Eat | Read with Amy McDaniel: Panama Edition!
What I Ate in Panama:
Doubtless, there are undersung national cuisines that ought to rank with the greats. Turkey comes to mind. So do Malaysia and Singapore. If I could, I would forever breakfast on nasi lemak or kaya toast, lunch on Haianese chicken rice or jellyfish salad, snack on roti canai, dine on black pepper crab or char kway teow.
The cuisine of Panama is not among the worId’s greats. I went last week, and I knew going in that Panamanian food wasn’t particularly renowned, and I found out why. Somehow, though, because I care so much about food, I thought the food would magically be amazing, even though that isn’t the reason we went. We went to see endangered golden frogs. We went to see the landscapes and seascapes and three-toed sloths that my father described to me all my life, when I asked for stories about the years he spend serving in the Canal Zone.
So I can’t in good conscience tell you that Panama is an unmissable culinary destination, but we ate really well at times. One of those times was not our ceviche lunch, more like a nibble, at the Mercado de Mariscos. The best part was the can of cerveza. I love Panama lager, as it turns out. It’s mineral-y and ultra-crisp and would probably supplant Tecate as my go-to 12-pack if it were available stateside. As for the ceviche, I don’t know, I guess I don’t quite have the stomach for uncooked, slightly chewy fish from a styrofoam cup while I’m also bombarded with the smells of a giant market’s worth of dead fish. There were easily 30 different ceviche vendors, all surrounded by happy customers, so this distaste is clearly a function of not being accustomed to that experience, and not being Anthony Bourdain.
That night, we had our best meal in Panama City, a chef-y tasting menu at Manolo Caracol. We sat next to a large table of divorce lawyers from the US, in town for a conference. The ceviche was tender, perfectly acidic, and unadulterated by surrounding odors; the charred octopus with eggplant somehow worked (though it made Adam unaccountably sad); and the marrow bones were replete with melty fatty marrow. Sometimes you get hardly any marrow but we got major marrow. And there were like 5 other dishes besides.
The day we went to Guna Yala, which is the indigenous name for San Blas, 365 sandy white islands on the Atlantic side, we woke up at 4:30am and missed breakfast, so we were plenty ready to eat by the time our boat driver, Germain, and Kevin Costner, his first mate, commandeered lunch for us on the first island we visited. We saw a fire, but we didn’t see anyone cook, even though the island had like six palm trees and one structure, it was that tiny. When you think of tropical desert islands, you are actually thinking about Guna Yala whether you know it or not. Lunch was a fish that was probably caught and cleaned moments before being grilled, coconut rice, cucumbers, and cabbage. This is good, direct island food.
Later, when we stayed on a houseboat on Lake Gatun on the Panama Canal, we caught fish ourselves (with help). We fished for thirty minutes and caught two each, and hooked a couple more that wriggled away. An hour later, midway through a tasty dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, the chef brought us our fish, which he’d seasoned simply.
I don’t know why the picture is fuzzy. The night was not, especially not the stars.
The worst thing we ate was rotten burrata, which was bad the first time but even worse when the manager brought us a replacement serving without checking it first. It’s probably unwise to order Italian cheese with a very short lifespan at an empty restaurant in a mountain town, so I blame myself for that, not Panama. My other food regret is never ordering chow mein, which was on almost every menu, and I can only assume it’s ubiquitous for a reason, like curry in England.
Other food highlights from the trip: Peruvian fried rice in the volcano city of El Valle, arroz con pollo every time we had it, thin slices of sweet plantain on the houseboat, room service burgers at the Trump Hotel. Fish filet value meal from McDonald’s when we got back home.
What I Read in Panama:
Immediately during and after our sweet-ass fish lunch in Guna Yala, we got horribly sunburned. Nearly two weeks later, my skin still hasn’t fully healed. So once we got to the island where we stayed the night, we spent most of our time in bed reading. There’s Adam with his sunburn and his Kindle. After snapping that photo, I eased myself onto the opposite twin bed and continued reading The Sleeping Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.
We were in a hut, afflicted, so the plight of medieval Britons and Saxons facing the elements made a lot of intuitive sense, even if I didn’t face the perils of a memory-sapping mist. Plus, there is a deceptive boatman in the book, and our boatman told us we’d be on that sun-scorched island for a few minutes, not four hours, which is why we left our sunscreen on the boat.
I read five books by Ishiguro within a year of graduating college, and none since then except for several rereads of Remains of the Day. Right out of college, where I read history, I was on a fiction, memoir, and poetry tear. But Ishiguro mattered to me the most, in that special way a writer can really matter when you’ve just decided to be a writer yourself. There was a lot I didn’t know yet, and so much contemporary fiction seemed too flashy, with needlessly intricate plots and self-consciously explosive prose. I wanted quiet, and Ishiguro’s novels are dim and nearly silent. There’s ornate plainness, like Cormac McCarthy, and you can have it. Then there’s plain plainness, and that’s what I wanted.
Turns out, I still do. You never know how it’ll work with writers you once dearly loved and haven’t spoken to in years. It’s honestly surprised me how many people are talking about this book. I genuinely thought I was the only one who knew anything besides the movie with Anthony Hopkins, which I avoided, fearful, a very long time. In all the intervening years, as I got an MFA and wrote for HTMLGiant and had drinks with easily a hundred of writers after Solar Anus readings, nobody ever mentioned Kazuo Ishiguro, not once. Neither did I. I thought he must be terribly unhip. Certainly, he doesn’t talk about genre the way people would like, but he is, astonishingly to me, part of the conversation, suddenly.
I would say don’t listen to the critics, that this ranks with Ishiguro’s best, but I don’t know what you like. What I do know is, yes there are dragons and Arthurian knights and sword fights, but this one’s the dimmest, plainest, and quietest one yet, and that suits me fine.
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