Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy. Right now we’re in Holland.
One day we took a bus into den Hague and rode the inter-city express train to Amsterdam.
The view from the train was as flat as flat – green and wide and growing and we were as deeply agricultural and mentally speaking, as far from the seaside as you can imagine, and there, suddenly, flashing past the train window, was a row of masts. Closer, and there were sailboats, marooned in the middle of a field. Closer still, and for the briefest flash, we saw a canal, a narrow strip of water, three meters wide and as long and straight as if drawn by a ruler, and the we were past – and there were sails in a field again.
In Amsterdam one emerges from the train station, crosses a very large road, and enters a terrible tourist zoo- a splendid and picturesque warren of 16th century buildings and alleyways that have been comprehensively touristed out, the elegant bones of the building buried under the bunting and postcard stands and the tie-dyed neon tat of souvenir stands and doner kebab bars and "coffee" shops-
We escaped as fast as possible. And ate patat - French fries.
Chileans can’t make French fries. Good French fries are crisp and golden and brown along the edges. Chilean French fries are pale and flabby and drip fry grease and are limp in the middle when you pick them up and taste like uncooked mashed potatoes, straight from the deep-freezer.
Mr Tabubil and I aren’t very big on fast food, but four or five times a year we get a massive craving for fries, and go out and order shocking amounts of deep fried potato grease from McDonalds and KFC. The first time we tried that here in Santiago, we found ourselves holding wilting white sticks of uncooked potato, and I (who was PMS-ing something fierce and really really really needed the fat) went and cried under my molded plastic food-court seat.
It’s turned into a thing – two people who never used to give a damn now go out and order French fries everywhere they’re on the menu – just in case. We’ve tried local restaurants, we’ve tried the big international chains and not once, in more than a year, have we found a French fry that’s half-way eatable.
My father in law – Mr Tabubil’s Dad - finds the situation a terrible big cross to bear. At least once a month he marches into the local Tip-y-Tap (a national chain of German pub-cum-restaurants) and orders wurst and sauerkraut and a pint of German beer - just to get the waitress interested, and then he orders fries.
“Real French fries.” He pleads. “Gold as the surface of a sunburned surfer and crisp and light as summer clouds-”
“Si senor.” The waitress says, and gives him a sour look. “That’s how we do fries here.”
“No you don't.” My father in law scowls at her. “Never mind golden. Make them brown. Brown as German beer. Brown as the sole of my shoe – this one, right here, see? When the cook says that they’re done, tell him to put them back in the batter and do them again. Burn them if you have to! But brown!”
“Si Senor.” The waitress says again, and she rolls her eyes, and flees.
He catches the corner of her apron and drags her back. “Forget brown – make them black. Leave them in the oil until they’re grilled through and the oil won’t stick any more, then throw them in the oven until they’re black, and smoking and when the smoke alarms are going off all over the kitchen, then bring them to the table. Please?”
“SI, senor.” And the waitress extricates her apron from his clinging fingers, and escapes.
He waits in an agony of anticipation, convinced that this time – at last – the waitress has understood his terrible need. He plays nervously with his napkin. He arranges – and re-arranges - the salt and the ketchup and the mayonnaise. And when the fries come, heaped as high as the ceiling on a platter the size of a wagon wheel, they come as a limp, sticky pile of pale, undercooked undersalted -
“Tubes of frozen mash!” He breathes. He can’t believe his eyes. He can’t look away from the terrible plate before him – can’t stop staring at the wreckage of his dashed and wilted hopes -
And my darling mother in lawhas to forcibly restrain the dear man from calling a manager, challenging the waitress to fisticuffs in the alley, and threatening to bring the chef into forcible conjunction with his fry-vat - “an instrument that he clearly doesn’t recognize is even located in his kitchen, because if those things have ever been near a deep-fryer in their lives, I’m not a Dutchman!”*
Having now been to Holland, and having eaten the French fries that he was raised upon, I can sympathize with his point of view. I’m even tempted to do a little fryer-introducing to the fry-cook at our local McDonalds myself.
Dutch French fries, are quite extraordinarily good: light as summer clouds, crisp and golden as the surface of the sun, with a textural flavor that hints wonderfully at the sort of oil that olives and peanuts dream of becoming when they die.
In a small misunderstanding, Mr Tabubil ordered a Size Large to feed the both of us, and we’d both forgotten what ‘large’ means a country where they super-size their teenagers and feed ‘em up by weight –
A smiling blonde giant handed Mr Tabubil a twisted paper cone fully eleven inches high, ten inches in diameter and overflowing with golden fries, and half a metric cup of ketchup and half a metric cup of mayonnaise poured over the top of it.
The both of us – he wallowing in nostalgia, and I wallowing in the bliss of my very first time, and neither of us having had any breakfast – even together we didn’t get through more than half of them.
The only fries better than the fries in Holland, mi Suegro says, are the fries from Belgium, and he has been known, while driving from Rotterdam to the German border, to take a detour south into an entire different country for a mid-afternoon snack.
“You ought to try it next time you’re in Holland.” He told me. “Best six hours you’ll ever spend in your life.”
* I invite anyone who doubts the absolute veracity of the above accounting to apply to Mr Tabubil, my mother in law, or any waitperson working an evening shift between Santiago and La Serena.