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Empanadas and a party for Chilean Independence Day



When Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, he made a promise to his people: "Ours will be a revolution Chilean-style, with empanadas and red wine." His comment was interpreted as a promise of nonviolent revolution, a robust commitment to his country.

Although he died during a 1973 coup, his vision of a unified people lives on at the table through the treasured empanada.

A portrait of Allende hangs on the wall of Antonio and Alicia Fernandez's Durham living room, in a corner plastered with mementos of their homeland: a garland of Chilean flags, photographs and soccer team memorabilia.

Allende's gaze faces the dining room table, where Antonio has uncorked a bottle of Chilean Malbec and Alicia's array of plump empanadas prompt "oohs" and "ahhs" from her friends.

Her empanadas are the centerpiece of the Fernandezes' annual Chilean Independence Day party, which they hold in their backyard each September.

Chile broke from Spanish rule on Sept. 18, 1810, though the European country remained in power for eight more years. To ensure a proper celebration, Chileans stretch out the fiestas patrias (patriotic holiday) for the entire month. This year, the Fernandez family will host their friends on Sept. 22. Alicia says she will make 250 empanadas, among the other traditional foods associated with a true Chilean asado, or barbecue—steaks on the grill, pastel de choclo (a Chilean sweet corn cake) and plenty of red wine.

They have been hosting the celebration for almost a decade, but this year could be the biggest party yet, with more organized folkloric dances, like the flirtatious cueca, and a big screen to show music videos of traditional Chilean ballads. For the occasion, Antonio built a wood-paneled stage, with a covering supported by wooden beams jammed into the ground and nailed together to form an awning.

"One leaves his country and begins to interact with different people, different types of people with different ways of living," Antonio says. "So, when a group of us, as Chileans, gets together, we start eating the typical, traditional food—the empanada, a little bit of good, good red wine—dance, talk about football, and we remember Chile. We begin to talk about things that unify us, our Chilean roots and traditions, and that's really nice, no? For one day out of the year, we spend a lovely afternoon."

Roxana Destefani, a Chilean friend of the Fernandezes, has been coming to their parties for years. "In Chile there are two social classes in which the lines are very marked. There is a middle class, but there is a big gap. People of what is considered to be a lower middle-class go to these fondas, or small restaurants, to dance and eat empanadas, which are like street food," she says. "The majority of Chileans here, we resonate with that."

On the day Alicia shows me how to make an empanada, I am greeted the way every meeting begins with Antonio and Alicia—with a quick kiss on your cheek and an enthusiastic hug. No wonder they have become "Tio" and "Tia" to a growing, tight-knit community of Chilean immigrants in Durham.

I finally get a peek into Alicia's kitchen. Modest appliances adorn the room where off-kilter wooden cabinets reveal a homespun feel that translates to the plate.

Alicia completed a nutrition degree in Chile, but she always preferred the "practice over the theory." That meant being in the kitchen, just as her aunts and mother taught her. They had a business selling empanadas and, by age 13, Alicia began rolling out the dough with them.

"I was the only one in my family who continued the tradition," she says. "My sister makes five empanadas and spends the whole day making them. One entire day!"

Alicia's empanadas have earned her fame not just here but also in Marcaibo, Venezuela, where the couple lived before coming to the U.S. There, they owned a restaurant with the "famous Chilean empanada" a staple on the menu.

She claims there's no trick to it but patience and practice, though she hints at a little white wine in the dough. Today, she rolls out a few and scans the kitchen cabinets. At the table, she spots my half-eaten bread and slides it off the plate. Antonio shakes his head and gives me a disapproving look.

"I'm sorry," Alicia says, "but this is my measuring plate."

She flips the small plate upside down, its candy cane Christmas pattern now smacked with dough. With a jagged cutter she rolls around the circumference and shapes a perfectly crimped circle. In the middle, she dollops a cooked ground beef mixture spiced with cumin and oregano. On one side of the meat she sprinkles a few raisins; on the other, a quarter slice of a hard-boiled egg and one black olive.

She folds the top over and the two sides in before slipping the tray into the wood-fired cob oven in her backyard. Antonio built it for her to make the empanadas perfect.

"This is how you eat an empanada, with your hands," Destefani shows me. "You are supposed to break or cut it in half and then add pebre [a type of homemade salsa]. My daughter, though, doesn't like to split it. She eats it from the top. Everyone has their own style."

Destefani's husband, Patricio, pipes in. "I start in the middle, biting right into the cheek."

For many local Chileans, including Duke University students, the annual party and Alicia's empanadas help curb their homesickness.

"Imagine being a stranger in a new country," says Matias Arrau, a public policy master's student at Duke University. He arrived from Chile a year ago. Within three days, he was sharing a meal with the Fernandez family.

"I'm sitting at their table and, rather than feel like a stranger, I felt like family. When Alicia found out I had nothing in my new apartment, she began pulling dishes from her cabinets. I came home with a stack full of dishes to start my new life here. And, of course, an empanada to go."

"It's like I feel that one day I'll go back to my homeland," Patricio Destefani says. "I get really nostalgic sometimes and then I'll get together with a few Chileans and I feel calmer. I don't need to be there [in Chile] because I have friends here and we can talk about things that we have in common. We talk about politics, all the Chilean presidents. We talk about football."

Alicia, too, becomes nostalgic at the Independence Day celebration. "When the national anthem starts to play and we sing— that is strong. Sometimes I do cry. But not just me; lots of people get pretty emotional, including people that aren't even Chilean. Because they see that the rest are singing, as they say, with all their lungs, and they respect that moment."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A cure for homesickness."

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