empanada effect

Empañadas. Empañadas for sale. That’s what the sign said.

It was the first week of June, and like a farmer scanning the skies for an indication of what the upcoming harvest season would bring — plenty or famine? — I could tell that September was going to be rough.

I was facing a row of food vendors lined up along one side of the riverfront park where an arts festival was taking place. In shorts and flip-flops, visitors had flocked to check out hand-blown glass sculptures and oil paintings of seaside towns. But it was the food that had called me. First festival of the summer, and I was trying to decide whether to get lemonade or funnel cake. At that moment, however, what I was getting was a looming sense of dread.

Why? Well, there’s no such thing as empañadas, except just a really common misspelling. What people mean to say is empanadas — no squiggly sign swimming above the n. In other words, no tilde.

When I read the sign on the food vendor’s display, concern grew in my stomach. If a professional had botched something as basic as the spelling of an empanada, what were the chances of finding an authentic savory-filled, oven-baked pastry for sale on September 18?

As everyone knows (…), September 18 is Chilean Independence Day, the day the good, brave people of Chile wrested their freedom from Spanish rule in 1810. Hundreds of years later, we celebrate the occasion with generous helpings of red wine and empanadas, our answer to hot dogs and apple pie.

Like any true Chilean, I, too, toast this day with a good meal — but it’s always been a meal I eat, not a meal I make. In Chile, my source was always a generous grandmother or a trusted bakery. In New Jersey, there were a couple of Chilean restaurants that made empanadas. And if not there, a drive to New York City could end up with a haul of the good stuff. There were options.

But here I was in Pittsburgh, facing a tilde and uncertain prospects about my empanada procurement. 

In the end, I did what any resourceful woman of the new millennium would do: I turned to Google. First, I searched for Chilean restaurants near me. Or bakeries. A bodega — anything. Nothing.

Then I rolled up my sleeves and scoured a recipe to do myself. Sure, the one I decided to try said I’d end up with about a kilo of dough and a dozen empanadas, so when I actually had enough material for only six, I went back online and found another to follow.

In the end, I made 16 and a half empanadas. Because, like a farmer who appreciates the value of every grain of wheat he grows, I mixed and rolled enough dough to know that even the smallest portion counts.


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