This is probably the most Chilean thing I’ve done and ever will do. I tried to sell empanandas to Chileans during their independence day. And before signing on for this, I didn’t appreciate the gravity of the order. Making a large quantity of empanadas is no small feat. It’s not like making 500 cookies or 500 servings of lasagna. Making empanadas is more like a three tiered process, that has to be executed over several days. Phase One: making the pino, the meat and onion mixture that goes inside. Phase Two: rolling the filling inside a blanket of dough. Phase Three: baking the empanadas. And on top of this, the temperatures get dicey fast. After the empanadas are folded, you have to bake them right away or they will get soggy. Once they’ve been baked, you have to get them cold fast so the meat doesn’t go bad. This can be hard when freezer space is limited. The whole operation is precarious, and riddled with places where you could have a consequential messup. And if you screw up the meat, people are going to get sick. And Pichilemu is a really small town. So there’s that.
As an aside, Chileans celebrate the 18th of September by devoting what amounts to 4 days of drinking sugary cocktails in excess. These sugary beverages include chicha (handmade wine), terremotos (wine with ice cream), and pipeño (sweet wine). These drinks are usually served in a fonda, which is little more than a field equipped with food and drink kiosks (puestos).
We were tasked with making the empanadas and the choripan (grilled chorizo served inside a warm roll of bread). And guys, when I look back, I just have to laugh at how naively optimistic we were. We just didn’t appreciate the amount of work goes into a single empanada de pino. To put it simply: making empanadas is a hueveo. (See Chilean Spanish dictionary for a proper definition.) And I guess I just figured, hey, there is never a shortage of people selling empanadas on the street. The economics must back out. All these people must be on to something.
Ho, ho, ho, the sheer naivety! I think fondly of the brainstorming sessions we had during late night meetings. Plotting all the things we were going to sell. How we were going to differentiate. At one point, I wanted to make fried mac and cheese balls. Like that’s how ambitious I was. But we (smartly) narrowed our sights on empanandas and choripanes.
Tuesday before. The build. Spirits were high.
The Wednesday before the big weekend, we make the one-hour drive to Santa Cruz to buy all the ingredients.
We needed my van to carry all the stuff back. We had to wake up at 6 a.m. to skirt skirt out of Pichilemu to avoid the cops that tend to post up at the town’s main entrance. I had made ye olde classic mixup and read the dates wrong. Here they write the date day-month-year—which really makes more sense when you think about it. But it confused me.
We had to one day to buy enough food for mas or menos 500 people. But first—get the car inspected by a Chilean government agency. A super fun and seamless process.
Then we bought the meat.
Once my car papers were tiki-taka, Some back of the envelope math calculations were made.
We bought 90 kilos of meat.
It was about $600 worth.
On our way home, we asked a waso for where we could buy some piola pipeño. He told us the name of a small town, and not much else. After some asking around, we found the house. The house was masquerading as though they were only selling olives. But these were not olives, this was an illegal distillery. He invited us into the back of his workshop and poured us glasses of his bathtub alcohol. It was strong and all of our faces were instantly flushed and blotchy.
The next two days we set to work with the preparation. On we started with a seemingly infinite slew of preparations: we used the Comida Rica kitchen to cook the carne. But for the rest of the prep work, we converted Pompe’s house into our workshop.
The first night was onion night. We cut so many onions that we all had blisters in the same spot under our index finger. The onion smell was bad while we were doing the cutting, but it actually managed to get worse. Pompe work up at 4 a.m., unable to breath. The air has turned acidic, and Pompe had to get up to clean and bleach the floors.
We borrowed an empanada-baking oven from Lalo, a Pichilemino famous for his empanada cart. The oven was definitely a critical part of the operation, but it meant we had to go to Lalo’s house, take apart the oven, tetris it inside of my van and reassemble it at Pompe’s house.
On second day of preparations, we set about the gargantuan task of arming these little suckers. Por suerte, we were smart enough to buy the dough. We invited our friends to help us, and by midnight we had about a hundred and fifty empanadas made. I didn’t realize how these things work, but that meant we had to bake all 150 of these guys that night.
Hard part no. 1. We go our first batch out of the oven at 2 a.m., and still had about 4 more batches to go that needed to be baked. Pompe and all of our helpers went to bed early. Andrea and I were left baking until 5 a.m.
Hard part no. 1.5 The time is around 4 a.m. I am from California and don’t really understand how chorizo works. (Chorizo is just fat and innards and gross parts of pork. At least in Chile, you have to really cook it, so that it reduces to about half its size. While its reducing it’s super gross, you see how much oil and fat are in those things.) I stuffed a chorizo inside of some dough—pigs in a blanket, right? I cook it in the oven for a little, along with one of our batches of empanadas. I ate it. When I got home from Pompe’s house, I puked it all up. Not a good omen.
Hard part no. 2. We spent the next night baking until 3 a.m. I sleep for 4 hours and wake up for the first day of the fonda. I am one of those people who just completely unravels without those 8 sacred hours. The act of waking up, after 4 solid days of empanada-making, knowing I was in for 4 days of empanada-selling, was one of those salient moments of this whole enchilada.
Hard part no. 3. The fonda begins. No one comes. We sell maybe 10 empanadas. Things start getting tense. We are going to lose money.
We don’t really have time to go get other food so I’m just eating our choripans, knowing exactly how much fat and shit is in them. My body feels terrible. This was my life for four days.
Skipping parts because it’s a long story.
I am mostly left to manage affairs at the fonda. I have the help of Quique, Pompe’s friend, who helps me with the grilling of the choripanes. But Andrea and Pompe have to work at their respective jobs. So I am mostly the main person at the puesto.
On the last night, we confront him because we’re pretty sure he has a cocaine problem. Unfortunate but true. Our entire food-making endeavor reaches its climax on the last night of the fonda, with Pompe coming up and yelling at us, asking why we aren’t writing down our sales. Things get ugly.
When we all meet up to divide the money, Pompe comes to our house, and doesn’t even speak to Andrea. Not cool in any situation, but especially bad here. Greeting people is a big deal in Chile. I tell Pompe that we think we made about $200 each. Pompe leaves with his cash. We don’t expect to see him again.
As it turns out, there was a slight miscalculations. Andrea and I—still super sleep deprived after everything—forgot to calculate the rent for our food stall. Meaning we all were supposed to make about $100 each.
I called Pompe and told him what happened. He was pissed. But he told me he’d give me back the extra money. I’ve stopped by his house. I’ve called him. I’ve gone by all the restaurants he works at. He had disappeared. And Andrea and I were left to pay the $300 rent. Andrea and I just barely broke even.
And I’ve been procrastinating writing the end to this story—the illusory “moment of reflection” Ira Glass tells me I need to have. I’ve been kicking the can down the road for two months now. I keep coming back to the ‘Chileaness’ of it all. There isn’t anything more Chilean than making empanadas de pino. And yes, there were the Good Times, Bad Times, but I think I’m glad I did this.
When Quique sent me this video, I didn’t really recognize myself. I have kind of thought of the whole thing as something I wouldn’t do again. But I’m letting that color the perception of what the whole thing was. I think you have to take the good with the bad.