(Once in a while, we take a new book out to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab our attention. Lunch Date is our judgment on that speed-dating experience.)
Who’s your date today? The Wonder Trail: True Stores from Los Angeles to the End of the World, by Steve Hely.
Where’d you go? Il Corvo, the ridiculously popular lunch-only pasta spot, right around the corner from Smith Tower. Show up at 11am, or be prepared to wait a long time (maybe waiting is part of the experience for you — it certainly can be fun to chat in line with friends, and strangers).
What’d you eat? Il Corvo only offers three pasta choices each day. This day, the tagliarini, with sweet corn and marjoram, was calling my name.
How was the food? I have an Italian friend who is a pasta expert. I asked her once what she thought of Il Corvo's pasta. "Well," she said, "they use the right semolina, and they cook it right so the tooth is right. But, they use too much sauce." It was a grudging approval, because she added "They have to, for the American palate."
I don't know if she'd think today's pasta was over-sauced, but I thought the tagliarini was amazing — a beautiful heap (check out their picture) of tasty tang, with beautiful round pasta, a bit of cheese, and the unmistakable sweet bite of fresh corn. It was lively and light, for pasta, a perfect summer dish, perfectly portioned. I loved every bite of it.
What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:
The Wonder Trail is the story of a trip from Los Angeles to the bottom of South America, presented in 102 short chapters. From Mexico City to Oaxaca; into ancient Mayan ruins; the jungles, coffee plantations, and remote beaches of Central America; across the Panama Canal; by sea to Colombia; to the wild Easter celebration of Popayán; to the Amazon rainforest; the Inca sites of Cuzco and Machu Picchu; to the Galápagos Islands; the Atacama Desert of Chile; and down to wind-worn Patagonia at the bottom of the Western Hemisphere; Steve traveled collecting stories, adventures, oddities, marvels, bits of history and biography, tales of weirdos, fun facts, and anything else interesting or illuminating.
Steve's plan was to discover the unusual, wonderful, and absurd in Central and South America, to seek and find the incredible, delightful people and experiences that came his way. And the book that resulted is just as fun. A blend of travel writing, history, and comic memoir, The Wonder Trail will inspire, inform, and delight.
Is there a representative quote? "Everywhere, there are tacos and delicious cheeseburgers and cold-pressed juices and Salvadoran pupusas and Korean barbecues, and every week somebody tells you drive out to some mysterious suburb like San Gabriel or Alhambra to get a soup just like they make it in the souther beach villages of Thailand, or a special tea dumpling you can only get in Sichuan. And the fruits and vegetables! In Los Angeles, it's legal to pick any fruit that hangs over the sidewalk. No one minds because there's so much of it! I used to walk up the street from my house and pluck grapefruits. There are palm trees and cactuses, and in the hills there are deer and coyotes.
For some people this dream is too much, too intense. Scary, even. They try to warn everyone that dreams sometime turn into nightmares. There are police helicopters overhead and there's not enough water, the hills could slide into the ocean at any minute, and who knows what's coming from south over the border?
To these doom prophets most people shrug and say "Maybe!" Sure, maybe in your twenties you read about pessimistic LA urbanist Mike Davis or talk to people at parties about the Manson Family and Blade Runner, but you can't take it too seriously. Keep some of it on your shelf as a souvenier and then move on to Reyner Banhnam, who drove around in the 1970s filming himself marvelling to his English countrymen at how fantastic everything was. Or pick up Joan Didion, who stared hard into the face at everything terrible about Los Angeles but then went off to vacation in Hawaii with the shitloads of money she made writing movies that never happened"
Will you two end up in bed together? I think so, yes. I liked Hely's satire How I Became a Famous Novelist, and there's plenty of his smart, wry, and self-deprecating voice here. He's one of those writers who is hyper-aware of himself and his place in the world, which you kind of have to be if you're a white dude writing about travel these days. You can't just write a great big game hunting memoir anymore, can you? Not unless you're a son of Trump. And who says, even then, you should be able to? Maybe it's political correctness, but then again, maybe it's just having good taste, and from what I've read, Hely seems to have it.
So, instead, travel along with the modern aware man as he gets into trouble, and finds his way out, and notes what he finds along the way, all held in comparison to the history of travel writing. Seems like a fun time to me. Although, to be fair, maybe next time I should read this over pupusas.