A quick visit to Chile

8 of us. Barreling down some back road in central Chile singing “Why, why, why, Delilah?” at the tops of our limited capacity lungs. We obliterated the Tom Jones iPod rendition that blared over the speaker system in driver Oscar’s tourmobile.

Not exactly Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters, we were too conservative, too old, and possibly too wise for illicit drugs. Nonetheless, it wasn’t quite noon and we were, if not shitfaced, then well on our way. We had already visited two wineries in the Maipo Valley that morning.


The Chilean wine makers were extremely cordial and proud of their output but, truthfully, their wines are still lightweights in the wine world, and nothing I tasted was worthy of laying down for more than a year. Yet, they were eminently drinkable, light, fruit forward, with alcohol levels a sane13.5 percent. The tasting rooms provided spittoons but we managed to slosh down whatever was poured in our glasses and they weren’t chintzy with their pours.

Thus our rather inebriated state by midday. Reservations had been secured at a little country restaurant where we drank three or four of more bottles, but with empanadas, avocado soup, and a hunk of beef on every plate with about a half pound of mashed potatoes sprinkled with paprika for flare, but not spice. I discovered that Chileans aren’t much into spicy foods, preferring sweet to piquant, much to my surprise and dismay. We didn’t sing in the restaurant but scarfed down whatever was put in front of us. It wasn’t fancy, it was hardy country fare, and served as a catalyst to sobriety.

The restaurant was surrounded by grape laden vines, save for the roadside entrance. As I peered out the windows, the Andes loomed sharply and not too distant. The Andes look different than the Rockies. More angular, steeper, yet more graceful, at the same time more foreboding than their cousins in the northern hemisphere. The Andes are the longest mountain range on earth and quite active with plate tectonics – volcanoes and earthquakes. In fact, while at one of the wineries, there was a small temblor. All the more reason to drink. Chileans are universally skittish, the 8.8 quake that blasted them in 2010 fresh on their minds. I can identify, I’m still jumpy from the ’89 quake in San Francisco. Any kind of rumble, my eyes widen and I freeze until quickened synapses cause my brain to identify the rumble as either inconsequential or run for your life.



Back in Oscar’s tourmobile, we napped part of the way back to our gem-like hotel tucked quietly away between Talagante and El Monte. Just outside Talagante, on a country road dotted with roadside produce stands, was an old man with wagon he pulled with his bike. He made and sold delicious bread, buns and focaccia from his mobile panederia. We cleaned him out. We knew we would need lots of bread to go with the half dozen bottles of wine we bought that morning and were compelled to drink that evening.



I grew up in pork tenderloin country. No, not the Iowa version, nor the Hoosier version, but the northern Illinois version, around Ottawa, 80 miles SW of Chicago. Farmland, industry, blue collar, but still mostly farmland in those days. McDonald’s hadn’t happened yet, no fast food other than a soft serve at the Tastee-Freez. For a small town though, at the cusp of the baby boomer generation, there were plenty of places to eat. The house specialty was usually fried pork tenderloin sandwich. The bigger the better, served like burgers, on buns, with all the condiments and, of course, a side of fries.

Living in San Francisco for decades, my palate has widened considerably. Yet, once per year, I trek back to Illinois to visit relatives and renew my appreciation for pork tenderloin sandwiches. There are many good examples in town but my current favorite isn’t in Ottawa but in a wisp of a village called Leonore, 18 miles SW of Ottawa.

Driving to Leonore is  pleasurable, especially in autumn when corn and soybeans are being harvested, pheasants are feeding on spilled corn kernels, ducks and geese migrate through the nearby Illinois River waterway, and oaks, hickory and maple trees are dressed in autumnal attire. The gently rolling farmland in the blackbelt country is something I never appreciated growing up.

Leonore's backyard

Then, Leonore.

photo population

And Smitty’s Bar & Grill.


Smitty’s Bar and Grill is about the only retail outlet in the village, certainly the only place for food and drink. There is, or was, a United States Post Office but I think it is passé after the latest round of postal belt tightening, but not much more. The main street is quiet day and night.

*IMG_1747But Smitty’s isn’t, the place is crowded lunch and dinner. At lunch, it’s farmers and agricultural workers, truck drivers, and occasionally, a spot where women’s groups from nearby Streator or Ottawa  gather for a monthly luncheon. At dinner, the bar is more popular. Smitty’s is more than just a place to eat though, it’s face-to-face social media in rural America, where most workers and housewives have limited daily human exchange. A surrogate town hall, it’s the locus for making announcements of the upcoming community events.

inside Smitty's back-1


For me, it’s all about the pork tenderloin sandwich which is a lean piece of pork tenderloin, hammered thin with a mallet, dredged in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, then deep-fried to a golden finish. At Smitty’s the porker is $5.95, fries are extra. I’ve never seen anyone eat a whole one, nor should they. Smithy’s has a stack of take-home doggie bags.


When I go for dinner and the drive back to the B&B, the air is crisp and invigorating. I stand next to the car and breathe deeply, inhaling not only the fresh country air but drawing in a little of the land, the rich history of the area, and perhaps, recapturing a little of my own lingering history.  IMG_2073