are your main binding agent, so if you’ve got a crazy amount of veggies you may need to add more chickpeas.)
- Add some spices. Get creative with this part. I went with Curry spice, onion powder, some cumin and cayenne. Turned out delightfully Indian. I imagine that you could mix it up and mash black beans instead of chickpeas, do it up with chili powder and cumin and end up with more of a Latin fritter. Up to you.
- Next, mix all that up with a fork. You should have a semi-wet pile of mashed up hash. YUM! chill, it gets better.
- Heat up a pan to medium high-ish, toss a dash of heat tolerant oil in it.
- when the pan is hot, grab a handful from your pile and plop it in there. Press it flat the bottom of a spatula and let it brown up.
- Flip it when it looks like its getting there, give another couple minutes to bind up and brown. Keep on plopping and browning until you’re out of mush and you’ve got a stack of crispy fritters.
- Plate your fritters. Drizzle them with some sauce or dip them in it. You’re your own person. These have enough nutrition in them to be the main course or just a side for whatever out of control, next-level magic you’re serving up. I served mine with a green salad tossed in a tangy dressing. but I bet you could fold these up in a pita with some lettuce and tomato or scramble some eggs into it and have a banging hash.
- Finally, do a little dance. Mush some home cooked food into your face. You are the Iron Chef. Also, don’t tell my neighbor about his cat.
This is might be our generation’s World War. Our Great Depression. Our Black Plague. One of those moments in time when everything changes, everywhere, violently and inescapably. One of those things that warps the iris through which we look at the world for the rest of our lives. Maybe we’ll gather together after this, anywhere we can, every time we can, just because we can. Or maybe the sight of a sea of seething bodies will look like danger from here on out.
Maybe 50 years from now, a young stranger will reach out to shake your hand and you will physically recoil from it and he will not understand why and you will not be able to explain it to him. Maybe, when you’re 83, the sound of someone coughing in a deli will drive you right out the door, and not just you, but everyone who survived this. You will meet the faded gazes of those people in the parking lot and you will ask them where they quarantined.
“2 bedroom in Florida,” they’ll say and you’ll nod.
“Studio in Detroit.” and they’ll nod back.
The thing about experiences like these, the worldwide ones, the everybody-everywhere ones, is that, because we are all carrying this burden together, it can feel like it is our job to carry our share alone.
If you fall down while you are walking on a crowded street, chances are someone will stop to help you. But what if you all fall down together? who do you turn to? Is it every man for himself?
It doesn’t have to be.
Because the other thing about these worldwide, everybody-everywhere tragedies, is that if you’re feeling something, someone you know is probably feeling it, too. Your old co-worker went through it yesterday and she’s got some tips on getting out. A guy you went to high school with will be going through it tomorrow and they’d probably like to hear from you.
So be open.
Call your family, your neighbors, your co-workers. Ask them how they’re holding up. Tell them how you’re doing.
Wave at your mailman.
Facetime with isolated people.
Donate what you can, if you can.
If you need help, ask for it. If you’re worried about someone, call them.
Because this might be our Great Depression. Our World War. Our Black Plague.
Some of us won’t make it through this. Some of us will never be the same. But all of us will remember.
We’ll remember the fear, yes. The boredom, maybe. But we will also remember the things we did to help. And we will almost certainly remember the things that we failed to do.
I personally would like to know later, if I’m ducking out of a coffee shop because someone had the sniffles or getting off the bus because there were too many people on it, that I acquired these scars in the process of being the best person I could be. I personally would like to know that this experience took the bare-minimum from me because even though we all fell down together, we got up together, too.
This is my personal cell number: (805) 276-5247
If you’re feeling lonely or stir-crazy or you just need to talk, I am absolutely, positively, here for you. I’ll sing to your kid, I’ll dance for your grandma, I’ll read to your dog. I’m here for you. We’re all here for each other.
Some free online fitness classes
Some people on Instagram who are doing exciting things:
This chef is doing cooking classes:
This is very therapeutic:
This account makes me so laugh so goddamn hard:
A bunch more:
We were going to let this die. We were going to leave this parked under the oak tree in the backyard like an ’83 Lesabre. Let the land retake it. Have it grow a mold you can’t scrub out. Let the internet equivalent of mice make a home out of it.
Goat Federation got us to where we were going. It put some miles beneath us, taught us some lessons, pointed us in the right directions. But eventually, the wheels kinda fell off it.
I whipped up some articles for a few different papers, created some content for some local blogs, then I went off to work for the State as an investigator.
We moved on.
For me, food went back to being one of those things that you slapped together when you weren’t doing other things. I cooked, yes. I went out to restaurants, of course. But I didn’t take pictures anymore. I didn’t write about it. The desk job certainly didn’t help. A 30-minute lunch break at a job site with ‘natural selection’ parking, doesn’t offer much time for dipping out for a bite to eat. My homemade sandwich and bento box game got strong,
but my meal diversity took a leave of absence.
Coronavirus swept the planet with an animal ferocity. Like a wildfire without the smoke. A meteor without the bang. We all watched it with exhausted disbelief as it went from being a thing that was happening somewhere else, to a thing that was happening here but to other people, and, finally, a thing that was happening to all of us, everywhere. Supply chains wandered into the darkened alley of a pandemic and got absolutely JUMPED by Panic and Human Nature.
It is here that we get to the meat (or lack thereof) of our story. Because in the span of a week, I went from being a guy who had a fridge full of exotic food that I had to shovel down on a working lunch break, to being a guy with a rapidly emptying cabinet full of mundane nonsense and nothing but time to figure out what to do with it.
It was terrifying at first. I would stand in front of my barren shelves, anxiety humming like a deep sunburn on my shoulders, wondering how long it would be before I could get bread again. Wondering if I was going to have to throw ‘bows at a Trader Joe’s for canned goods.
I was standing like that in my pantry, thumbing through Pinterest recipes that had ‘lentils’ as a keyword, shaking my head because I had some of the ingredients, but not all of them and suddenly, something just clicked. or snapped. I don’t know, they’re similar sounds. Anyway, I just started grabbing things. I grabbed handfuls of ingredients and I Dr. Frankenstein’d my ass over to the stove and I started improvising. Canned tomatoes? I had some old tomato paste. Tomato Sauce? I had half a box of pre-made tomato soup. I spiced the bejesus out of it. Dash of this, sprinkle of that. Poured some juice from an empty jar of olives in there for a little briny-ness. I was doing it.
The whole time, I was looking over my shoulder, trying to get this monstrosity cooked and plated before my wife followed the smell of failure into the kitchen and asked me what in the actual fuck I was doing.
20 minutes later found me sitting in front of two strangely colored bowls of spaghetti in a lentil bolognese. It was red-orange from the tomato soup. It was thicc from the tomato paste. But most shocking of all…
It was gooooood.
After that, every night became a wasteland version of Iron Chef. Someone lifts the lid off a pile of nonsense ingredients and I scramble over and grab an armload of it and just start making magic out of it.
Crackers out of nutritional yeast and masa flour.
A twisted hummus with peanut butter instead of tahini and lime instead of lemon
A pinto bean version of Hoppin Johns with Cuban sensibilities.
I wasn’t going to get a Michelin star for any of it, but I wasn’t going to get diarrhea or go to bed hungry either. And best of all, I felt human again. I felt passionate again. Powerful, even.
So as I said at the beginning of this crazy rambling: we were going to let this site die. We were going to leave Goat Federation to rust in the hungry woods of the internet because things had changed and we didn’t need the lessons that it had taught us anymore.
But now things have changed, again. Now it feels like this old blog might have some new lessons left in it. So I’m giving the tires a kick. I’m giving the engine a jump.
And I’d love it if you’d join me for the ride…
The gnashing of teeth and licking of fingers. The dripping of juice and the wide-eyed, desperate chugging of water. Crispy skin, buttery fat, salty meat. It is lunchtime and my father and I are folded into May May Hong Kong BBQ in Federal Way and right now, for these few moments, we belong. With our sleeves rolled up and our fingers glistening with fat, we are without race or age. There is no room in us for bias or judgment. We just are. We just are here.
The skin of this pork is crackly and explosive, the meat of the duck is rich and tender. The juices run down through them into the white rice, seasoning it gently. Between meats we nibble at the edges of our bok choy, cleansing our pallet. We eat like monsters and yet there is a reverence to it that has not gone unnoticed to the regulars that mean-mugged us when we pushed through the door. Our desperate love for this food that they love desperately has made us one of them faster than any diplomat or emissary could ever hope for.
Take notes, Peace Corps. Build all the schools you want, but until you make a sex noise at lunch and get a duck bone stuck in the hair on the back of your head, you’ll never truly be immersed. And you most certainly will not be offered secret dessert.
“Have you tried the waffle?” The owner asks, taking our decimated plates off the table.
I shake my head, no. A piece of bok choy falls out of my eyebrow. She is impressed. “You have to try the waffle.” She says and she leaves us at our table, stuporous with delight, glowing chubbily. It is winter outside the wall of windows that divides us from the gloom. Clouds swirl, cagey and wild behind the cascades. Rain slashes down on Pac Highway, falling sideways on a bitter wind. In here, though, it is warm and it is quiet and soon there will be waffles.
May May Hong Kong is hidden on the back side of a business park off Pac Highway. I’m sure that there are all kinds of other wonderful things in that parking lot, but I’ve yet to see another one with a roast duck on a hook by the register, so I’ve never made it past May May Hong Kong. The owner is friendly, the service is fast, the patrons are suspicious of me (as well they should be), and the food is obnoxiously good. Even the waffles.
The owner drops a plate between us. On it, sits steaming bubbly confection. No powdered sugar, no chocolate syrup, no berries. No waffle, for that matter, by my western definition of the word. Just a crisp, golden hunk of hot dough with pockets of heat and air like bubble wrap in an alternate fresh-baked-universe.
Later, some internet research will inform me that the standard “Hong Kong Egg Waffle” is rumored to have come about in the 1950’s. A restaurant owner was delivered a package of eggs that had been crushed in transit and rather than toss them out, they whipped them into flour, milk, and sugar and poured the whole concoction into a waffle press. The egg waffle was a street food classic ever since.
My father and I tear ours apart with cautious glee, as one does with frightening new baked goods.
Crunch like a waffle. Sweet and doughy, all on its own with no flash and sparkle of toppings. We ooh and aah and tear the thing into more pieces and ooh and aah. There’s a twenty-second period of time in which I snap my fingers trying to conjure a comparison that his hovering just outside my reaching and then the owner drops our check on the table with two fortune cookies atop it and I say,
“ Fortune cookies! It tastes like a fortune cookie!”
Like a soft, warm fortune cookie with pockets of steaming dough and a crisp on the outside. Like history and ingenuity in a paper wrapper. Like rain crackling against the windows of a restaurant in which we have been accepted with silent nods and secret dessert.
Here’s another article I wrote about this place for the Federal Way Mirror:
We are separated from Tierra Bomba by a 50 yards of sand and a narrow strip of water and yet, elbowing our way through the boca grande crowds, beneath pewter sky, it feels like it may as well be on the moon. The tour company we booked our boat through responded noncommitally to our booking request and then burned their phones and threw their computers into the sea. We had no way of knowing for sure if there was a boat and if we would have seats on it. One of those problems that you dump into the later folder until you look up suddenly and realize that later is now and now you’re out of options. It’s either down to the beach with a pocket full of hope or pouting around the hotel. I’m not much of a pout-er.
So we are elbowing our way through the Boca Grande wildness, past a jingling parade of vendors and a swarm of tourists embedded in the sand. waves whump into the beach. The honking of car horns on the wind like birds in the woods.
“It’s up ahead,” Melissa says,” I think.”
She’s reading treasure map directions from the booking company’s website. Past the hospital, by the red tents, 26 paces, yo ho ho.
The beach spreads out wide and flat in front of us, skyscrapers jutting up into the sky beyond it. Past the hospital, by the red tents, we see a gaggle of alabaster people shuffling to the water. They look lost. They are caked with sunscreen. Some of them look drunk already. These are our people.
“You guys going to Tierra Bomba?” I call to them.
We follow them across wet sand to a line of boats positioned at the mouth of an inlet, men working them with the lean, sure hands of water people. Tying knots, pouring fuel. We line up at the boats and a man with a clipboard checks us off of a list that we’re not sure we’re even on.
They push our boat out into that hungry water and we heave ourselves into it in the shallows. The engine roars to life at the end of a rip chord and we are away. Beneath our red tarp, from our salty bench we watch warm water and dark skies slip past and then finally green trees and sandy beaches rise up out of the nothing.
Our boat pilot is a fucking surgeon. He drifts the boat into the shallow harbor backwards, firing off the motor in measured bursts, anticipating the rising and falling of the sea, the uneven ocean floor, the boats around us. Feeling it all, going with it. We disembark without a dock or a rope, off the back into the shallows while his boat hovers impossibly in spite of the jostling of the sea. When we are all off, he roars away and it is just our gaggle of alabaster drunks on a foreign beach until a woman comes to collect us.
“Welcome to Tierra Bomba!”
Tierra Bomba is a 9 square kilometer dimple of beach and trees across the water from Boca Grande. A quick scan of Tripadvisor leaves one with a general impression of roughness. Litter, they say. Muggers, they say.
This wasn’t our experience.
Sure, there was a bit of litter scattered around, but honestly, There wasn’t a single beach, street or park that we visited in our time there that didn’t have at least a little loose trash in it. This is a developing country with a corrupt government fighting its way out of decades of violence, not a Sandals Resort. If a little garbage sours your experience, then you might want to get involved with space exploration, because we’ve pretty much totaled this planet and the only reason you don’t see all this refuse on American beaches is because we’re actively dumping it into the sea, where it can become someone else’s problem.
As for the muggers, not only did we never experience anything like that on Tierra Bomba, but honestly, I didn’t feel even remotely unsafe the entire time we were in Cartagena. And I’m not really a false sense of security, kind of guy. I almost punched a gypsy in Strasbourg. I got kicked out of a haunted house for doing exactly what you think I did. Not in Cartagena, though. Night time found us wandering together down shadowy alleys under halogen lights to the sound of bachata music through open windows, totally at ease. I saw an old couple salsa dancing in a bodega. I saw a Jack Russell Terrier barking at an iguana. I did not see a single fight, fire or robbery. Not in the walled city, not in Getsemani and certainly not on our little slice of Tierra Bomba. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen, or that it won’t, but it’s not really safe to be in a kindergarten in America right now, so pick your poison.
Our slice of Tierra Bomba includes a shelter, a hanging bed, a bench, a table and a hammock. It includes the sun, the sand and the sea. It includes a couple of bottles of local lager. Most importantly, though, it includes the signature dish of Cartagena, fried fish, coconut rice.
I am fresh from a swim, drip drying in the steam heat of the Colombian sun, when they bring our lunch out. It taps into a very visceral part of me, sitting in a hammock with saltwater beading on my skin, muscles taught from swimming, and a lunch that I didn’t have to make brought to me.It takes me back to my summers in Southern California, splayed out on a towel in the stoney sand, working on a paper plate full of sandwich halves and chips. .
Only this isn’t wonder bread and deli ham. This isn’t American cheese and Lays potato chips.
Steaming on the table before me is nothing short of an island masterpiece. Fish fried in oil that must have been absolutely moving. Dunked in it, still salty from the sea, just long enough to put a rasp on it, some color to it. It’s fantastic. Crispy, faintly greasy, tossed in some kind of lime powder. I pick it apart with my salty fingers and drop it steaming into my mouth to the sounds of wind through the palms and water in the sand.The coconut rice is everything that the fish needs to make the meal round and even. Nutty, hearty, sweet. A fresh salad on the side and a mouthful of beer to wash it all down.
Bliss on a plate in a hammock I wasn’t sure I’d reserved, on an island I wasn’t sure I’d get to.
A little past lunchtime in the walled city. Heat like off a lamp in a reptile enclosure and a finger of sweat running down my back. The bodies on the street around us shuffling past, so close, too close and the sound of oil at a boil while our guide stands on his tiptoes on the curb’s edge, lobs his voice out over all of it, down to us.
“ These are fried plantains and cheese.” He’s saying. Somehow it is cool the way he’s saying it because he’s cool and that’s just the way things work for cool guys. He pulls sweat through his hair with a tattooed hand, adjusts his shades on the bridge of his nose.
I could flick a lit cigarette into a puddle of gasoline and walk away from the explosion in slow motion and not look half as cool as this dude does when he’s introducing us to cheese and fried bananas.
He hands me a sheath of paper that is becoming translucent and I hot potato it back and forth while he passes out the rest.
“It’s a very traditional snack here. You just tear it, yeah, like that.”
The Brit next to me has dug into his. My wife is digging into hers.
It is a disk of smashed flat plantain, lightly salted submerged in golden oil. A single brick of cold cheese on top of it, stark white like my northwestern belly. I tear a corner off of the tostone, a chunk off of the cheese. On the face of it, it’s such a simple pairing that it almost seems ridiculous until you get it past your lips. All the low, hot and sultry of the plantain and the cold, sharp and creamy of the cheese. It’s fantastic.
The guide is paying the vendor with a folded wad of pesos. The vendor makes the deposit into his pocket with one hand, working the oil with the other. The guide waves us along, weaving through the crowds, talking over his shoulder.
“This city,” he says, “is very, very confusing. It was designed by military engineers who were just trying to make it hard to invade. Obviously, the walls” He says, waving his hand in their direction. “Some say that the walls go down 22 feet, to prevent tunneling.” He points to the end of the street. “But even if you got past them, the city itself was laid out to be confusing.” The block ends abruptly in the side of a house. “Every street looks like a dead end. Some of them curve around. The buildings are colorful now, which helps, but all of them used to be white.” He points around us in a circle and my brain cramps up trying to imagine how impossible this city would have been to get your bearings in without the wildly painted walls. Just a rat maze full of hostile defenders.
He leads us down an alley, across a street to a man with a pushcart, hacking through fruit with a wicked looking knife.
“This is what you do when you’re poor.” Our guide says, and it seems like he might know first hand.
“This fruit isn’t ripe, but people needed to eat now, so they made it edible.”
The man with the pushcart hands our guide a plastic cup full of green spears of guava. It’s been squirted with lime and dashed with salt and pepper. The guide passes them out to us and we gnash them by a busy street alive with the honking of horns.
The fruit is crunchy the way a carrot is crunchy. It isn’t what I thought it was going to be, but that doesn’t detract from what it is. Tangy, smoky from the pepper. I fumble around for a comparison, but nothing comes to me. It’s a wholly singular experience to my taste buds. Our guide waves us onward, our three-person tour snaking off behind him, weaving through the crowds. The tour company gave us instructions to meet him at a chocolate museum in the heart of the walled city and we found him there, leaning against the wall out front, looking like a young Colombian Johnny Depp. Don Juan Demarco, Johnny Depp. Dual Wielding Uzi’s, Johnny Depp. The Brit found us all right after. A single ginger British guy in a baseball cap with a slick looking pair of Raybans perched on his freckled nose. Somehow, even the ginger-Brit has a better tan than I do. I try not to think about it.
Standing in front of another cart now. Just a stove top on wheels basically, topped with what appears to be bricks of cornbread.
“These are a type of arepa, “ the guide explains as the woman with the spatula starts levering them up off the heat. There are two kinds in front of her and she gives us a half of each one on a napkin.
“One is sweet and other is salty,” which is mostly true. They’re both more savory than sweet to my American palette , but they’re also both delicious, so it doesn’t really matter. Texture like really thick, smooth mashed potatoes. The ‘salty’ one is run through with cheese and probably minced jalapenos and the ‘sweet’ one has a hint of maple syrup and that cheese that we had with the plantains, only hot and ropy.
We eat. We make noises. We walk
Boiling oil, maybe not too different from the kind they’d throw down on pirates in the 1500’s, only this oil has arepas rolling in it. The woman with the slotted spoon scoops them out for us one at a time, here on the edge of the walled city. The guide stands with his back to the traffic that divides us from Getsemani, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, pressed like a hand in a vice between the tourist draw of the walled city and the south-beachy playground of Bocagrande.
The woman with the spoon fishes our arepas out of the amber oil, gives them a shake to cool them then it’s onto another napkin. Mine has eggs and chorizo in it and it’s been fried so what else do you really need to know about it? It’s delicious, fill up all the cracks kinda food. According to the guide, this is a pretty regular breakfast for the working class people on the go.
“That is India Catalina.” Our guide says. He’s pointing at a statue of a woman in a simple dress at the mouth of the walled city, surrounded by roiling traffic. Her hands are at her sides, like before a hug.
“She was an indigenous princess who was captured by the Spanish in the 1500’s,”
He continues. “They brought her back to Spain and she taught them all about the indigenous people’s weaknesses and ways, then they brought her back and she helped them commit a genocide.”
“Fuck,” I say through a mouthful of arepa.
“Yeah,” he says. “She was kind of like a… Bad Pocahontas.”
We cross the wild street into Getsemani. There are murals here that stop you in your tracks. Vibrant, poignant works of art erupting off of a cracked wall. Our guide points to them as we walk. “This is about the fractured identity of the people who live here.”
A man hands us popsicles through a barred window. There is no sign over the window and for all intents and purposes, this is just someone’s house. Like many treats here (especially liquid ones), the popsicles come in a plastic bag. You have to peel the plastic down off of one end of it and hold it by the other side like a thick otter pop.
There’s absolutely no way to eat it so that it doesn’t look like you’re giving a mango colored man a spirited blowjob, and honestly, it tastes so good that I don’t care what I look like eating it. People notice, though. Eyes are averted. Somewhere in Getsemani, there is a man who just doesn’t sleep anymore. A man who breaks out in a cold sweat when he sees a mango.
We are on the last leg of our tour. The sun stretches through the trees and we are speckled by the shadow of it on a narrow avenue in Getsemani. The guide is describing the subtle pressure that is crushing the wind out of the families who live in this place.
“Take the utilities, for example,” he’s saying, “the way it works, is your utilities are charged depending on what number they assign you. Like, if your house is in a lower income neighborhood, you’re a 1. If you’re in a nicer neighborhood, you might be a 3. It goes all the way up to 4.” A dog trots past us, alone. Many dogs, out and about on their own here. “The problem is, the government can just change your number whenever they want. You can be in your little house, living the way you always have and then all the sudden they build a hotel down the street and someone comes and knocks on your door and says, ‘hey, you’re a 4 now.’ And your utilities just quadruple.” We pass a spattering of graffiti. ‘Resiste’ it says.
The last stop is a little coffee shop down a winding street. It’s dark and beautiful inside just like the smells wafting out of it. “ This is Cafe Del Mural,” our guide says. The mural it’s named after lights the wall behind him on fire. “ The coffee here is very good. I hope you enjoyed the tour.” We all thank him gushingly, my wife and the Brit and I. As he folds himself back into the street, he unloads one of those cool-guy waves that dorks like me remember. Effortless and fluid, like the rest of him. I could powerslide a muscle car through a factory with Raybans on and not look half as badass as he does when he leaves a tour group at a coffee shop.
When he’s gone, we all sit together, my wife and the Brit and I, in the relative cool of the coffee shop, sipping at very good coffee. The Brit just came from Brazil. He was robbed at gunpoint there by a boy on hard drugs with wild eyes and he ran away and the boy didn’t shoot. Later he asked someone if the robbers usually don’t shoot and he was told that often times they do. The Brit is amazed by how pleasant Cartegena is. How beautiful it is, how safe it feels. I wholeheartedly agree with him. I’m a bit of basketcase abroad, what with the dangerous job and all the military aggression, and I haven’t felt unsafe here once. Police on every corner, minding their own business. People on the streets, living their private lives. The vendors all smiling as they pass me a snack like they don’t know that I’m staying in one of the hotels that’s driving their utilities up into 4’s because it’s “so authentic”. Letting me take my pictures and ask my questions like it won’t lead to more people like me. Like I’m not just another bad Pocahontas.
There are many things that Anthony Bourdain has done, that I will probably never do. Managing to sound eloquent with a camera pointed at his face, is one. Mastering an iconoclastic, Bob Dylan-esque coolness is another.
But, up a bustling street, down the way from a Caribbean seain the walled city of Cartagena, I found a commonality with the God of food and travel.
It was founded by Jorge Escandon in 2001 and it was a staple of Walled City cuisine long before Bourdain sauntered into it and dragged it out into the hungry spotlight of the rest of the world. Once it was out, though, it was out. It quickly became a must-see attraction on almost every travel post about the city and found its way to the top of the list of any food enthusiast with their sights set on Cartagena (this one included.)
The allure of it is simple and yet difficult to put my finger on. Something about the thought of that wall, all studded with seashells, looking out over the Caribbean. Something about the sea air rushing down the alleyways and finding this humble little seafood joint. Something about fresh fish that’s been tinkered with ever so lightly. The more I read about it, the more cemented it became in my to-do list and by the time we were wheels down in Colombia, I’d decided that if I lost a leg in a hang-gliding accident and I was being med-evacced out of the country, I’d force the helicopter down on the roof of that place.
Fortunately for us, no forced landing was necessary. After a sweaty walk through the steamer heat of a cloudy Colombian day, Melissa and I found ourselves at the front door of La Cevicheria. A waitress jotted our names down and told us to come back in about 20 minutes. A five-minute walk got us to the wall, some stairs took us to the top of it. Wind and sand and the desperate bleating of cars on the roadway. A dramatic looking sky oozing with clouds and a sea painted with chop. We walked back through the tourist-choked streets, past a gauntlet of street vendors slinging goods at us, “no gracias, no gracias”, restaurant employees hopelessly waving menus at us like we weren’t on our way to some of the best ceviche we would ever have.
Back at La Cevicheria, we were led inside to a little table in the center of the room. White walls, with blue accents. Pictures and knick-knacks speckling all the surfaces. A very attentive server brought us menus and two bowls. Chips and salsa, only different. The chips were paper thin slips of potato like a Pringle only classier and dusted with tangy lime. The salsa is what all of those 14th-century explorers were looking for when they came here, whether they knew it or not. Creamy, tangy, made with mango and angel tears I guess. We ate it with a fanatic fervor. When the chips ran out, I think I poured some of the salsa into my pocket ‘for later.’
The waiter came back and I ordered something called a caipirol, another twisty classic. Caipirinha fixings, (sugar and lime) but with aperol. It came out tart and bitter and red like a jilted Ed-Sheeran at the beach and I loved it.
We were minding our own business like that, chips in our teeth, cheeks full of tropical bang bang, watching life swirl around our table, when our waiter came back out and sucker punched us with arguably the best meal of the trip. Just dropped it in front of us like we weren’t going to freak out and wake up in a Colombian crazy house three days later. I don’t know how we kept it together, but we did.
Two dollops of mashed sweet potato, plantain tostones smeared with avocado, and a pile of Andean cancha (toasted corn) in a halo around a mound of heavenly fish and shrimp. It is a pastel explosion of colors and flavors that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I grunted with the first forkful, and groaned with the last. The sweet potatoes brought the sweet and the cancha lent some salty. The avocado was creamy and the tostones were crunchy.
You shut your goddamn mouth about that Peruvian-style ceviche. Tangy and meaty and spiked with the sea and the wind and all the things you love about them both. It was everything that ceviche is supposed to be. Probably the best I’ve ever had.
What about the spicy, Kellen? You’re talking about how balanced and perfect everything was, but what about the spice?
Oh, I’ll tell you about the spice….
At my wife’s behest, the waiter brought us out a bottle of house-made hot sauce. It was electric orange in a little glass jar and the waiter carried it out to us with his arm outstretched like he was carrying a grenade that he had no intention of detonating.
“Be very careful,” he said, which sounded like a funny joke but just turned out to be really good advice.
Napalm but zesty. Sterno, but delicious. We left it in a deadly pool at the edge of our plates, dipped our food in it to make it dangerous and fantastic while the sweat beaded on our foreheads and the giggles bubbled in our throats.
On the back of the menu in that magical restaurant, there was a photo. 2×2 in the middle of the laminated page. Bourdain and the owner, smiling on the street out front.
There are many things that I will never share with Anthony Bourdain. Slithery coolness. Sweet cowboy boots. But the smile on his face on the street in front of La Cevicheria in the blushing heat of Cartagena… We’ll always have that.
I composed this article a week ago, before we lost him. Bourdain was an inspiration for me. He traveled. He ate. He told the truth, the way he understood it. More than ever, I am honored to have shared something with him. Even just a love for food and discovery. Even just a table, decades apart.